At about the same time that San Diego Unified School District leaders were scrambling to patch together a budget and throwing the future of their English-language learners program into upheaval, they were pleading with the state of California to kill Thrive Public School.

Thrive is an elementary charter school trying to get started in City Heights.

Cindy Marten, the district superintendent, had fully supported Thrive. But the San Diego Board of Education surprisingly rejected her recommendation. Marten ended up reversing herself and telling state officials that they should also reject Thrive’s appeal.

Why? What had changed for Marten?

She told the state Thrive did not have a clear plan for how to deal with English-language learners. It was the No. 1 reason she cited.

The district, however, doesn’t seem like it is in a place to lecture anyone on what to do about English-language learners.

As Mario Koran expertly laid out, the district’s approach to English-language learners is up in the air.

Trying to make ends meet, the district bribed hundreds of teachers to retire. Rather than hiring young teachers to replace them, Marten wanted to save money by shifting qualified teachers – who were in roles like English-language support – to run their own classrooms.

In the end, 33 of the 46 teachers whom the district shifted into the classroom were English-language support teachers.

So, in one swoop, the district reassigned nearly half of its English-language support teachers. There was no announced strategic shift or plan to improve how they are dealing with these students.

And there are a lot of these students.

Nearly one in four students in the district is learning English, the district says that equals about 32,000 students. At Hoover High School, they make up about 30 percent of the student body. At Crawford High School, it’s 38 percent. They have the highest drop-out rate. As Koran highlighted, only 7 percent of 11th-grade English-learners scored proficient or better in language arts tests.

Hoover’s new principal didn’t get any new support – he wasn’t offered a different approach – he just had to move one of the English-language support teachers into managing a normal classroom.

District Spokesman Moises Aguirre told me it’s important to remember that English-language support teachers like the ones now being asked to run their own classrooms are just one part of the district’s efforts.

Aguirre cited, for example, the professional-development program QTEL, which helped teachers throughout the district, not just English-learner specialists, improve their approach to the kids just learning the language.

QTEL has had some success, according to its supporters’ data.

Aguirre also said that the district is dealing with one of its biggest problems in its approach to teaching these students: It often segregated those students and taught them in separate groups.

That’s changing, Aguirre said. Moving these support teachers into their own classroom may even aid that change.

And keeping English-language learners in their own circles is something that has to change too, said Nicole Tempel Assisi, the founder of Thrive Public School.

“The challenge with the current model is that, more often than not, we separate these kids from native speakers. The way you learn a language is by practicing and speaking it. When we separate students, we rob them of the opportunity of having native speakers model how to use that language,” she said.

Thrive anticipates that as much as 38 percent of its students will be English-language learners. The school’s administrators will create a learning plan for each individual student, whether they have special needs or not. Many of the exercises for math and English learning will be done on computers, with software in place to track each student’s progress on a daily basis.

That will allow teachers to intervene as appropriate.

Assisi herself was both an English-language learner – having come to the United States from Germany at age 11 – and an English-language support teacher in the district. She speaks Portuguese at home with her daughter. It’s her husband’s native language.

Assisi said the California Department of Education asked for clarification on her school’s approach to the problem.

The district took that as a new angle in the fight to kill the charter.

Marten, who endorsed the school’s application in January when it came before San Diego Unified’s board, never expressed concerns about how Thrive was going to deal with English-language learners when she reviewed its petition.  Her staff said Thrive’s application had gone to a dozen different departments for review.

Marten made a point to show how thorough she and her team had been. And she supported Thrive.

The board dismissed Marten’s recommendation. It seems clear they decided we had hit a kind of saturation point with charter schools and it was time to crack down. It just happened to be Thrive’s turn at bat.

At that point, Marten and her colleagues were stuck coming up with a reason why Thrive should be rejected to support their board’s action.

And so, when Thrive appealed to the county, Marten was against it. The county upheld the decision and so the charter school’s founders had to go to the state.

The state backed Thrive and now, after months of wasted resources, the local district will have a charter school inside its boundaries but no oversight of it. That’s now the state’s job.

Charter schools can often fail. But one of the reasons to cultivate them is to see if they uncover effective approaches to problems exactly like this one: How can we better support those students who are starting their educational experience here without knowing English?

San Diego’s school board trustees had a chance to hold Assisi’s plans to explore that issue accountable. Now they have to watch how it goes from the sidelines.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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