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Santa Rosa’s Cesar Chavez Language Academy sets high hopes for fall expansion

Rebekah Rocha, principal of Cesar Chavez Language Academy in Santa Rosa, can attest that it’s no easy task to spread the word to families about opportunities at your still-young charter school during a pandemic.

She and other school leaders faced a mountain of additional work involved with distance learning and planning for the return to in-person classes this spring. On top of that, she and a transition team composed of parents and staff from both Cesar Chavez and Lawrence Cook Middle School are planning for the language academy’s expansion this fall, when it will serve a wider population of students than ever before.

“This whole program is still probably somewhat of a mystery to most people,” Rocha said. But, “We want it to be a school that is accessible to anybody in this neighborhood.”

Administrators and the school community — the CCLA family, parents call it — remain optimistic, driven by confidence in the value of the school’s increasingly popular dual-immersion programming, in which students learn subjects in both Spanish and English. By fall, the academy also plans to enroll its first eighth graders and to extend new options for English-speaking middle school students seeking a more traditional experience and native Spanish speakers of the same age.

As the school expands its programs, it will also expand its footprint across the entirety of the former Cook campus. The Santa Rosa City Schools trustees voted to close the middle school last February.

“To me, the future is bright,” said Xavier Nazario, a CCLA parent and member of the transition team that helped guide the preparation process over the past year. “What we’ve come up with is not to close a school in a traditional way but to provide a pathway for any student ... to not just come in and close our doors, but throw open the doors.”

In addition to expanding enrollment in the dual-immersion program, school leaders and parents hope the new options that involve fewer or no language requirements will help fill the vacuum in southwest Santa Rosa left by Cook’s closure. The Santa Rosa City Schools trustees this year approved a single-year boundary change to route students in Cook’s attendance area to other middle schools.

Some students, though, could be enticed back by the new options available at CCLA. The campus has capacity to hold about 1,100 students, Rocha said, which leaves a lot of room to grow from its current enrollment of 460 students. The expansion means it will serve grades from prekindergarten through eighth grade.

Sokhayne Prak, a seventh grader this year, has experienced every transition Cesar Chavez Language Academy has undergone since its first year in 2013. He was one of 60 children in the school’s dual-immersion kindergarten and transitional kindergarten classrooms, then hosted on the Comstock Middle School campus.

He’s excited about his school growing in the years to come.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “Kids that don’t feel welcomed or accepted in other regular English schools can feel welcomed at a dual-immersion school like ours.”

“He just wants more kids,” said Donna Prak, Sokhayne’s mother and founder and president of the school’s foundation. She chose to enroll her son in the budding program because she saw an opportunity to be deeply involved in a school that emphasized inclusion.

“The school I envisioned my kids going to was one where they would not just get this great education, but there would be this environment where any kids that came to our school would feel welcome,” she said.

Dual-immersion schools, which emphasize multiple cultures and languages, play an important role in mitigating segregation in schools, Rocha said.

“We have students who live in Fountaingrove who could be going to ... the schools with the highest test scores,” she said. “And we have kids whose parents work in the fields or are undocumented. All different economic backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds. But everyone’s here for the same goal.”

To introduce new parents to CCLA, the school will host a drive-through enrollment event Saturday, April 10. The first 150 attendees will receive free burritos from La Fondita, with music and other entertainment to accompany the food.

Interested parents will only need to fill out a single form to apply to enroll. The event will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 2480 Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa.

In addition to CCLA staff, some employees of Elsie Allen High School may be present. Rocha is involved with initial conversations exploring the possibility of adding dual-immersion programming at Elsie Allen sometime in the future. If that happened, the program would be the first of its kind at the high school level in Sonoma County, Rocha said.

Though Cesar Chavez Language Academy is on the cusp of a new chapter, its leaders aren’t expecting it to be an easy road ahead. Lili Roman, parent to a CCLA fourth grader, said she believes it will take adjustment time for families who had once been part of the Cook Middle School community.

“I feel like our work isn’t done yet,” she said. “How do we we continue to still partner and build that trust with the community and ... really show them and demonstrate 'Hey, we want to include you’? This is still ongoing work.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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