North County parents fight to save bilingual immersion program, reduce class size.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Facing a state-mandated ultimatum due to persistently low test scores, Castroville Elementary School must change course or shut down. The North Monterey County Unified School District plans to apply this week for a three-year, $1.3 million grant from the state to implement a “transformation model,” which would give the school’s 640 students a chance to stay.
But the plan to save the school isn’t going to be painless. It involves killing North County’s only two-way language immersion program, in which students study in both Spanish and English in varying proportions throughout their elementary school careers, peaking with 80 percent of instruction in Spanish in kindergarten.
More than 150 parents and teachers packed a district board meeting April 7 to protest the loss of the immersion program, overflowing into hallways and outside into the parking lot. Undeterred by a malfunctioning audio translation system, bilingual members of the public translated for each other.
“We don’t want a generation that rejects Spanish and doesn’t respect family roots,” says Laura Speelman Palmer, the parent of a kindergartner in the program. Palmer speaks Spanish to her children and her husband speaks to them in English.
Palmer circulated a petition, collecting 384 signatures in support of the program, which was launched more than a decade ago.
Superintendent Sergio Montenegro says the district has no choice when it comes to making the change. The only options are to shut down the school, develop a charter school or transform the instructional model.
“The intent is not to strip away or water down the school’s value in becoming bilingual or bicultural,” Montenegro says. Eighty-two percent of Castroville Elementary’s students are minorities, and about half are English-language learners.
The district’s class sizes are also the largest in the county, with kindergarten classes as large as 33 students. Montenegro appointed a class size reduction committee in January, which recommended improving attendance to increase revenue and hire additional teachers. (The district has a 93 percent attendance rate and could bring in roughly $100,000 a year for every additional percentage point.)
Hiring four kindergarten teachers, thus bringing the average class size down to 24, would cost $290,000, according to the committee.
“If we’re broke, that’s one thing, but if we’re not, it’s another,” says Kelly Moore, president of the teachers union. “What this really is is just witholding money the state has given to the students.”
Moore points to higher-than-projected ending fund balances in past years, which prompted the school board to consult the state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team in 2008. “FCMAT agrees that this is a significant problem and causes distrust of the district’s budget numbers,” says a letter to the superindendent’s office.
Despite periodic surpluses, the district is back on the state’s list of “qualified” schools for the fifth time since 2002, meaning that under current budget projections, it will fail to meet financial obligations in three years.
The district issued nine pink slips earlier this year, and continues deficit spending.
The district’s lead financial auditor, John Goodell of Sacramento-based Goodell, Porter, Sanchez & Bright, is on probation with the California Board of Accountancy for understating $5.1 million of liabilities in an audit for Marin Schools Insurance Authority. His three-year probation, the result of a stipulated agreement that saved his CPA license, ends this month.