Santa Rosa Spanish immersion school looks for new home as enrollment grows

Kindergarten students listen to directions from their teacher at Cesar Chavez Language Academy, a charter school on the Comstock Middle School campus. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)


Cesar Chavez Language Academy’s enrollment has increased fivefold since opening five years ago on Comstock Middle School campus in Santa Rosa. Now, officials with Santa Rosa City Schools are looking at moving the charter school onto the campus of struggling Abraham Lincoln Elementary on West Ninth Street, a shift that could prove contentious.

District officials recently met with Cesar Chavez parents over the proposal, which calls for relocating the Spanish- language dual immersion charter school by the fall of 2019. Some parents welcomed the move, saying the campus would provide more space, age-appropriate classrooms and ballfields, while others raised concerns over transportation. The campuses sit about 3 miles apart by city streets.

“It’s too far away,” said Brenda Hernandez, whose 7-year-old daughter, Crystal, attends first grade at Cesar Chavez.

Hernandez doesn’t own a car, so she walks her daughter to and from school every day. If it moves to Lincoln Elementary, she said she’ll have no choice but to send her daughter to a neighborhood school — likely James Monroe Elementary. She said her daughter and many neighborhood children will miss out on a bilingual education.

“I love all classes — and my school,” Crystal Hernandez said while walking home late last week with her mom and 2-year-old brother. “I learn a lot in school every day.”

In 2013, the district opened Cesar Chavez academy with 65 transitional and traditional kindergarten students, ultimately displacing the independent Santa Rosa Charter School from the Comstock campus. School officials since have added a grade level every year, boosting enrollment to more than 300 transitional kindergarten-through-fourth grade students.

“We’re running out of space,” said Diane Gunderson, a reading intervention teacher at Cesar Chavez, where her daughter attends third grade.

Gunderson said students don’t have their own ballfields or multipurpose room for assemblies and events. The playground needs to be replaced. And the classrooms were designed for older students and don’t have sinks needed for art lessons, she said. Bathrooms are a problem, too.

She said there are two toilets for a transitional kindergarten and three kindergarten classes to share.

The school will need more space to expand to the eighth grade, as the charter calls for, she said. However, Gunderson, who taught at Lincoln for four years before joining Cesar this fall, worries about the elementary school, which she said is the heart of the West Ninth Street neighborhood.

“I’m very conflicted about it,” she said about the proposal. “As a former staff member of Lincoln, I don’t want to see that community broken apart.”

However, she said, “The district doesn’t have an empty school… space will have to be allocated somehow.”

Anna Maria Guzmán, an assistant superintendent, said the district set its sights on Lincoln Elementary because of its student enrollment. Over the past two decades, enrollment fell about 40 percent to about 300 students.

The predominantly Latino school also has struggled academically. Last year, 83 percent of students failed to meet state English standards, while 85 percent missed the mark on the standardized math test. The scores are comparable to those of 2016 and 2015, when California first started administering the computerized tests.

If approved by the school board, the merger will be gradual. Lincoln would stop taking kindergartners, slowly phasing out the grade levels over the next few years, Guzmán said.

“We are in the preliminary stage of gathering information and discussing options,” Guzmán said. “If a move is the best option, we would then talk about timelines.”

She and other school officials provided no additional details on the proposal and its impact on students, staff and faculty at both sites.

Teachers raised concerns over whether they’ll remain at Lincoln or have to transfer to another campus, said Will Lyon, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association. While some teachers may speak Spanish, he said not all have the bilingual teaching credential needed to teach at a dual immersion school.

“There are a lot more questions than answers,” Lyon said.

The proposal is expected to go before the school board in the spring.

The district was sued six years ago after school board members voted to close Doyle Park Elementary School and replace it with the Santa Rosa French-American Charter School.

The district settled the suit by agreeing to keep the mostly Latino school open for an additional year. Doyle Park supporters argued in court the conversion of a public school to a charter school violated state rules and hurt Latino students.

Michaele Morales, who was part of the group that sued the district and sat on the committee that helped form Cesar Chavez, opposed the move, saying 300 additional student on that campus could be “detrimental.”

“Lincoln is a neighborhood school,” said Morales, who urged district officials to retrofit the Comstock campus instead.

But Yolanda Guerrero, whose 6-year-old grandson is a first-grader at Lincoln, welcomed the proposed move. She said most neighborhood children speak Spanish at home but could benefit from learning how to read and write it at school.

“It’s great so that you don’t lose your language,” Guerrero said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.