Parents fear for dual-language Mandarin program if charter joins campus
Mike Szymanski | April 8, 2016
Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for the LA School Report newsletter.
Angelica Lopez Moyes is amazed that her 1st-grade son can speak Mandarin. But she is concerned that his dual-language immersion program at Castelar Street Elementary School could be jeopardized if a charter is co-located on the campus.
Castelar, founded in 1882 and the second-oldest school in Los Angeles, has 570 students and is at about 75 percent capacity. Under Proposition 39, passed in 2000, the remaining space can be given to a charter.
Some of the rooms at the Chinatown school identified for charter use include two science labs and a room used for special education students. The parents at Castelar have gathered more than 2,400 signatures in a petition and lobbied to keep those classrooms from being shared.
“I have nothing against charter schools, and I don’t have a problem with sharing space that we don’t need, but there is a problem in this district with the process of designating an under-utilized classroom and allowing a charter school to take it over for their use,” Moyes said. “We have poor students who do not have access to computers, and taking over our labs will hurt the school and affect our future programs.”
The district deems classrooms that aren’t assigned to a specific full-time teacher as under-utilized space and therefore eligible for Prop. 39 charter use. The dual-language program wants to expand, and has the demand for it, but needs qualified teachers who can also speak Mandarin.
Martin Wong, who started an online petition, said, “If children from the charter school want to attend Castelar, they should come. We have awesome kids, excellent teachers, and that amazing Mandarin dual-language program which actually needs the extra space to grow.”
Wong and his wife Wendy don’t consider themselves activists, but they grew up in the neighborhood near downtown LA where they ate dim sum with their families and went to see cool punk bands. Their daughter Eloise has thrived at the school, and they said they were shocked by the “insane idea to have a charter school occupy the unused classrooms at our daughter’s campus. Most of the space is utilized by Chinatown children for music, art, science and P.E. Two schools on one campus would be a logistical nightmare, as well as an unhealthy environment in which the school and students on either side would be in constant measurement and competition against each other.”
Prop. 39 requires school districts to make “reasonably equivalent” facilities available to charter schools upon request. In past years, the California Charter Schools Association has had to sue LA Unified to comply with the state law. That has led the district to determine that essentially if the classroom is not assigned to a full-time teacher, it is considered under-utilized. CCSA continues to closely monitor LA Unified’s use of Prop. 39 to make sure it is fair and equitable toward charter schools.
Castelar is one of three LA Unified schools offering a Mandarin-immersion dual-language program. It has a 50-student waiting list but not enough qualified teachers for the classes, which are also taught in Chinese. Other classrooms are used for art, dance and P.E. programs.
The parents took their concerns to the district offices, to school board committees and to board member Monica Garcia’s office along with UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl, who met with the parents and offered support.
“Our members believe that holding charter schools accountable is a top priority, and UTLA is working with the district to make sure that the Prop. 39 regulations are being followed and that charters are paying their fair share,” Anna Bakalis, UTLA communications director, said in a statement.
Moyes and the parents said they are also concerned that charter schools may take classrooms away from the school but then not meet their enrollment requirements. “What happens to our school then?” Moyes said. “And the charter schools are supposed to pay that money back to the district, but the district has never collected on it.”
Ellen Morgan, of LA Unified communications, said in an emailed statement: “When a charter school fails to meet its average daily attendance projections, a school district may seek reimbursement from the charter school for the shortfall. There is a complicated regulatory formula for making this determination and the reimbursement rate is set by the California Department of Education and changes annually. For the past several years all of the district’s Prop. 39 communications have included specific language informing charter schools that they could be subject to over-allocation if they fail to meet their enrollment projections.”
Although LA Unified has not sought to be reimbursed by the charters, Morgan said, “The district has not waived any rights to seek reimbursement for the last two school years (2013-14, 2014-15). It is also important to remember that each charter school co-location situation is unique and needs to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.”
One of the schools that wanted to co-locate at Castelar was Metro Charter, with about 205 students. A spokesperson from the school said that its leadership decided not to go to Castelar and will look for another site in a year.
At a school-wide demonstration of a dragon dance this week, Castelar principal Sum Shum told the parents that Metro would not come to the campus.
“When principal Shum was given permission to announce that Metro Charter would not be occupying our classrooms, everyone could really feel the room brighten, lighten and practically elevate,” Wong said. But the parents remain concerned.
“We love Castelar and don’t want to be invaded by outsiders or create a sense of separation like a second class,” parent Wai-Ling Chin told a meeting last month of LA Unified’s Budget, Facilities, and Audit Committee.
“The fight is not over, there could be another charter school that comes in,” Moyes said. She said the school is planning a demonstration on May 1 to protest any future plans for co-locations of charters on their campus. She also said she plans to bring the issue to the school board at their regularly scheduled meeting April 12. “There is a larger picture, they need to look at their methodology.”
Po-Wen Shaw, the parent of a first-grader, added, “I am not out to denounce charters, but we have a very unique school and close community. We have almost an equal mix of Latino, white, Asian and African-American children, and they all speak flawless Chinese. I’ve heard them!”