In an effort to address poor student achievement among low-income and minority students, the Mountain View Whisman school board will host another discussion on Nov. 6 on whether to split Castro Elementary into two schools. The meeting will be held at Castro School in hopes of eliciting feedback from parents and community members in the Castro neighborhood.
The board decided to host the follow-up meeting after a lengthy discussion at the Oct. 23 board meeting on what needs to be done to improve academic achievement for the lowest-performing students at Castro. While the majority of trustees were in favor of the plan to split the school, some voiced concerns that PTA resources might heavily favor one of the two schools. Others said the district needs to do more than split the school in half -- it needs to put millions of dollars into program improvements.
The proposed split would separate the traditional school program at Castro into one school, and the Dual Immersion program into another. Dual Immersion is a bilingual "choice" program in which students receive instruction in both Spanish and English, with the goal of becoming proficient in both languages. As a choice program, it draws district students from outside Castro's attendance boundaries.
According to the Castro Restructuring Task Force, which explored ways to improve student achievement in both programs, students in the traditional program lag behind Dual Immersion students by a large margin in math as well as English and language arts. About 90 percent of the students in the traditional program are English-language learners who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
The task force presented its findings to the school board on Oct. 9, and recommended that the district split the school's programs into two schools. The idea is that the teaching staff and the district could better address the needs of the two very different programs better if they are isolated.
The Nov. 6 board meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at Castro School, 505 Escuela Ave. The Castro Restructuring Task Force and its recommendations will be the first discussion item, and Spanish translation will be provided.
Two board members were part of the task force, including board president Bill Lambert. At the Oct. 23 board meeting, Lambert said the creation of two schools could be seen as a "positive" challenge for the district to give Castro families two equally valued schools with very different programs.
But he cautioned that the district needs to create a situation where parents choose to send their kids to the DI program or the traditional program based on what's the right fit for the child, rather than choosing the school that's thought to be "better" than the other.
"What I don't want to see happen is one school ... having a reputation of providing better education or being more desirable than another school," Lambert said. "I think that's a challenge for the board (and) the administration."
Board member Ellen Wheeler, who was also part of the task force, said there was overwhelming support by parents to make a better academic environment for the students at Castro the ultimate goal of the restructure.
"People were just fervent about that. I'm very happy to see that at the end of the process, this was something that is highlighted," Wheeler said.
Wheeler said Castro parents emphasized it was also important to keep the "community feeling" in the Castro neighborhood, and that whatever decision the district makes should not split the community in some way.
Board member Steve Nelson expressed concerns about how well the two Castro schools would pool together and share volunteer work and PTA leadership, which might end up lopsided in favor of one school. He said the relationship between Theuerkauf and Stevenson schools is a good example of how little can be shared by two schools on the same campus.
"If it ends up like Theuerkauf and Stevenson, I think it's a failure," Nelson said.
Board member Chris Chiang said he would support the recommendation to split the school if the district is willing to pour millions of dollars in the coming years into improving the traditional program. He said it's not enough to separate the schools and see what happens next.
"It's not just about separating the school structurally. The 'turn-around' model is about dollars. It's about all kinds of programs," Chiang said.
Until the district identifies and sets aside money to support the traditional program at Castro, Chiang said, he would not be comfortable splitting the school and just "hoping" the money is out there.
Teresa Coughlan, a traditional program kindergarten teacher at Castro, said she is optimistic and happy to hear the board discuss ways to improve Castro's traditional program.
"What you gave me today was a message of hope by focusing on the details on how are we going to fund this, how important it is and how Castro can be a catalyst for academic achievement in the district," Coughlan said.
DI parent David Kessens said he felt the task force was too constrained and only looked at four options, all of which revolved around real estate. Kessens said he was glad to see the board is shifting its focus towards improving the educational programs at Castro and committing "real" money to do it. If the district's goal is ultimately academic improvements, Kessens said, it's not building improvements that are going to make a big difference.
"In the end, it's actually the program that counts. It's the education they get," Kessens said. "The reality is that if you want to do something different, you need to allocate serious money."
Kessens said the district might need to re-think how it teaches the traditional program, which doesn't meet the needs of the primarily low-income and Hispanic students.
"Those kids are not traditional students, they are simply not. We have a traditional program and that is not what they need. They need a program that's actually focused on English learners," Kessens said. "That's what we don't offer today."