Charter School Fighting Back

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Times Staff Writer

Academia Semillas del Pueblo, a charter elementary school in El Sereno, held an open house Thursday, where groups of children in brightly colored red and yellow shirts sat in circles and played games as others listened intently to teachers reading history lessons in Spanish or sang songs in Mandarin.

But the day’s routines could not drown out the furor on the playground outside, where community members, teachers, parents and educators faced reporters and cameramen and defended the school against charges that it was teaching a separatist racial agenda and was lagging in student achievement.

Controversy surrounding Semillas del Pueblo exploded on talk radio and the conservative Internet blogosphere last week after assertions were made that the school enrolled only Latinos and was instructing students in Nahuatl, a native language of Mexico.


The school’s critics, led by KABC-AM (790) talk show host Doug McIntyre, insist that Semillas del Pueblo is racist and should be shut down. Many critics also say that the statements of one of its founders, Marcos Aguilar, support extremist views.

Passions were further inflamed after a KABC radio reporter said he was physically accosted and followed after he had tried to interview school officials. Since then the school has received violent threats and has increased security.

Following reports of stressed-out students, the Los Angeles Unified School District has offered crisis counselors to help the students cope.

The district, which approved the school’s charter status, also visited the school unannounced to investigate claims of discrimination and to ensure that students were learning in a safe environment.

“We looked specifically for any indications of any overt discriminatory practices on campus, such as statements on bulletin boards that expressed racial animus, were kids learning English, was math being taught consistent with California standards, and my understanding is they left satisfied that nothing of great concern was going on,” said Kevin Reed, general counsel for the district.

The district is also looking at financial and business records.

But Reed said the school was an independent charter, which, under state law, mostly operates like a separate school district with authority to conduct daily operations, hire and fire staff, and institute work rules.


Supporters contend that the school, which opened in 2002, has been unfairly scrutinized and has been drawn into a cultural battle driven by the politics of narrow-minded ideologues. At Thursday’s news conference, school officials denounced the dispute’s heated rhetoric and played portions of an expletive-filled bomb threat that forced the school’s evacuation last Friday.

“We want to thank everybody, including Mr. McIntyre, for reminding us that we live in America and what America is today,” said Aguilar, a longtime activist in the Chicano rights movement and a former social studies teacher at Garfield High School. “That, with hate radio, a school can be turned into a target and that young children can be called future terrorists. Semillas del Pueblo has never been about exclusion. We want to grow and build bridges with other races

Parents extolled the school’s curriculum and its emphasis on multicultural values. Its demographics reflect the community, which is predominantly Latino. But its enrollment this year includes white, black, Latino, Asian American, American Indian and native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander children, according to records.

“My 7-year-old daughter is in the first grade and she’s been crying, saying that people just don’t understand what the school is doing for us -- all the art we’re making, all the corn we’re growing in the park,” said Alfredo Woods, who identified himself as an Afro-Cuban American. “The school has brought so much insight to the community and the kids themselves.”

But critics insist that the school espouses a covert separatist ethos.

“No, they’re not putting up signs that blacks and Asians and whites need not apply, but if the school’s original charter and website say they will teach inner-city kids in their own language and cultural values, well, it’s self-segregating,” McIntyre said in a phone interview.

“It’s the antithesis of what Martin Luther King was teaching and what Cesar Chavez was teaching,” he said.


McIntyre deplored the threats directed at the school but said he had received death threats as well. He argued that whatever philosophy the school was promoting, it was not advancing student achievement.

Semillas del Pueblo’s Academic Performance Index score of 577 (out of a possible 1,000) ranks it among the lowest performing schools in the state. The L.A. school district is reviewing the school’s charter, which expires next year, and is sending teams in to evaluate the curriculum, teaching methods and other aspects of the program. District officials said no decisions have been made about renewal.

Principal Minnie Ferguson said most of the students at the school are socio-economically disadvantaged and typically come with the lowest test scores from surrounding schools. And she said that other measures of achievement are more encouraging, showing Semillas del Pueblo students advancing to English fluency at a greater rate than L.A. Unified students overall. The school is working with a consulting firm to improve outcomes, Ferguson said.

“We’re opening doors for our students and preparing them to become leaders in harmony with the world,” she said.