Parents of students at Houston Middle School in Acampo and Joe Serna, Jr. Charter School in Lodi filled the meeting room in the James Areida Education Support Center on Tuesday night to voice their opposition to a proposal that would close down the Acampo school during a meeting of the Lodi Unified School District Board of Education.
Although there was no vote that night, newly-elected School Board President George Neely announced that the school would likely not be shut down after hearing the parents’ concerns, and that other options would be explored after holding town hall meetings to get input from parents and teachers of both schools. He also addressed concerns from Houston parents that they had not been informed about the potential closure in a timely manner.
“I don’t want to move forward on closing Houston School. I don’t think that’s something we need to investigate. When we come up with more possibilities, you, hopefully, will be the first to know,” Neely said.
Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Elodia Ortega-Lampkin had proposed that Joe Serna Jr. Charter School be relocated to Houston Middle School’s campus in Acampo. As a result, Houston’s kindergarten through sixth-grade students would transfer to schools in Victor, while seventh- and eighth-graders would transfer to Lockeford.
“I wanted to say that the principals of Houston Middle School and Joe Serna Charter School have been extremely gracious in out initial conversations. I am here in the initial stages to present this report to the board and, based on your direction, we will move forward,” Lampkin said.
Reasons for this proposal include Joe Serna’s current enrollment of 364 students with a capacity of 375 and Houston’s enrollment of 203 students with a capacity of 496, as well as Serna’s lack of playground space and classrooms. The kindergarten class is taught in the basement of the building, which was originally designed as a church. Additionally, Serna’s dual immersion program, which ensures that students graduate from eighth grade fluent in both English and Spanish, currently has a waiting list.
Dede St. John, a parent of Houston students and treasurer of the Parent-Teacher Association, was one of the many parents to voice her opposition to the proposed closure of the Acampo school.
“By moving forward with the disassembling of Houston School, you will be breaking up not only the friendships these kids have made with one another, but the bond they have formed with teachers and other staff,” St. John said.
Houston Middle School, which teaches students from kindergarten through eighth-grade, currently lacks resources for single-subject teachers, resulting in combination classes of multiple grade levels in each class. Principal Allison Gerrity explained that teachers can choose whether or not they wish to teach combination classes, and added that she has not received many complaints from teachers.
Erin Guthrie, who teaches a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in a single class, even reported benefits from the combined grade levels.
“I find that my sixth-graders are exposed to later curriculum earlier, which gives them a better understanding of the material when they revisit it in seventh- and eighth-grade. My seventh- and eighth-graders also get the material a second and third time around, which helps them fill in information that they don’t already have,” Guthrie said.
School Board member Daryl Talken suggested moving seventh- and eighth-graders from Joe Serna to Houston, which was met with applause from the audience. Lisa Graci, whose son will start kindergarten at Houston next year, supported Talken’s suggestion, saying she was concerned that parents of Houston students would have difficulty getting their children to school in Lockeford or Victor on time. The school district currently faces a shortage of bus drivers, she said. She added that it is unsafe for children to walk to school in Acampo as it is, saying that cars drive as fast as 70 miles per hour on Frontage Road.
“I was T-boned in my own driveway. I’m not going to send my kids down the road to take the bus,” Graci said.
Nancy Johnston, a teacher in the school district whose three children currently attend Joe Serna, also opposed the possible closure of Houston School and encouraged collaboration between parents and staff from both schools.
“It’s not our wish to displace their students. We want to find a solution that works best for everyone. It’s not about the facility, it’s about everyone coming together for the reason we’re here, and that’s our children” Johnston said.
James Looney, another Houston parent, expressed his sympathy for parents whose kindergartners attend class in Joe Serna’s basement and suggested building a new campus for the Lodi charter school.
“If everyone’s here for their kids, why can’t we all come together and build a new school? I’ll take time off work and help build it myself,” Looney said.
Gary Knackstedt, who was elected as the school board’s new vice president that night, voiced his own opposition to closing Houston Middle School, saying that the district should focus its energy on finding other solutions.
“We have to get those kids out of the basement and we have to find a location that’s conducive to education. I don’t know what to do about Houston, but somehow, we need to come up with a solution that will work for everybody,” Knackstedt said.
School Board member Bonnie Cassel also opposed shutting down Houston, while acknowledging that Joe Serna does need a better location.
“I have to tell all of you, everybody in the audience, that you have touched our hearts. I do not want to close another country school, I know how important country schools are to country people,” Cassel said.
Talken agreed with his fellow board members, adding that he supports the idea of holding town hall meeting in the future to hear from parents and teachers from both schools before exploring possible solutions from Lampkin.
“I would like to see at least six or seven options that you’ve looked at. If we come up with a number of different options, that gives the board something to look at and explore,” Talken said.