LA Times, Oct. 14, 2004

41 Local Schools Fail Federal Goals
The campuses now face sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act. Some criticize the law doesn't give credit for student improvement.

By Daryl Kelley, Times Staff Writer

Forty-one Ventura County schools and one school district have failed to meet strict federal standards for progress and face sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act a law local educators want to change because it fails to fully recognize student improvement.

The 41 schools, announced by the state Wednesday, are clustered in the low-income, Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of the west county. They must now offer to transfer students to other campuses and pay for their transportation. They also have to provide special teacher training.

In addition, the three campuses that have failed at least four straight years must take corrective action that could end in restructuring the schools or turning their management over to the state.

While acknowledging shortcomings, local educators called for reform of the federal law, asking that student improvement on achievement tests be considered even if campuses do not meet strict federal targets for progress.

Now, schools get no credit for moving toward the federal standards without reaching them.

"You need to have some common sense," said Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools. "Some of these schools have already implemented new curriculum and trained teachers, and they're starting to move up. So do you punish those schools by restructuring them or turning them over to someone else? The answer should be no."

Even before the new list of failed schools was released, all local superintendents had sent a 10-page proposal to federal and state officials, including President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to change the federal standards.

"We made some very specific recommendations on how to improve the standards here in California, but that requires some changes in the federal interpretation of the law," Weis said.

Under the current system, schools in the Oxnard area are under the greatest pressure to improve.

Haycox Elementary in the Hueneme district failed to meet federal standards for the fifth straight year. Officials must prepare a plan to hand the campus over to different managers unless standards are met this year.

Curren School in the Oxnard Elementary School District and Rio Plaza Elementary in the Rio district have failed for four consecutive years.

In all, 13 of the 26 schools in the Oxnard elementary district failed last school year, as did four of the 11 in the Hueneme district and six of the seven in the Rio district.

"Accountability is a good thing, but the way we're doing it isn't so good," said Rio Supt. Patrick Faverty. "If you fail in one area, you fail overall. It's not fair."

What bothers educators most is that student improvement on California's annual achievement tests does not count unless a school's test scores meet federal standards.

For example, Rio Plaza Elementary grew by 20 points on the state Academic Performance Index last year, double the statewide average.

But it still failed to meet all federal standards, passing 13 of 17.

The federal standards require students of all racial or ethnic groups and various income groups to be proficient in tests for reading, math and science. Special education students must also meet federal proficiency standards.

"Four of our schools made significant growth on the API, and the state has a very rigorous testing system," Faverty said. "But that was not recognized."

At Rio Plaza Elementary, each teacher now uses state-adopted materials, which emphasize tested skills, he said. Each teacher has been trained to use those materials, and the school's principal has received special training.

Rio Plaza Elementary now also has after-school instruction until 6 p.m. and classes on Saturdays.

At Oxnard's Curren School, which met 18 of 21 federal standards and grew by 14 points on state tests, more than half the students speak limited English and about 15% have learning disabilities.

In response, the Oxnard district added extra teachers, who divide classes and cater instruction to areas of weakness.

Targeted students are also tutored after school and taught during the weeks between regular school sessions on Oxnard's year-round calendar.

"We deal with some very large issues in this district," said interim Supt. Darrel Taylor.

"But we're moving in the right direction, and we're going to continue to do what we've done successfully," he said.

All 26 Oxnard elementary schools met state standards last year, Taylor said. And 1,000 of the district's roughly 8,000 limited-English students became proficient in English during the last year, he said.

Hueneme Supt. Jerry Dannenberg said Haycox Elementary where 83% of students speak limited English improved state test scores by 13 points and met 15 of 17 federal standards last year.

He credited the improvement to dividing the school in two, with principals for each half. But budget cuts eliminated the second principal this year.

"We had two principals who were working with fewer staff members on how to meet these standards," Dannenberg said. "Now one principal is trying to focus on all six grade levels."

The district is relying on a curriculum audit by Weis' office to provide a road map for meeting federal standards.

But the audit won't be done until December because of the sudden death last weekend of the chief auditor.

The district must also prepare a plan to turn over management of Haycox next year if federal goals aren't achieved.

That could be done by contracting out, reopening as a charter school, a state takeover or replacing all or most of the staff.

"We haven't decided on anything yet," Dannenberg said.

State officials revealed in August that Oxnard Union High School District was the only district in the county, and one of just 18 in California, to be placed on a watch list for failing to meet the federal academic standards two years in a row.

The six major high schools in the 16,000-student Oxnard district showed sharp improvement in language and math tests this year.

Two campuses ranked first and second in Ventura County for progress among secondary schools.

But the Oxnard district, which serves mostly Latino students, one-quarter of whom speak limited English, failed to meet the minimum standard in one of 46 areas used to determine adequate progress.

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