Photos courtesy of New City Public School.
The classrooms at New City Public School in Long Beach lie empty as the sound of children’s voices and teacher’s instructions have given way to the annual summer break exodus.
Tiny chairs stacked in neat columns sit in classrooms decorated with colorful fish, teachers’ supplies are shrouded and labeled and housekeeping efforts are evidenced by vacuum cleaners and and a few elusive dust bunnies.
But unlike the rest of the schools in the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), for New City, whether or not its students return for instruction at the end of summer hinges on a decision to be handed down from the California Department of Education (CDE) next week.
The school’s appeal will be its third and final one in a process that started in December of last year. A vote by the CDE to uphold a staff recommendation to decline the school’s charter would effectively close the K-8 school, making June 17th the last day students passed through its doors.
“Not one parent told me on that day ‘maybe we’ll never see you again’ or ‘maybe we won’t be back.’” said Director of Education Programs Stephanie Lee of New City’s last day of school in June. “Not one. If they were thinking it, they didn’t say it. I think most people are actually pretty sure we’re going to do what it takes to be here in September.”
For 15 years New City has provided dual language education to any student in Long Beach, with many of them coming from underserved areas around the city, including those in its immediate reach near Long Beach Boulevard and 17th Street. It is one of only two fully bi-lingual schools in the city.
But as a charter school, New City is subject to charter renewal every five years, a request that was denied by the LBUSD school board in December 2014, and when appealed, resulted in a deadlocked vote by the Los Angeles County Board of Education in March—in part because one of the county’s board members was absent for the vote.
After failed attempts at regaining certification at the local and county levels—votes that were attributed to low standardized test scores—New City will take its case to the California Board of Education next week, hoping to deliver on a promise that school didn’t let out for good last month.
In a letter to the interim director of the State’s charter school division, Cindy Chan, New City Executive Director John Vargas details how the school has not only satisfied requirements to be granted a renewal, but how it was unfairly judged in the two previous rulings.
Vargas detailed how the passage of Assembly Bill 484 in October 2013—a law that suspended old standardized tests and granted schools time to adjust to new Common-Core aligned testing—included a provision to protect charter schools pursuing renewals, but instead it was unfairly used against New City in the LBUSD hearing.
Vargas said that the gaps in Academic Performance Index (API), which were addressed in the amendment to AB 484, were used against the school despite New City having made progress during those years. The school uses alternative methods of educating its students, including combined classrooms and a Dual Language Enrichment (DLE) program that alternates days for Spanish and English instruction. In 2012, when the school switched to the DLE model, it also implemented Common Core, something that Vargas said aligns with New City’s focus on conceptual understanding and critical thinking rather than repetition and memorization.
The arguments made by the school echo what many have recently proposed; that antiquated testing methods are being used to test today’s students. The question arises as the nation as whole is still struggling to define what exactly education is, and how it should be administered.
The school operates under a “constructivist” ideology that promotes reasoning, problem solving and analyzing how they figured out answers, not merely getting to the answer.
Math problems are in word format to encourage students to explore whether addition, subtraction, multiplication or division is needed, instead of providing them with the format. Regardless of the method, Lee said results are results.
“Some of those things you can still measure,” Lee said. “Whether or not a student can read, it doesn’t matter if you’re coming at it from a constructivist approach and getting their importance of their thinking about the literature. If they can read it, they can read it.”
New City’s focus on the arts is part of its focus to make “access to the good stuff” a reality for all students in Long Beach, even those in underserved areas. Parental involvement also plays an integral role in the school’s makeup, and until this year, it was an unquantified asset of New City. During the 2014-2015 school year, New City parents logged over 13,000 volunteer hours, an average of 42 hours per family. The feeling of community and the assurance that it provides is invaluable, Lee said.
“When somebody says ‘we feel safe, we feel like we’re a family here’, how do you put that in a spread sheet?” she asked.
Yunique Pettigrew has her two sons enrolled at New City and says that they have thrived there. She pointed to the fact that her 10-year-old son overcame a speech impediment in kindergarten and now, as a fifth grader, reads books above his reading level in both English and Spanish.
Pettigrew said the structure of the school—which includes student-run teacher-parent conferences and eighth grade pre-graduation demonstrations that act as mini dissertations—helps to empower the students.
LBUSD high school teachers cite New City's strong public speakers as evidence of its strength, often praising New City alumni as the first to raise their hands and start class discussions. Pettigrew has noticed this confidence in both her sons and attributes it directly to the New City model of learning.
"New City’s structure helps; I wish there was a school like that when I was younger because I struggled having to speak in front of people," Pettigrew said. "Their voice matters, what they say matters. It doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong, they help the student figure out what is the right answer.”
The school is planning to bus as many students, parents and supporters as possible to the hearing in Northern California next Thursday. Pettigrew said she would be present. She also said if the the charter is not renewed, her kids would be homeschooled, but she wasn’t going to give up the fight.
“They’re going to keep seeing my face until they get the charter back,” Pettigrew said. “I’ve been going strong, I'm not quitting now.”
The appeal will go to the state on July 9, with the fate of New City resting in the balance. Its previous hearings have garnered the support of hundreds of parents and community supporters, and, because of the school’s plans to bus in supporters, the state hearing is again expected to have many New City friends in attendance.
They won't be alone.
LBUSD Director of Public Information Chris Eftychiou said that LBUSD representatives would also be in attendance at next week’s hearing and would again voice their opinion on why they think New City should not have its charter renewed.
“The presentation will be largely the same as what our people already have presented at the county and state levels, where New City did not prevail in their attempt to renew their charter,” Eftychiou said in an email. “Our staff will show that New City does not meet the legal obligations necessary for charter renewal.”
Despite years of corrective measures levied by the LBUSD, the school has not lost support among legislators and educators in the State.
Several elected officials and educational leaders have written letters in support of keeping the school open. Senator Ricardo Lara said that in an increasingly globalized economy it’s important to continue to train a multilingual work force and called for the state board to give New City a fair hearing.
“Effective dual-immersion programs prepare our students for a 21st century economy and will keep the state moving forward,” Lara said.
First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez said that she has the “utmost confidence” in the school’s leadership to continue its pursuit of excellence. She also recounted her time as a field deputy for Mayor Robert Garcia while he was a councilman and said that on her many visits to the school it was apparent that the school offered the community more than an education.
“Its presence and reputation as a center of knowledge for our youth allow for our neighborhoods and communities to raise their standards to support its students,” Gonzalez wrote. “As such, the school has proven itself to be an asset that contributes to the sense of pride and community to the families in the district.”
As with everything, Lee said, the proof can be traced. Although she admits that because the school only consists of 400 or so students, with a small portion being eighth grade students making the leap back into LBUSD high schools, those students have unequivocally proven they are ready to succeed at the high school level.
New City Public School teachers.
Lee said over the last five years, New City students have not only had a higher first time pass rate on the California High School Exit Exam, but also had a higher average proficiency rating than other LBUSD students.
Last year, Lee said that over 90 percent of her matriculating eighth grade students qualified for competitive A-G programs at LBUSD high schools. Those programs set students on a course for admission into four-year universities after graduation. She added that the school works with students not only to prepare them for those rigorous courses, but also to inform them of the steps that they need to take in order to make sure that the doors to college don’t close before a student realizes they want to go to college.
She conceded that it is a small sample size, but the willingness of the programs to take New City kids is proof to Lee that they’re doing something right at New City. “That means the district’s programs want our kids and our kids are ready and eligible for rigorous high school work,” Lee said.
Lee questioned the district's adamance regarding closing down New City, describing it as the "million dollar question." Charter schools have long been seen as leeching funds that would otherwise have been allocated to public schools, but Lee’s questions deviated from finances.
She said she understands what they’re doing is different and she understands how that could be threatening to a body like the LBUSD that has been so successful in their own administration of education. She also alluded to the near-completion of the renovations at Roosevelt Elementary, a school that might benefit from the closure of New City and the resulting displacement of its hundreds of students that would need a new school to call home.
New City Public School students and parents at the school's urban farm.
The last day of school at New City was a busy one, filled with bridging ceremonies—rites of passage performed by students who walk over a literal bridge as they pass to the next grade—and an eighth grade commencement ceremony.
While the fate of the school hangs on the vote of the state board next week, the books in the bi-lingual library remain unpacked, as do the rest of the school’s accessories, highlighting the school’s defiance to fold without a fight.
It’s not uncommon for a governing body to vote against a staff recommendation, but such a vote usually requires a compelling presentation, one that Lee said the school will deliver. While its uncertain what will ultimately become of New City, one thing is certain. Lee said it was never the intention of New City to be at odds with the LBUSD.
“We’re not trying to stop the district from doing what they do,” Lee said. “We’re interested always in being in a dialogue about teaching and learning, but we present a small alternative on a neighborhood scale and we think we have something really special here. Our parents think we have something special here and we want to continue to be a small neighborhood school.”