_The purpose of a complicated bill aimed at preventing students from languishing in alternative schools became much clearer after the testimony of a former student who got stuck in one.
Jessie Camargo, now 18, was transferred to a community school two weeks before his eighth grade graduation. That summer he completed all the requirements set by his district, which included drug and alcohol counseling classes, 140 hours of community service, and an anger management class, but was not allowed to return to his regular high school. Instead, he spent 2 ½ years in the community school, he testified Wednesday at a Senate Education Committee hearing on Senate Bill 744.
“The school operated on a complex track system,” he said. “Anything could hold you back, knock you down a track, and prevent you from exiting, even something as simple as not having a collared shirt. A lot of students couldn’t afford collared shirts so they received daily detention and were never eligible to exit.”
After his family found an attorney, the district agreed to allow him to return to his regular high school, but by then he was so far behind he could not graduate with his class, even though he attended after-school and evening classes. Camargo is now trying to get his high school diploma at an adult school in Imperial County.
“Community school held me back academically, and I am not alone,” he said. “Some of my friends were sent to community school because of absences three years ago and are still there, which makes students just decide to give up and settle for a GED. We need a better disciplinary system which doesn’t cause so much harm to students.”
County-run community schools and district-run community day schools were never meant to be a permanent placement, said Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Counsel Law Center, a pro bono law firm based in Los Angeles that is sponsoring the bill. “They are designed to be a temporary, rehabilitative placement.”
SB 744, introduced by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach, requires districts to develop a clear set of requirements that expelled students must meet and set a timeline for when students can return to regular school. The Senate Education Committee voted 7-1, with one abstention, to forward the bill. Sen. Bob Huff, R-Brea, voted to oppose the bill, without comment.
The bill creates a process to make certain the placement decision is the “right educational fit” for the student, Faer said. It also requires districts to make an effort to involve parents in deciding the placement of their children. If parents become engaged in the process, the student is more likely to succeed, she said.
Sometimes, according to Abigail Trillin, executive director of Legal Services for Children – a nonprofit law firm based in San Francisco that is also sponsoring the bill – students are expelled and, during the expulsion hearing, are found to be innocent of the charges. But that doesn’t mean they can go back to the school where they feel comfortable and have friends.
“If you win your hearing, you return to any educational program the district feels like putting you in,” Trillin said.
Another problem with the current system, she said, is that often students who are expelled are required to complete programs not available to them before returning to regular school. For example, a student could be required to take an anger management course, but the district doesn’t offer the course and no courses are available that the student can afford in the community.
Under SB 744, required services have to be made available to students regardless of their family’s income.
“If you create a plan that is completely overwhelming or undoable, you lose those kids forever,” Trillin said. “They don’t graduate.”
The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and the California School Boards Association (CSBA) had opposed the bill, but the two organizations are coming closer to an agreement with the bill’s proponents after a flurry of meetings in the days before and day of the committee hearing. These discussions led to amendments of the original bill. For example, initially the bill would not have allowed a School Attendance Review Board, which handles truant students, to
transfer a student to a district’s community day school without a parent’s consent.
Laura Preston, a lobbyist for the administrators’ group, said sometimes parents, after being contacted by the district, still do not show up for truancy hearings. With the agreed-upon amendments, the attendance board could send students to a district-run community day school without their absent parents’ consent. Another amendment sought by the two groups is a change in terms regarding expelled students. The original bill talked about expelled students “re-enrolling,” which implies they have a right to return to their original school. Instead, the amended bill would say that students can “apply for readmission.”
Preston said she expects her organization to no longer oppose the bill.
“Assuming the language looks like what we agreed to (Wednesday), we will be able to remove our opposition and possibly support the bill,” Preston wrote in an e-mail. Before taking a further step and supporting the bill, both Preston and Erika Hoffman, lobbyist for the school boards’ group, said they needed to see the language.
SB 744 will next be heard by the Appropriations Committee.