Moving too fast?
Parents of CUSD children question the process and results of the Elementary Housing Plan
Tino Nava and his wife, Ana, swear by the top-notch bilingual and bicultural education their teenagers received at Parkview Elementary School from kindergarten through sixth grade. So, it makes perfect sense that the Navas have made sure that their youngest child, Alán, who is going into second grade next year, has the same opportunity.
Alán, like his older siblings Alex, 19, and Analy, 17, started in Parkview’s popular Spanish-English program in kindergarten. The Navas’ plan is for the boy’s entire elementary education to take place in Two-Way Immersion (TWI), where a mixture of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers—in roughly a 50-50 split—are instructed in both English and Spanish.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful program for kids,” said Tino Nava, a 49-year-old account manager for PG&E, “especially the Spanish-speaking kids—they get a lot out of it.”
But come Aug. 12, the first day of the 2009-10 school year, Alán will not be able to go to Parkview. Instead, his parents will drive him across town to Rosedale Elementary School for his TWI education. All Parkview TWI students—more than half the school’s population—will need to join the Rosedale TWI program or else receive instruction in the regular “neighborhood school” program at Parkview.
The Chico Unified School District’s new Elementary Housing Plan, approved by a majority of the school board after a two-month window of public participation, designates Rosedale as the sole provider of TWI education for elementary school students in the district. That consolidation is just one part—albeit a big one—of the overall housing plan that has caused frustration and uncertainty for a number of parents, apart from the Navas.
“My biggest frustration is the process—the disconnect between the district/board and the community,” said Gina Snider, a world history teacher at Chico High School with three grade-school children in the district, including twins going into second grade who will move from Parkview to Rosedale for TWI.
Along with the change to TWI, the initial recommendation presented to the school board on Dec. 17 includes relocating the Gifted and Talented Education program (GATE) at Marigold Elementary to Parkview and transferring 170 Rosedale neighborhood students to three other elementary schools to make room for Parkview’s TWI students.
The proposal cited multiple reasons: “changing demographics, No Child Left Behind and Parent Choice legislation, an increase in the number of special-education students, the enhancement of our existing Two-Way Immersion program and parent interest in charter schools.”
Another desired result would be to “maximize the use of existing facilities” in light of “declining enrollment at some elementary schools and the increased enrollment at other elementary schools.”
Additionally, the initial recommendation listed removing Parkview and Rosedale from long-standing Program Improvement (PI) status by restructuring them as one of the educational implications, though a later document on the district Web site reverses this reason. (“Exiting program improvement has never been a rationale for or a goal of the elementary housing proposals,” a Jan. 22 response to parent questions states. “PI status is addressed through improving student learning and instruction.”)
The Elementary Housing Plan approved Feb. 4 was very similar to the initial recommendation, with one of the main differences being that Marigold GATE would transition over to Parkview one grade per year over four years instead of all at once. A change not mentioned in the original proposal: Sierra View was deemed an “alternative school of choice,” teaching a fundamentals-based curriculum called Academic Plus, as well as a neighborhood school.
The final version of the plan that goes into effect for the coming school year is based on a 30-1 student-teacher ratio, which the board authorized March 25. “As a result of this decision,” the school district’s Web site explains, “it is estimated the district will employ about 60 fewer elementary teachers in 2009-10. This will reduce the district deficit by about $1.8 million next year.”
Indeed, along with falling under PI guidelines for academic performance, the district is on budgetary probation overseen by the Butte County Office of Education.
School board President Jann Reed said the decision to move neighborhood children out of Rosedale in order to make room for the TWI program happened because, in the Rosedale attendance area, “there are not enough homes with turnover of new families to support a neighborhood school. The district is looking at schools that can no longer support a neighborhood program so we can use the school. We don’t want empty schools.”
In addition, “the belief of the district is that the TWI program would be stronger and better at one school rather than two schools.” The decision to move Parkview’s TWI students to Rosedale was made in “anticipation of growth in the [Parkview] neighborhood population,” Reed said, mentioning the Meriam Park development in southeast Chico and a possible shift of some Little Chico Creek students as potential sources of Parkview students in the future.
As for moving GATE out of Marigold, Reed explained that “Shasta is possibly an impacted school,” so the district is looking at “boundary shift issues” that would facilitate a shift of students “from Shasta toward McManus, and McManus toward Marigold. … We had to move something out of Marigold.”
Carolyn Adkisson, the district’s director of Educational Services, is a former Parkview principal. Regarding TWI, she said, “there has always been a desire on the teachers’ part, and parents’, to consolidate the program on one site so it could be a more efficient program. It’s something that has been talked about for 16 years, by different teacher groups and different parent groups… The timing was right to finally consolidate the program.”
Not everyone agrees that the timing was right—for the consolidation of TWI, or for the whole package of changes.
Nava and other Parkview TWI parents were taken aback by the speed at which the board was proceeding with the housing plan. “I first got involved in November,” he said, “when I heard rumors that there was a proposal on the table to create a [TWI] magnet school,” and at the Dec. 17 board meeting, “we were told we had a month to work on counterproposals.”
The process was extended from Jan. 28 to Feb. 4, but Nava and others still wondered: Why be in such a hurry to uproot such a successful program from the school it had called home for so long? This haste, Nava added, came after the district had already had approximately a year to work on coming up with the initial proposal.
Parents weren’t clear why the move would be good for TWI students at Parkview who, besides thriving in the program, liked to be able to walk and bike to school—often with their parents and extended family.
After crunching and recrunching district numbers given to support the TWI consolidation—indicating, for instance, where the Spanish-speaking children reside—Nava made a presentation to the board.
“One of the biggest points I was trying to make,” Nava said, relaying his comments to the board, “was that most Spanish speakers live closer to Parkview than to Rosedale, and they are the ones with transportation issues. … If we are bussing kids to Rosedale, many of the TWI parents won’t be able to walk with their kids, have lunch with them, talk to their teachers—a lot of them don’t have the transportation to do that.
“It’s a big deal for those parents, and I think that was a huge point that was missed by the board.”
Nava also doesn’t think that Chico, as opposed to bigger cities such as San Jose, has the demographics to support a TWI magnet school over the long haul, though he says he would be happy to be proven wrong.
“I just think the majority of the board, they just didn’t listen to what we had to say,” Nava summed up.
Another parent who participated in, and felt frustrated by, those board meetings and other district-sponsored information sessions was Rebecca Geiser.
Geiser, who lives in the Marigold neighborhood, has two children—one going into eighth grade at Bidwell Junior High, and one going into sixth-grade GATE at Marigold. Both children started at Marigold in GATE in kindergarten.
“The district supposedly spent a year coming up with this thing,” Geiser said of the initial proposal. “After the meetings, the district came back with five alternate plans. Most TWI and GATE parents supported Option IV, which made Parkview the TWI school and left GATE at Marigold.
“Throughout the process, many alternatives were suggested. One of the biggest suggestions was for the district to wait and see what the fiscal situation of the state would be. We could not then, and I still cannot, see why the district was in such a hurry to do this.”
Geiser referenced a Jan. 26 e-mail from Superintendent Kelly Staley to Marigold GATE parent Debra Calkins, which Geiser said “went viral. … It was forwarded to hundreds of families. … I received that e-mail from at least three people.”
Staley was writing in response to Calkins’ Jan. 25 e-mail stating that she and other parents felt “pressured to make a very important decision in a very short time” about moving or not moving whole populations of children to other schools in August. Calkins also stated her belief that “most of [the district’s] current proposals … would crush the neighborhood concept, by forcing both the Spanish immersion families and GATE to unwillingly move to follow their programs.”
Geiser emphasized that Staley’s response to Calkins included these words: “Even if the decision is not the direction desired, we need to make a decision so that families can make decisions.” That quote, said Geiser, is “one of my all-time favorite examples of district management idiocy.”
In defense of the new Elementary Housing Plan, Reed stated, “I feel that neighborhood schools are still the primary focus.”
She said she understood the concern of Parkview TWI parents about their children no longer being able to ride their bicycles to school—“that’s a huge loss,” she agreed. Still, “we agree that it’s a good move for the program. Wherever it moved, it would have impacted some folks.”
Parents can still choose “between Parkview as a neighborhood school, or TWI,” she said. “[The] neighborhood school is still there. Those are choices we make every day.”
What needs to happen now, she added, “is that all the people who support the TWI program need to rally behind it—not for the location, but for the opportunities the kids are going to have. … If parents speak negatively at home about the new school, how are kids going to think about that?”
One of the “greater positive outcomes overall” of creating a TWI magnet school, said Reed, is the school district’s enhanced ability to compete in today’s marketplace of school options, which includes private schools, charter schools and home-schooling.
“All three of those options are pretty unusual in the past history of education,” Reed said. “When families are shopping for schools, we have to be smarter. You know, we’re not the only game in town.”
Adkisson, who will be retiring from the district June 30, echoed that observation. “The educational landscape’s changed…. In order for public education to meet the needs of our constituents, we are having special schools: Hooker Oak [with open structure], Academics Plus, TWI.
“We are now adding a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] program [at Parkview], although it’s not going to be a magnet school. It’s going to be a neighborhood school with a special focus. … We will be beginning and growing the STEM program each year, starting this [2009-10 school] year. Teachers from Parkview are at an Asilomar conference [in preparation] right now.”
Second-grade TWI teacher Teresita Soto has taught at Parkview since 1995. She—along with the two youngest of her three children, who just completed kindergarten and fourth grade in Parkview’s TWI program—will be moving over to Rosedale in August.
When asked whether she wanted Parkview’s TWI program to move to Rosedale, Soto answered, “Not really. … We have a nice mix of neighborhood kids and TWI kids [at Parkview]. They all got along really well. The same goes for the [neighborhood and TWI] teachers. You know, ‘Why fix it if it’s not broken?’ ”
Soto said that the program is “losing a lot of kids”—mostly Parkview TWI students who won’t be making the move. Some students from Orland and Hamilton City who have been attending Parkview TWI may decide to go to school in their hometowns next year rather than go to Rosedale.
“I think the last count was 28,” Soto said. “There may be a few more; some are still on the fence. … Even though they’re on the list, we’ll see who pulls out when school goes back.”
As for faculty, “for sure there are three teachers who will not be coming back” to the TWI program in 2009-10, Soto said, “and now with the 30-to-1 [ratio], there’s a possibility that we’ll lose a few more.”
Added Soto: “The board didn’t ask the questions they should have asked about our program, about how a move would affect our families, and about how that would affect the program. I think a lot of us are baffled by that. I think there were so many unknowns when they made this decision—before they even had a budget.”
Soto also lamented the fact that Rosedale neighborhood students are going to be displaced by the TWI consolidation: “How do they feel about getting kicked out of their school?”
She continued: “Not only are the Rosedale kids displaced, but Rosedale [neighborhood program] teachers still don’t know where they’re going. And some of them have been teaching at Rosedale for over 20 years. I have the GATE teacher from Marigold waiting to move into my room, but I have to wait for the Rosedale teacher to move before I can move. …
“Why this move? Why this big shake-up? Had the board asked the question What will Parkview look like after immersion leaves? I don’t think they would have made that decision. … [Parkview] is a beautiful school in a beautiful neighborhood by the park. And the school is going to be over half empty.”
Andrea Lerner Thompson was the only school board member who voted against passing the housing recommendation.
Explaining her position to the board and the community at the Feb. 4 meeting, Thompson—a professor at Chico State University—said she saw no data indicating that moving the GATE program would enrich it. Rather, she had “heard a lot to the contrary.”
In reference to Rosedale becoming the TWI magnet school, Thompson asked whether “those who clamor for the magnet TWI school fully realize and are comfortable with the consequences to neighborhood children at either site—neighborhood children, not incidentally, who lack the resources to accommodate the change.”
Wrapping up her comments, Thompson stressed, among other things, that she was not necessarily against moving GATE or creating a TWI magnet school, but that she was “against rushing into action without due consideration, without answering all of the questions, without speaking to all of those affected.
“Too often in the past, I have heard district officials claim that mistakes have been made: ‘We closed the wrong school.’ Or, ‘We wouldn’t do it that way again.’ I am all for making tough choices, but I want to make right choices, not ones that in a year or two we will regret.”
Thompson’s recommendation that night was that “no changes … be made for the coming year” and that the board “continue to look into creating a Spanish immersion magnet … and determining how GATE might be enhanced with a change of venue.”
Reed, Kathy Kaiser, Rick Rees and Liz Griffin all disagreed, yielding a 4-1 vote. Snider, the Chico High teacher and mom of three, found the deliberation telling.
“While they’re asking for information from the community,” she said of district leaders, “they are forming arguments to defend what they’ve already proposed. They are not open-minded. They basically told us, ‘You should just know we are going to do something: A nonvote is not going to happen.’ ”
Voicing a sentiment shared by a number of people interviewed for this article, Soto asked, “What is the board’s vision for the district?”
Thompson wonders that, too. “I think we [as a board] haven’t found a way to engage the community in discussions about the larger vision of the district—the things we stand for…. We haven’t had the philosophical discussion to define who we are before making decisions.
“We have to define who we are and what we believe in. So far, the decisions we’ve made have defined who we are, but we need to have those philosophical discussions first.”
Those decisions have tangible impacts.
“At Parkview, we loved the way things were going,” Soto said, with a little sadness. “We loved working with, collaborating with, the neighborhood teachers.
“My kids are upset, too. They don’t want to go. How do I explain to them we just have to go?
“I’m just lucky that, as a teacher, I can ease their minds by saying, ‘I’ll go with you.’ ”
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*undergoing a boundary change in attendance area