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Lawrence Cook Middle School to close, merge with Santa Rosa English-Spanish immersion charter

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After hours of heated debate Wednesday night, the Santa Rosa school board approved closing Lawrence Cook Middle School and merging it with an English-Spanish charter school for students in kindergarten through grade 8.

The decision comes after Cesar Chavez Language Academy moved to the southwest Santa Rosa campus in the fall. The board approved the move about two years ago, citing the academy’s need for space in light of growing enrollment, and the schools formed a committee to create a plan for a possible merger over a two-year period.

Proponents of the merger highlighted declining enrollment at Cook, and a desire to rebrand the school, which many people said had unfairly acquired a bad reputation because of gang activity in the surrounding area over the years and low test scores.

Monica Flores, who was picking up her nephew from the academy Thursday, said she thought the merger was “better for the community.” She attended Cook but said she sent her own children to other Santa Rosa schools because of Cook’s reputation.

With the merger, she said if her kids were still in middle school, she would rethink that decision.

The campus would receive more funding as a charter, which would allow the school to gain more resources to better serve its high population of special needs students, said Lisa Moore, a Cook teacher who was part of the committee that created a plan for the merger.

“Our school, traditionally, has been underserved,” Moore said. “We can’t stay at the level that we’re at. ... (Our students) need and deserve a quality school.”

Cesar Chavez Language Academy also benefits from the merger, said Paul Poling, whose son is in third grade at the academy. He said the academy, which has been adding a grade level every year, needs “the robustness of a full middle school,” including its facilities and trained staff.

“We kind of need each other,” Poling said. “This is not CCLA coming in and taking over Cook. ... It’s a joint effort.”

About 459 students were enrolled at Cook for the 2018-19 school year, and 369 students were enrolled at the academy for the same period, according to data from the California Department of Education. Both schools have a predominantly Hispanic or Latino population.

In the fall, students will attend the new charter school and have the option of enrolling in one of four academic streams, with variable emphasis on English or Spanish instruction. In the dual immersion program, half of their classes will be taught in English and the other half in Spanish. On another track, students can elect to take a language class, but all other classes will be taught in English.

Despite overwhelming support for the merger at the meeting, some raised concerns of the impact that closing Cook would have on the rest of the district, including several staff members at Elsie Allen High School, where Cook students attend after they graduate. They worried that closing Cook would eventually lead to decreased enrollment at the high school, potentially forcing it to close in the future.

“I don’t know that we can survive without a feeder middle school,” Kamala Brown, a science teacher at Elsie Allen, said during the meeting. “What does that mean for us?”

School board members favored the merger 6-1, with Jenni Klose the only member against.

Klose called the decision “irresponsible,” and proposed multiple times delaying the merger for a year until officials could hammer out more details, including determining new middle and high school boundaries since closing Cook would leave southwest Santa Rosa without a public middle school. She felt the new boundaries could be a “positive” change to address inequity in the district, but worried that doing so in just a few months before the fall semester would result in a haphazard product.

“I am appalled at the short-sightedness of this decision,” Klose said Wednesday night. “This is a really big mistake to do it this fast.”

Some community members, though, were frustrated by Klose’s comments. Moore and her colleague, Barbara Gay, both questioned why the board didn’t consider redrawing boundaries or sorting out busing solutions — another concern that was raised, since the district isn’t required to coordinate busing for charter schools — earlier in the process.

“The district is about a year behind where they should be with this process,” said Gay, who teaches math and history to special needs students at Cook. “Now it’s a rush.”

Board member Stephanie Manieri said Thursday that while she voted in favor of the merger, she agreed with Klose’s concerns. She understood that families felt that this decision was long overdue, but she also felt that there were conversations the board should have had earlier, and that they didn’t have all the information about the impacts of the merger Wednesday night.

“My ultimate goal is to see our schools in southwest Santa Rosa thrive and be successful,” Manieri said Thursday. “Despite my concerns, I do think that this is a move in the right direction.”

While Klose was the only board member to vote against the proposal, others were conflicted over their decision.

Alegría De La Cruz paused for several minutes before approving the merger, saying that she felt “really boxed into this decision.” She said she wanted to support the community’s strong belief in the merger, but that she hated the idea of closing schools, adding that southwest Santa Rosa is a neighborhood that “desperately needs us to invest more, not take away.”

And Manieri voted with tears in her eyes, expressing her fear that the merger could lead to Elsie Allen’s closure. After parents in the crowd insisted that they would send their children to Elsie Allen after graduating from the new charter school, Manieri addressed them directly.

“I want to see every parent that raised their freaking hand to send their kid to Elsie Allen High School,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’m putting so much trust in this vote.” She was met with applause from the dozens of parents and teachers in the crowd who argued emphatically for the merger during public comment. Some shouted “I will be there!” to show their commitment to sending their child to the high school.

Board members’ concerns prompted them to approve two conditions to the merger: that officials redraw middle school boundaries in an equitable manner and create a committee that would design a plan to encourage the charter school’s students to attend Elsie Allen after graduation. Most board members, with the exception of Klose, agreed that these decisions could be approved later on, as they felt that the schools’ teachers, parents and students deserved an answer on the merger immediately.

“A lot of this other information is stuff we can work out (later),” Omar Medina said Wednesday night. “Not having a decision continues to leave us in this limbo.”

Board members instructed school officials to return to the board at a later date with proposed solutions to address these concerns.

“Closing Cook ... is a monumental shift in our community,” board president Laurie Fong said Thursday. “It’s really a chance to reimagine our future together for these neighborhoods. But we have work to do. We have absolutely work to do and people are going to be very nervous, and we will continue to be transparent and continue to solicit community input because we can’t do this by ourselves.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com.

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