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Bilingual charter school with low test scores fights to stay open

Parents and students hold signs Tuesday in favor of New City School, a bilingual charter, as the Los Angeles County Office of Education board weighs whether to allow it to stay open despite low test scores.
Parents and students hold signs Tuesday in favor of New City School, a bilingual charter, as the Los Angeles County Office of Education board weighs whether to allow it to stay open despite low test scores.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

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A dual-language elementary charter school in Long Beach is appealing a decision to close it down, reigniting a debate over whether standardized test scores should be the main measure of a school's success.

About 200 New City School parents, students and teachers attended a Los Angeles County Office of Education board meeting in Downey Tuesday to hear the charter appeal the denial of its license renewal by Long Beach Unified School District in December. The school had recorded several years of low student test scores, triggering the move to close it.

The LACOE staff sided with the school district and recommended the school be shut down, but after a five-hour meeting, the LACOE board voted to give the charter school more time to make its case for remaining open.

New City's case highlights an ongoing debate over how school districts evaluate both charter and traditional public schools. The key measure used in this process is standardized tests, which critics say fail to adequately gauge whether students are learning and supporters argue is the only way to quantify if schools are effectively teaching. 

During Tuesday's meeting, school supporters said New City is unique and shouldn't be judged on its test scores alone. They said the school is based on a "constructivist" learning model, with students learning by exploration, debate and hands-on problem solving. They also learn by doing — for example, growing fruits and vegetable as they learn science.

Students also take daily classes in music, art, and drama for a more rounded education. 

At the heart of the issue is a question that is roiling educators and administrators nationwide: what is learning and how is it best assessed?

Long Beach Unified spokesperson Chris Eftychiou said schools' test scores matter. "When they accept public money, they agree to be held accountable to certain academic standards and measurements of success, including test scores," he said by email.

Based on New City's scores, Long Beach Unified school board voted unanimously against renewing the school's license. "New City is by far the lowest performing school within the Long Beach Unified School District," Eftychiou said, "and it is persistently low-performing over several years."

New City teacher Doris Gorski said the charter has a social justice mission where students participate in community betterment projects as part of class work. Teachers don't spend much time preparing for tests.

“We do teach around some tests, but we don't do this constantly,” Gorski said. “First and foremost, we emphasize thinking.” It is more valuable to ask how a student arrived at an answer than to simply tell them they are right or wrong, she said.

Seven of the 18 teachers at New City have a master's degree, she said. Teachers design their own curriculum, keeping to state standards. “Our teachers know our students, we do assessments...and we also provide rigorous instruction in our classrooms,” she insists.

Several of the parents gathered at the LACOE meeting said the school's approach is what they found appealing in enrolling their children.

Shelly Walther, a marine biologist who conducts ocean monitoring for Los Angeles County, drives across town to drop her son at New City's kindergarten. "I toured many schools and watched them conducting their classes, talked to principals and looked at the older grades as well. And, yes, the test scores are meaningless to me," she said.

She believes that test prep is detrimental to learning. "The things they are learning are so much more valuable than what's represented on the standardized tests," Walther said.

Another mother, Suzanna Almaraz, has three children and one grandchild attending New City. Two older children attended New City and graduated from the charter school. One went on to college and is studying art. That passion for art, she said, was fostered at New City.

"For me, the school is very good. He learned his love for art here," she said. 

Laura Isabel Serna, a cinematic arts professor at USC, said her child began kindergarten at New City this year and is "developing intellectually by leaps and bounds."

As an educator, she said she "would not choose a school for my child that I did not think would deliver on their promise of an education.”

Fifth-grade student Mia Campbell explained the school’s model of teaching using math as an example. "In most schools, you probably just have to give them an answer. But in our school, you have to like explain the answer for a math problem."

But asked a math problem on a multiple-choice test, she said she might freeze."We probably know more than the people at other schools, but we're not good with tests," she said. "We were not taught how to do tests. We're great at explaining our work and showing people what were made of."

New City opened in 2000 and is one of only two dual-language, publicly funded schools in Long Beach. But its underperformance on standardized tests has lost it support.

In an unusual move last December, the California Charter Schools Association, which advocates for charter schools, called for the non-renewal of licenses for five charter schools, including New City School. In a statement, the CCSA called the charters “among the most underperforming schools in the state.”  

The LACOE board will continue hearing the school’s appeal next week.