When a charter school is failing

Juana de la Cruz Farias, a teacher at Academia Semillas del Pueblo, teaches Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico, to Anthony Rayo. The Los Angeles Board of Education recently renewed the school's charter despite underperformance on state tests.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Unified school board did an injustice to hundreds of students and to the school reform movement when it overrode the recommendation of its staff and decided not to close a low-performing charter school.

Academia Semillas del Pueblo in El Sereno is run by dedicated educators who are striving to provide their kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students with a safe environment, a lively and enriched curriculum, as well as skills in three languages. The school has been controversial because one of those languages is an indigenous language of Mexico, and part of the school’s mission is to instill in children an understanding and appreciation of their cultural heritage. Most of Semillas’ students are of Mexican descent.

We have no problem with a school that takes an unusual path to engage students and brings about academic success. The problem is that the “academic success” part is eluding the school. Its students’ scores on state standardized tests have bounced up and down, most recently down. Compared with schools statewide that have similar student demographics, Semillas is in the basement. When the district renewed Semillas’ charter five years ago despite misgivings about low scores, it set benchmarks for the school to meet that would place it in the middle among similar schools. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.

Schools with multilingual immersion programs often have lower scores on standardized tests as their students build abilities in more than one language. But Semillas is a low performer even among schools with such programs, according to both the school district and data compiled by Times reporter Howard Blume.


Semillas’ directors assert that a school should be judged by more than its scores on academic tests. That’s absolutely true, but tests are still an important measurement and one that, up to now, has been considered a crucial mark of performance in L.A. Unified. An enriched education should enhance, not replace, essential reading, writing and math skills.

It’s particularly troubling that school board President Monica Garcia, often among the staunchest advocates of holding schools accountable for their test scores, led the defense of Academia Semillas by saying that its “alternative model” should not be subjected to traditional measures of success and pointing out that “no parents are being forced to send their children” to the school. Semillas’ popularity among parents is not an excuse to tolerate low performance.

Most disturbing of all is the message sent by the board’s vote. Other L.A. Unified schools with similar academic failings are being forced into dramatic reforms. Many of their leaders might argue that they teach critical thinking and cultural understanding, but if students can’t read and calculate at grade level, the schools aren’t doing their job. We favor a more holistic measurement of schools, which is the direction Gov. Jerry Brown wants to move in, as long as such measurements don’t neglect the basics and are applied evenly. The board’s action on Semillas implies that improving school performance matters until sympathetic members of the board decide that it doesn’t.