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Options abound for location of proposed Spanish-English school in Santa Rosa

Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 1:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 9:26 a.m.

Santa Rosa City Schools has released a list of potential sites for a proposed Spanish-language dual-immersion charter school, ranging from Comstock Middle School to vacant rooms at Lewis Opportunity School, as officials press to open the new school this fall.

Nearly every campus in Sonoma County's largest school district could be affected by the new charter school's development.

The program is slated to begin in August with one transitional kindergarten and three traditional kindergarten classes. District officials hope its enrollment will grow to 560 kindergarten through eighth-grade students by 2021-22.

Plans call for kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes taught 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English. In grades three, four, five and six, the ratio will change to 70 percent Spanish and 30 percent English, and in seventh and eighth grade, 50 percent English and Spanish.

The school board is expected to approve the school's charter application at its Wednesday meeting, but the location won't be decided until after a special meeting Feb. 6. Board members said public reaction on location and the potential effect on other programs are crucial to the final decision.

"My belief is that we will find the best option, but we may find that there are things people hadn't thought about that will get raised by other folks," Board President Bill Carle said.

"I think the decision is important, and understanding the negatives and positives to any of those options is important."

Board members largely agreed with exposing nearly every campus and program to scrutiny.

"I think it's the best way," board member Laura Gonzalez said. "Not everybody is always going to be happy, but I think we need to be open and transparent."

Some proposals call for the language program to start at one location and move to a permanent site in its second year, allowing it to accommodate anticipated annual growth.

But there was some concern that assigning the school a temporary home would dissuade parents from committing to the fledgling program.

"Parents want to be assured that they have a facility they can depend on," board member Frank Pugh said. "My preference is not to be moving from site to site, only because I think it just creates anxiety and doesn't create permanence."

Options being considered include, but are not limited to:

Freezing enrollment at the Santa Rosa French-American Charter School on Sonoma Avenue at the current 260 students, and locating Spanish immersion classes for one year in rooms now being used by Brook Hill Satellite students. The French language school is expected to grow to 300 students next year and add a seventh grade. Classroom space on the French-American campus also could be made available by relocating special-education classes.

Moving students from either Monroe, Biella, Helen Lehman or Steele Lane elementary schools to the underutilized Comstock Middle School campus on West Steele Lane.

Terminating the licensing agreement with Santa Rosa Charter School, an independent K-8 program that currently leases 13 classrooms at Comstock Middle School. After 2018-19, classrooms could be added to the site as needed.

Leaving Santa Rosa Charter School where it is and closing Comstock in 2014-15, relocating its students to other campuses while making space available for the Spanish immersion program. The Spanish program would spend 2013-14 at Lewis School on Lomita Avenue or in four currently vacant rooms at Comstock. This option would include converting Monroe, Biella, Helen Lehman, Steele Lane and/or Lincoln elementary schools into K-8 campuses, or making Piner High a 7-12 campus.

Using four Lewis School classrooms in 2013-14, and in 2014-15 taking over the Ridgway High School campus, behind Santa Rosa High School. Ridgway students would move elsewhere, perhaps to Cook Middle School on Sebastopol Avenue.

Piner and Elsie Allen high schools have space to house either the Spanish immersion program or a displaced alternative program if that occurs. Both schools have capacity for about 1,600 students, while Piner's current enrollment is 917 and Elsie Allen's is 946 students.

Lewis School has four classrooms available immediately and could accommodate projected growth for the Spanish immersion program through 2017-18 if current Lewis students are moved in 2014-15 and the Nueva Vista program is moved by 2016-17. The site hasn't been used as an elementary campus for four decades, so significant upgrades would be required. No cost estimate for those upgrades has been established.

The district could lease nondistrict property, including school sites closed by other districts and currently vacant classrooms at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts. Several sites were reviewed last year when district officials were identifying a site for the French-American charter school.

Cook Middle School is currently being pursued as a site for several community-oriented programs that include preschool, health centers, after-school programs and a potential K-6 charter school. If these plans materialize, Cook would be at full capacity. Santa Rosa, Slater and Rincon Valley middle schools are full.

A number of proposals include using the now-vacant main building at Lewis School for the first year, then moving the immersion program to a permanent home in 2014-15.

Any adjustment to Comstock's configuration could affect the Santa Rosa Charter School, an independent K-8 operation housed at Comstock. Terminating the license agreement with the charter school would result in a loss of about $127,000 a year.

Looming over the discussion are plans to remodel and renovate the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts campus on Humboldt Street. That proposal, currently on hold and awaiting state funding, would require all 340 arts charter students to be relocated to another campus for a full school year.

The nearby Ridgway High campus is being considered as a potential temporary site for arts charter students.

When the board begins to pinpoint potential sites or eliminate others, further study of those moves will be conducted, according to Associate Superintendent Doug Bower. Discussion and comments on how physical changes will affect each school's programs are expected in subsequent public meetings, officials said.

"My charge at this point is to look at the facilities and look at what is available," Bower said.

The school board is expected to "provide some direction as to where we go from here, in terms of which ones have appeal or which ones don't," he said.

Trustee Donna Jeye said comments from parents intent on sending their children to the Spanish language school are key.

"I think the most important thing we need to do is listen to the parents of the students who will be attending this school and what they want, keeping in mind that this school requires diversity to be successful," she said. "Charter schools are definitely customer-driven."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefieldwrites an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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