Sacramento charter school serves families from former Soviet Union

Inga Makayed greats her students as they start classes at Community Outreach Academy, a Slavic-based charter elementary school on the old McClellan Air Force Base. The school has more than 1,200 children with roots in the former Soviet Union. The academy is the largest of six charter schools spread across 11 campuses run by Gateway Community Charters.
Inga Makayed greats her students as they start classes at Community Outreach Academy, a Slavic-based charter elementary school on the old McClellan Air Force Base. The school has more than 1,200 children with roots in the former Soviet Union. The academy is the largest of six charter schools spread across 11 campuses run by Gateway Community Charters.

In their early years in Sacramento, members of the region’s fast-growing population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union clashed with public schools. Children had a hard time communicating with teachers, and parents, many of whom were evangelical Christians, expressed alarm over sex education, Halloween and laws forbidding religious instruction.

Today, these families have a public school of their own.

The Community Outreach Academy, an elementary school built inside the former McClellan Air Force Base, is open to all students, but its pupils come overwhelmingly from families that emigrated from the former Soviet Union. The children attend Russian language class twice a week. There’s a Russian library that serves parents as well as children. The principal, a Belarussian refugee, frequently appears on Russian radio.

School administrators say they don’t teach religion, and they follow state laws on sex education. But they’re cognizant of parents’ sensibilities. Halloween, for instance, is not promoted as a school celebration.

The school has enjoyed academic success with a population that district officials say previously struggled in Sacramento public schools. Its three-year average API, a composite of year-end test scores, was 832 last year, the third-highest among schools in Twin Rivers Unified School District.

Sacramento City Councilman Allen Warren, who helped start the school and formerly served as its board president, said the academy – run by Gateway Community Charters – is now viewed by Sacramento families from the former Soviet Union as the place to send their children.

“It’s growing like wildfire,” Warren said.

Community Outreach is also one of California’s most segregated schools. About 98 percent of its 1,231 students are white. No other school in the state with more than 20 students had a higher percentage of white students in 2013, state data show. In a district with 4,800 black students and 12,000 Latino students, Community Outreach Academy enrolled three black students and six Latinos last year.

Futures High School, a Gateway school that also serves the area’s Slavic population, is 95 percent white, data show.

Charter schools are booming in California; more than 515,000 students attended them last year. And like the Outreach Academy, a growing number are drawing most of their students from a particular ethnic group.

During the 2008-09 school year, roughly 34,000 students attended California charter schools in which at least nine of every 10 students belonged to a single ethnic group, according to the state Department of Education. By 2013-14, that number had nearly doubled to 65,000.

Charter school segregation “is one of the big policy debates right now,” said Macke Raymond, director for the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who has studied charter schools since 2003. “There are a lot of critics who say the makeup of charter schools does not mirror the schools from which those students arose and is creating more racial or ethnically concentrated education communities.”

Supporters of such charters, however, argue that they improve academic outcomes for their students, who sometimes come from immigrant cultures or high-poverty racial groups. “You can customize an educational program specifically to meet the profile of those students,” Raymond said.

Pavel Efremov, 45, a respiratory therapist from Sochi, Russia, who chairs the Outreach Academy’s parent committee, said he’s not worried about his three children being in such a segregated environment.

“I don’t really care about diversity,” said Efremov, who lives in Antelope. “We don’t want our kids on the street or in prison.”

Movie nights and technology workshops

At the Outreach Academy, teachers and administrators are sensitive to the fact that many of the children speak other languages at home, and that parents may speak little English at all, said Principal Larissa Gonchar.

“This school was opened to help parents who were lost here, living in poor areas with no language skills, no help, while their kids struggled with drugs and bad friends,” she said.

Gonchar, a grandmother of four, cleaned houses and helped her husband deliver The Sacramento Bee to work her way through American River College and Sacramento State. Her administrative and teaching staff includes members from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Lithuania.

The academy is the largest of six charter schools serving more than 4,200 students run by Gateway Community Charters, which began in the old Grant School District – now part of Twin Rivers – in September 2003 with 324 students. In addition to the Outreach Academy and Futures High School, Gateway Charters runs a variety of non-Russian schools, including an international baccalaureate school for grades K-8, an independent study program for grades 7-12, an elementary school for struggling students and a vocational school.

Some Slavic parents remain distrustful of public schools, Gonchar said. They fear their kids will either be unfairly labeled as special-ed and be taken away to mental institutions if they act out, or by Child Protective Services when public school officials learn they’ve been physically disciplined.

The school has movie nights for kids and technology workshops to teach parents basic computer skills and how to check their children’s grades online. The school connects parents with medical insurance and law-enforcement specialists and helps them enroll in English as a Second Language classes. Every classroom has a college banner on the wall. Children receive treats if their parents check their grades daily.

Gonchar frequently appears in Russian newspapers or on Russian radio, and kids and parents listen to her Thursday morning show on their way to school.

The principal said her school reflects the evolution of Sacramento’s Soviet refugee population. “When we came here, our focus was just to feed our families, so we had no time to go to college, and we lost our children. We’re trying to fix it and catch up so our kids can go to college.”

Most of the kids were born in the U.S., but some are immigrants, and about two-thirds come in speaking Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovan or Armenian, depending on which Soviet republic they’re from.

“If my dad and mom hear me speak English at home, they make me do five pushups,” said Ella Kulyukin, 10. Children often help translate for their parents at teacher conferences, said Irina Arabagi, a Ukrainian who teaches Kulyukin’s fifth-grade Russian language class.

On one recent day, sixth-grade teacher Inga Makayed, who taught German in Belarus, then got her teaching credential at Sacramento State, taught her class about the first Olympics held in Greece in 776 B.C. She then showed a video of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics closing ceremony featuring the Russian national anthem, a piano concerto by the legendary Sergei Rachmaninoff and dancers from the Bolshoi and Kirov ballet companies.

Evelina Kalachik, a sixth-grader from Ukraine, said she got barely any homework at her public school before transferring to the academy this year. “And I think I’m more comfortable having people speak the same language to me,” she said.

Morning prayer discontinued

The school was started by several Grant administrators and parents. Warren, an African American who grew up in Del Paso Heights, was the original applicant for the charter and president of the founding board.

“There were kids in our district who were not performing well on paper who were very bright,” Warren said. “There was a language barrier, and (we thought that) if we could help Ukrainian and Russian students transition into mainstream American public education, it would help not only improve their scores and ability to comprehend but the scores in the Grant district and our city.”

The first group of parents included refugees from the former Soviet Union, and over time the school developed a Slavic focus, said Jason Sample, a former Grant district board member who now works as Gateway’s director of community engagement and development.

Not all Slavic parents have bought into the school. Tatiana Schevchenko of the Russian Information & Support Service said she would never send her children to a Russian school. “Evangelical parents are afraid of our public schools. They think they teach their kids to be homosexuals and they believe this school will save them from bad influences, which is not true, even though most are nice people from Christian backgrounds,” she said.

Schevchenko added that she knows parents who removed their kids from the school because they weren’t happy with the quality of instruction.

Sample defended the quality of the teachers, saying they are paid between $34,444 and $63,311, more than at other charters. Sergei Terebkov, president of the Slavic American Chamber of Commerce and an adviser to the Gateway charters board, said the schools allow kids from Soviet backgrounds to keep pace academically instead of falling behind.

Over time, the conservative Slavic community has come to terms with public school rules and the separation of church and state, said Michael Serdi, site administrator for Community Outreach Academy.

“About 10 years ago, we did have a voluntary school morning prayer, but then it was brought to our attention that we can no longer do this because we are a public school, and some of our families chose to leave,” Serdi said. “But eventually, nearly all came back to us because our job is to focus on education. We don’t have these issues any more.”

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this report.

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