Marcos Aguilar was dressed in what can only be described as a pretty good Halloween costume of an Aztec warrior, and he had come to the Los Angeles Unified School District board meeting last week ready for battle.
"All the noisemakers have to stay out," a policeman told Aguilar, who sighed and unclipped the rattles on his ankles.
"You can't take that in, either," said the cop, pointing to Aguilar's ceremonial staff, a hatchet-sized stick with an eagle's head.
Aguilar runs Academia Semillas del Pueblo, two El Sereno charter schools that emphasize the indigenous culture of the Aztecs and teach students the Aztecs' language, Nahuatl, spoken by about 1.5 million people in Mexico.
The charter division of Superintendent John Deasy's office had recommended that the charter for Semillas' elementary school — comprising 300 kids from kindergarten through eighth grade — be yanked. Deasy's staff's 42-page report cited "low, fluctuating student achievement" and a failure to meet even minimum standards required by the state — or minimum benchmarks set by LAUSD in 2007.
The troubled school earned a bottomed-out 1 in the 2010-11 California state "similar schools" rankings based on a scale of 1-10, meaning Semillas is far worse than most of California's other, similarly poor, heavily Latino schools.
Under state law, charter schools can't operate failing programs. Academia Semillas seemed on its way out.
Then something peculiar happened.
"The board members, they're all political people," says Rev. Alice Callaghan, who runs the Skid Row charter school Jardin de la Infancia, a successful, back-to-basics school that teaches first and second grade in one of L.A.'s roughest areas. "Time after time," Callaghan says, "the board caves — and authorizes bad schools."
Aguilar brought an army with him to the LAUSD board vote — 100 or so schoolchildren, complete with missing baby teeth and signs reading, "Save Our School."
LAUSD School Board President Monica Garcia, whose election district includes Academia Semillas, is a friend and ally of Aguilar's. Garcia made an impassioned plea for leniency, arguing that LAUSD should "figure out how to evaluate schools like this one that are, from a traditional lens, lacking."
Semillas is trying something different, Garcia argued, so, "We need to take a risk in this model."
Former state senator Gloria Romero, the state director of Democrats for Education Reform, which fights education practices that churn out low-achieving children, was surprised to see Garcia so openly go against Deasy.
"As president of the board, it sends a message that each board member has the OK to overrule the superintendent when it comes to a school in your own [election] district," Romero says. "That kind of parochialism leads to a dysfunctional school district."
Last week, you could feel the parochialism spreading. School board member Marguerite LaMotte pointed out that Semillas' Academic Performance Index tracked by the state government was virtually identical to La Salle Avenue Elementary School's in LaMotte's district, a school whose students are so far behind that Deasy nominated it for the Public School Choice program, removing it from LAUSD control.
"You took La Salle and threw it out the window," LaMotte accused.
"This is a charter school," Garcia responded.
"I don't care!" LaMotte shouted. "The charter office said [Semillas] didn't meet the floor of academic performance. I'm tired of this dual system!"
Only 30 percent of Semillas students are proficient in English, only 22 percent in math. Deasy sat stone-faced, reclining in his chair, as the debate unfolded. He seemed to know he was about to be overruled.
"It was the quietest we'd seen him for a three-hour stretch — ever," says Sarah Bradshaw, chief of staff to school board member Bennett Kayser, who voted to deny Semillas' charter renewal. The fact that the board was even given a chance to vote against Semillas was a big deal. As Bradshaw explains, "It takes an act of God for our charter office to recommend" against a charter school.
But school board members Steve Zimmer, Nury Martinez and Richard Vladovic voted with Garcia, 4-3, to let Academia Semillas have five more years. Tamar Galatzan, LaMotte and Kayser voted to shut it down.
Defending his school, Aguilar tells L.A. Weekly, "What's happening across the country is that there's a development of a myopic reliance on one number. We need to prepare students to think critically, ask questions, write research papers, interview people, speak from experience. Those are all fundamentally not measured on a standards-based exam."
But with their exceedingly low achievement on basic skills, few Semillas students will flourish in areas such as writing. Callaghan says the state's testing of core skills is not "the end-all be-all, but you need to know how to add and subtract at a certain age — and at a certain age you need to know vocabulary."
The irony is that Callaghan's successful Jardin de la Infancia on Skid Row nearly was shut down by LAUSD just last year.
The Weekly has reported about the marked difference between Jardin and LAUSD's substandard Ninth Street Elementary School a few blocks away. Jardin's class of second-grade "graduates" are invited each year to transfer to high-achieving Brentwood Science Magnet Elementary School on the Westside.
But Jardin de la Infancia upset LAUSD's board — by exercising its right not to join the district's problem-plagued special-ed program. In reaction, the school board voted to withhold Jardin's charter renewal — a punishment it has meted out to fewer than 10 charters since 2009.
Then, in a humiliating rebuff to the board, Los Angeles County education authorities reversed LAUSD. The school board came out looking as if it was driven purely by politics.
Aguilar says his case isn't politics. He points out that in 2009-10, Semillas did well on test scores. In 2010-11 those scores collapsed. But citing the 2009-10 test scores as a key reason, the respected but advisory-only California Charter Schools Association decided not to suggest Semillas for nonrenewal.
"It seems like their data [in 2010-11] took a dip," says the association's Myrna Castrejon. But Semillas may still "produce good results for students."
Deasy's staff report also cited other problems at Academia Semillas, including the fact that Aguilar sits on its board as a nonvoting member while being paid a six-figure salary by the board. The report calls it a conflict of interest that violates California law.
One danger is that vast LAUSD — which has outsize influence because it educates one in every nine California kids — is undermining the charter movement itself when it tries to shutter a charter like Jardin while protecting one like Semillas.
Minutes after the board voted to save Semillas, Monica Garcia joined her friend Marcos Aguilar for a rally just outside LAUSD headquarters. A crowd of more than 100 parents and kids hailed them as heroes.
But inside, the other board members still needed to vote on other charter schools, and Deasy's staff had recommended not to renew Community Harvest Charter in Sherman Oaks, another substandard charter school.
The school board agreed with Deasy, 3-1, and LaMotte abstained. But board member Nury Martinez was now missing — she left to catch a plane for Sacramento. And Garcia was outside rallying with Aguilar. Deasy needed four votes to shut down Community Harvest. The school survived. Now, the board has one last chance to take away its charter.
"The people who got [Semillas renewed] left and didn't even come back," LaMotte says. "It's not a functioning board."
"We get this 'data and accountability' shit shoved down our throat every day," Bradshaw reflects. "The one group we can really do something about" — by yanking their operating rights when they fail — "are those charter schools."
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