LAUSD charter elementary with low test scores gets a reprieve

Things would be easier if Academia Semillas del Pueblo didn’t have such low test scores.

Then, the focus could be on the El Sereno charter school’s International Baccalaureate program. Or on its trilingual curriculum: English, Spanish and Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico. Or on the two co-founders dedicated to teaching culture that stretches back to before colonial Mexico.

Instead, the focus shifted in recent weeks to the campus’ test results. Compared to schools statewide that serve similar students and when matched against campuses in the neighborhood, results are low. Last year, the school’s score on the state’s Academic Performance Index dropped 92 points to 624; the state target is 800. Just 22% of students tested at grade level in math, 30% in English.

Semillas has long enjoyed community support, including from influential allies, but narrowly escaped closure recently when the school’s charter came up for renewal. A Los Angeles Board of Education majority last month overruled senior administrators, who recommended closing the school, which is independently run but publicly financed.

Semillas should not receive special treatment, said top administrators, including L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy and Jose Cole-Gutierrez, the head of the charter-school division for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Their program is different and unique,” Cole-Gutierrez said. But “Semillas was among the bottom in terms of performance,” even compared with other programs that teach in other languages. “They were lower than all comparable schools on a variety of measures.”

The school took in a substantial number of new low-income students last year, which, operators said, affected their school’s scores.

Regardless, test scores are an incomplete and misleading reflection of the school, said co-founder Marcos Aguilar. “Over-reliance on a single high-stakes assessment is a fundamentally illegitimate tool with which to answer the question that is on everybody’s mind — or ought to be — and that is: What does it mean to be an educated person?” Aguilar said.

The school favors developing critical thinking skills and imparting cultural knowledge, said co-founder Minnie Ferguson, Aguilar’s wife.

As an example, the school notes its program is authorized by the International Baccalaureate foundation. Students at IB schools are expected to demonstrate such qualities as in-depth knowledge, global awareness, cultural respect and civic participation individually and in groups.

Semillas enrolls 300 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Nearly all are Latino and from low-income families. Another 100 attend an affiliated high school that is about to graduate its first class of 34 seniors. The high school’s test scores have fluctuated but were low last year.

According to L.A. Unified’s charter school office, these students simply aren’t getting a necessary, fundamental education. Aguilar was also faulted for serving on the board of directors, as a nonvoting member, of the same entity that is paying his salary. And it criticized the operators for being unwilling to provide personal information for a background check, among other items.

Before the vote, school board President Monica Garcia spoke of the need to “embrace alternative models.”

“No parents are being forced to send their children” to Semillas, Garcia said.

This was the second time the board agreed to maintain Semillas, despite persistently low test scores. Five years ago, under political and community pressure, the charter school office backed away from recommending a shutdown.

Officials accepted at the time that Semillas’ program could, in the early grades, result in lower scores on tests taken in English because most instruction for younger students is in Spanish.

This time, west San Fernando Valley board member Tamar Galatzan was adamant in her opposition.

“They have agreed to live up to certain expectations, and if they don’t, it’s our responsibility as a board to take action,” Galatzan said.

Board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte noted the district has taken action against low-scoring schools that, she said, had “just as much culture” as Semillas.

Since July 2009, the school board has approved more than 60 charter renewals, while rejecting seven others. During that period, about 15 charter schools closed on their own, including some that faced a district shutdown, officials said.

But historically, a few charters have survived issues that proved fatal to others, especially when the charter could muster political support.

Aguilar said students at his school deserve “access to language, culture and intellect in the classroom that is reflective of their heritage.” That is a right, he said, that is enshrined in Article 14 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Such rhetoric has made the school a target in some quarters.

The school “is not much more than a training ground for the Mexican reconquista movement, which seeks to conquer the American Southwest — by force or by ballot box — and return it to Mexico,” concluded Judicial Watch, a frequently controversial Washington, D.C.-based group.

Such critiques have led to death threats, Aguilar said, adding that the school relied on security guards and parents to patrol the campus.

At the school on a recent day, kindergartners learned a song in Nahuatl; dance instruction would come later. In another area, first-graders were separated from third-graders by an easel and a bookshelf as they looked at books from a small in-class library.

In an adjacent room, a teacher explained Nahuatl vocabulary in Spanish. Then another teacher took over with grammar instruction in English.

“Adverbs — I love adverbs,” a boy exclaimed.