A Charter School in My District?

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This past Tuesday, I attended my second IUSD (Irvine Unified School District in Southern California) school board meeting ever. My children have been attending schools in the district since 2010. What motivated me to attend this meeting was because I received word online that a group of people were presenting a proposal for a new dual immersion charter school in the district.

I’ve been asking the district nearly every year since 2009 when would they create a dual immersion program similar to the ones that exist in every school district that touches IUSD. More than once, I was told that there was not enough interest. I gave up asking two years ago believing that dual immersion programs were not part of the education agenda for the district. I always found the excuses hard to believe because the proposal for this new charter school, the Irvine International Academy, has received a lot of support both online, via the 127 signatures of interest, and by the nearly dozen people who spoke in support of the school during the meeting that evening.

When it was finally time for the representatives of the Irvine International Academy to present their proposal, I listened and took note of what they said and how they said it. The academy would be a charter school located within the boundaries of IUSD. It would be a dual immersion English-Mandarin charter school that would begin with grades TK-2. The presentation started with statistics of the prominence of Chinese language around the world. They then spoke about the high regard the city of Irvine is held in China.

The current Executive Director, Dr. Michael Scott, said that he regularly hears from people in China that Irvine is the best place to come and raise a family. He also hears people brag “I have a house in Irvine”. When he worked in another California school district that was predominantly Latin@ and Spanish speaking, if the children did well on the standardized tests, he would declare “Those are Irvine scores!” The presentation consisted of well-known facts of the ideal time to learn another language, the benefits of multilingualism, and how such knowledge sets you up for success in the future.

Fortunately, there was a Comment Period where individuals from the audience could address the board for 3 minutes to voice their concerns or support for the proposal. I sat and heard all the comments. Some were from teachers and others who expressed concern for the legitimacy of the charter school, while others expressed support for what I believe was the idea of having such an educational experience available for their children. After about 30 minutes, and thinking about everything that was said, I decided to contribute to the conversation and put in a request to speak to the board. As luck would have it, I was the last speaker. During my time at the podium, I shared my history living in Irvine, my education background, my family’s relationship with multilingualism, then quickly moved to core of my comments. Here is a summary:

“I have some concerns that I hope the board takes under consideration. The Irvine International Academy would be a charter school, not a public school. As such, there would be a shift of public dollars to private management, with some oversight of course. More effort needs to be put in educating parents on the differences between public, private, and charter schools so that they can make informed decisions for their children. There is no way of ensuring the quality of the teachers at this charter. Teaching is a profession that requires a high level of expertise and experience. All our children deserve teachers who are worthy of the privilege of calling themselves their teacher. Also, why this school now? Given the high level of interest, I recommend the district look for ways to create a dual immersion program that is modeled after the many successful programs that already exist in every district that touches IUSD. This way parents can be assured that highly trained people will be teaching their children and ensuring that the love of languages will be something that will stay with them forever. Thank you.”

As we moved on to the Q&A section, Dr. Scott and Michael Husan, another person on the board of directors of the charter, went to the podium to answer questions. I immediately noticed inconsistencies in their presentation. They could not answer basic questions about the budget, how they would sustain themselves fiscally, how they would manage the population of children as they flowed in and out of the school, issues with staffing, or where they would have the physical location. At one point they disputed the evidence presented numerous times by board member that supported having a 50-50 ratio of native and non-native language speakers as the best approach to dual immersion. They even had trouble answering questions posed by two of the Student Body Presidents from the local high schools.

They consistently used “trained” when referencing the outcome of the instruction the children will receive at the school. They also used words like “normal” to describe the children and the learning space. It was clear that they were not able to accommodate children at any point in the Special Education spectrum despite their claims that they could do so. When pressed further on how the classroom time would be used, they said that children would be teaching each other through peer discussion while the teacher walked the room and monitored them. This brings into question the pedagogical approaches they are using to teach the language. Children, especially young children, are not the best teachers of a language. Direct instruction is best to prevent bad habits or incorrect information from being passed on. It was unfortunate that the leadership of this school didn’t understand this vital instructional approach.

When pressed for where they would locate the school, Dr. Scott said that they were prepared to evoke their rights under Prop 39, which allows charter schools to request and be given space in an existing school to conduct business. This was their first option, with leasing space being their second option. Since the school would begin as a TK-2, or early elementary, with four classrooms, space needs would not be as extensive as a regular elementary school. But they still didn’t understand that young children also required space to run, play, rest and eat.

One unusual exchange was between Dr. Scott and the president of the school board. She asked if he was interested in learning Mandarin. He dodged the question and said that it was essentially too difficult. If you are someone who is leading a dual immersion program, the expectation would be that you either already know, or would be actively learning, the language that you are teaching the children. This would allow you to assess the qualifications of the teachers, as well as monitor the learning of the students. That exchange was odd and uncomfortable. It created even more doubt in my mind that this school was representing its objectives accurately.

That section of the meeting lasted about 2 hours. In the end, the board decided that they will send along more questions for the proposal writers to answer. The final vote on the proposal will take place on October 15. From my conversations afterwards, there is still a lot of questions in the minds of the board members.

Some of the attendees shared with me that they are concerned with the strong influence of China on the school, as evidenced by the education professionals in China who are on the board and/or endorse the charter proposal. Another said that she is concerned that so many of the board members are not educators and have only been (or currently are) affiliated with religious institutions.

Members of the teacher’s union and the certified workers union shared concerns about this school wanting to situate itself in Irvine in order use Irvine’s reputation to attract parents and donors, siphon off teachers, students, and staff from the district’s public schools, provide subpar education for the children of the district, and force itself into a school – called colocation – disrupting the learning environment of students.

All told, the meeting was informative. I saw all sides of the charter school proposal issue as it is being addressed by my community. This seems to be a first for the district, and the board is being careful in its approach to both addressing the concerns of the community and giving the proposal writers a fair hearing. In the end, I predict that this proposal will be denied because it is not a sound proposal. In my professional opinion, the Irvine International Academy does not meet the threshold for a high-quality educational environment. The leadership of the school are not educators who understand the core ideals of education, and especially of dual immersion programs. We will see how things go at the next meeting.

Here is a link to the September 17 board meeting video and transcripts if you are interested in learning more.