Activist wants dual-language charter school

A dual-language charter school for English-language learners on Costa Mesa’s Westside could be on the horizon, if Caryn Blanton has her way.

Blanton has spent the past decade working as the youth development director for Mika Community Development Corp., which helps residents of heavily Latino neighborhoods in Costa Mesa. During that time, she found that Latino students who don’t speak much English struggle at local public schools.

As envisioned, the public charter school, to be called the Westside Neighborhood Academy, would serve the Westside’s primarily Latino population. The school would provide instruction for students in both English and Spanish in a dual immersion model.

As a result, Blanton says, the school would produce students who are fluent in two languages. Dual immersion is particularly effective for English learners, who struggle with traditional models of education, she said.

“A lot of kids start kindergarten only knowing Spanish, so if the teacher is teaching in English, the kids don’t understand and that affects their success longterm,” she said.

With about 36% of Costa Mesa’s population of nearly 112,000 identifying as Latino, the Westside is the perfect place for a dual-immersion charter school, Blanton said.

In 1998, voters passed Proposition 227, which requires California public schools to teach English language learners in English. The proposition basically eliminated bilingual classes in public schools.

“It really forced the district’s hand in not providing bilingual education,” school board Trustee Martha Fluor said. “I believe we’re doing as best we can. If we get the kids early, and get them into our preschools, then they have a really good chance of entering kindergarten more-prepared.”

Blanton believes a dual-language charter school could serve a large number of Latino students who struggle with traditional learning in English-speaking classrooms.

In the past year, Mika started a preschool program, You and Me, where parents can bring their young children for learning-based activities.

“They come and play, but it’s also a way for us to show the parents how to interact with their children in a way that might not be culturally normal for them,” Blanton said.

More than 72% of students attending elementary schools on the Westside are considered English-language learners, according to data Mika published.

The idea of exposing children to English earlier in life sparked Blanton’s idea for The Westside Neighborhood Academy.

The school would initially serve kindergartners and first-graders, and eventually expand to include more elementary grades.

Although the charter school wouldn’t be affiliated with Mika, a staff member and two volunteers are helping Blanton formulate the curriculum.

“It has blossomed out of the work we’re doing at Mika,” Blanton said.

The group is drafting a charter petition that it will submit to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in August. The school board then has 30 days to respond.

The charter school needs the school board’s approval because it would receive money allocated to the district from property taxes, Fluor said.

Charter school funding becomes slightly contentious because students from outside the district’s boundaries can attend the campus.

But the district cannot reject a charter plan simply because of its financial impact, Fluor added.

This isn’t the first charter school petition that has crossed the desks of Newport-Mesa trustees.

In Fluor’s 22 years on the board, the district has reviewed three ideas for charters. The board denied one, and the other two were never formally submitted to the board.

“We’re not opposed to charters as a general rule, but we are opposed to charters that are not in the best interest of our students,” she said.

To gain district approval, a charter proposal must have a state-approved curriculum and offer students a type of education they’re not receiving in other public schools, Fluor said.

“It would be exciting if we had a charter school, but it has to serve our students and really be innovative because that’s the reason for charter schools,” she said.

Board President Karen Yelsey said the charter might not be necessary, considering the language programs that the district is planning to implement in elementary schools within the next few years.

The district’s dual language programs will allow students to begin studying a foreign language — like Mandarin or Spanish — in elementary school and continue studying that language throughout their public school careers.

“I’m not sure if we really see a need in our district,” she said.