Santa Barbara News-Press, 10/10/04
MAKING the GRADE
By ROB KUZNIA, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
In Santa Barbara and across the state, the number of underperforming schools targeted for sanctions is growing; critics say the law hurts low-income students and may lead to segregation
In a harbinger of what may happen to more South Coast schools, La Cumbre Junior High School is facing the steepest penalties to date from the federal government because of low test scores.
The Santa Barbara school this year must provide nearly all of its students $900 worth of individual tutoring. It also must hold a "fair" where parents this fall can interview a panel of potential private tutors.
This is the second year La Cumbre -- whose students are overwhelmingly poor and Latino -- has been on the list of sanctioned schools. That means officials must do again what they had to do last year: mail a letter informing parents they can send their children to a higher performing school. Since last year's letter, the school's enrollment has dropped by 130 students, to 430.
Two other local schools are expected soon to join La Cumbre as the only South Coast school on the so-called Program Improvement list under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Statewide, the number of schools on the list is growing, prompting a rising chorus of critics who say the law will lead to an unmanageable number being sanctioned.
But others point out that the schools targeted in Santa Barbara are the ones making the biggest gains academically.
"It is the other side of the coin," said Carol Johansen, assistant superintendent for educational services at the Santa Barbara County Office of Education.
"(Some say) we're not paying enough attention to the children who are not getting the (best) teachers and best academic programs because the area is poor, so yes we should sanction (those schools).
"It's a complex issue."
Low-income schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" for two consecutive years are put on the Program Improvement list and face sanctions. McKinley Elementary in Santa Barbara and Isla Vista Elementary in Goleta are expected to make the list when the state releases it on Oct. 13.
Santa Barbara Junior High School's fate is unclear; school officials insist it was wrongly pegged for failing to make adequate yearly progress. In Carpinteria, no schools are expected to be on the Program Improvement list.
Goleta Valley Junior High has "one strike" against it.
The South Coast's two new Program Improvement schools would be subject only to the first-year penalties, which include telling parents about their right to transfer. The district must pay the transportation costs of those students. The schools also must draft a two-year plan within three months that details how they will improve scores.
The goal is to have 100 percent of the nation's students scoring "proficient" or higher on a battery of tests by 2014.
Every state has a different level of proficiency; California's is relatively high. To meet proficiency targets, schools must make "adequate yearly progress" on tests. Last year, for instance, that meant that at least 13.6 percent of the elementary students had to score proficient or better in English language arts. This year, the bar for that category rises to about 24.4 percent, and it will generally keep increasing until the 2014-15 school year. Other categories require similar increases.
As the length of time on the Program Improvement list increases, so does the severity of the sanctions. After the third year on the list, a school faces a possible loss of management authority and extension of the school day. A fourth-year school can lose all of its staff.
Critics -- such as state schools chief Jack O'Connell -- say the law will lead to too many sanctioned schools, and even segregation as higher-achieving students flock to higher-performing schools.
"Who do you think (leaves)?" Santa Barbara school board member Bob Noel said. "Think it's the kids at the bottom who are struggling to learn English? They don't. The kids who go are the high achievers.
"No Child Left Behind turns out to be very discriminatory," he added. "It is hurting kids of color."
La Cumbre's demographics appear to support his view. Since being cited as a Program Improvement school last year, the proportion of low-income students increased from 58 percent to 67 percent, indicating that the more affluent students are leaving or avoiding the school.
Mr. Noel pointed out that the federal sanctions apply only to schools that receive federal funds for having a large number of "low-income" students. Schools such as the K-8 Santa Barbara Charter School, which did not make adequate yearly progress this year, cannot face sanctions.
The legislation is beginning to strain the Santa Barbara district's budget: The La Cumbre tutoring alone will cost the district approximately $255,000 -- which is on top of an additional $350,000 the district is spending on the school related to the first round of No Child Left Behind sanctions.
The Goleta School Board is also feeling it. On Wednesday night, after a lengthy discussion about No Child Left Behind and disadvantaged students, the board authorized hiring an additional certified teacher for each of the district's five schools that receive federal funds for low-income students. The action will cost an estimated $260,000.
Santa Barbara interim Superintendent Brian Sarvis calls the act poor legislation. "The goals are good -- every student learns -- but it unfairly identifies schools as failures based on its own inadequate rules."
Mr. Sarvis said the legislation is flawed because there are so many "failure points."
To avoid failure, various student subgroups, among them students with disabilities, the poor, English-language learners and Latinos, must clear the hurdle. First, 95 percent of the students in each subgroup must be tested. Then, enough students in each subgroup must be proficient in both English and math.
McKinley failed because 56 students with disabilities did not meet the math and English language benchmarks.
"It's demoralizing to the entire school community, whether it's staff or parents," Mr. Sarvis said.
Goleta Superintendent Ida Rickborn struck a similar tone, saying the manner in which the law attempts to achieve an otherwise laudable goal can be "a detriment to education."
"We're looking at a fairly narrow indicator of whether children are learning or not," she said. "We're not taking into consideration the starting point for that individual child."
But some officials say it's time to get used to the law.
"I don't see anything flagging as far as the sanctions," said Ms. Johansen, the assistant superintendent at the Santa Barbara County Office of Education. "I see the state (and federal government) marching on. Personally, I agree with the bill, but it is moving very fast. It's not easy. . . . (But) you have to keep the eye on that prize (of proficiency for all.)"
The area's schools struggling the most -- especially the ones getting sanctioned -- are making significant gains.
McKinley in Santa Barbara posted the highest gain in the district, raising its Academic Performance Index by 69 points, to 666. La Cumbre Junior High posted the second-highest gain among the seven regular schools at the Santa Barbara secondary district -- though its API, at 651, is still the lowest. It improved by 40 points. In Goleta, Isla Vista has made substantial gains in two years, raising its API by 50 points, to 679.
Some officials lament that the sanctioned schools get no kudos for improvement.
"If we are moving kids toward proficiency -- if we are bringing them up from 'far below basic' to 'basic' -- we're not leaving them behind," Goleta school board member Jane Rudolph said.
Indeed, Mr. O'Connell has criticized the legislation on those grounds.
In a letter to Education Secretary Rod Paige last spring, he wrote: "Schools will be (sanctioned) despite having shown steady and significant improvement for all groups of students."
He has advocated using "growth models" to measure progress, in which schools can avoid the penalties if they progress, even if they fall short of the federal goal of academic proficiency for all students by 2014. That plea has not been answered.
Meanwhile, the accountability model is leading to significant curriculum changes locally.
At Isla Vista last week, parents and faculty bandied about ideas such as Saturday school for some kids and "leveling," in which entire grades of students would break up into groups based on ability in certain subjects.
Though the idea was supported by most of the parents, it was challenged by teacher Oranne Lee.
McKinley Elementary is already leveling -- and taking it one step further. Students are being put into groups that overlap grades for two hours a day. In some cases, fourth-graders and sixth-graders are learning together.
"We were convinced it was going to work, and it did," said Principal Juanita Carney, referring to the large gains the school made on test scores.
Ms. Carney instituted the curriculum changes last year, when it became apparent the school might face federal sanctions. The reform included replacing phonics-based instruction with a more interactive set where children "play with words."
When learning, for example, the word "aggravation," Ms. Carney said, students not only say the word and read a definition, but also look at pictures of people who are annoyed or upset, and discuss hypothetical situations.
Ms. Carney said she hopes parents choose to stick around.
"The label is the label, and we will deal with it, but we want people to know that it is not a reflection on what's not happening at McKinley School, because so much is happening," she said. "But that is hard to understand."
La Cumbre parent Joan Stuster said the school has provided her daughter top-notch instruction.
"My daughter is in both the (Gifted and Talented Education) program and the (Advanced Placement) college-bound program," she said. "Every one of her teachers is excellent. . . . I feel good."
At Isla Vista, though a couple parents have already pulled their children out, PTA member Steve Crusinberry said most parents are committed to staying.
"The school's come a long way," he said, referring to the recent growth it has made in not only test scores, but also PTA participation and fund raising.
Parent Carol Dodero has sent parents a mass e-mail encouraging them to stay.
"The school will never become what it is they fear unless they leave," she said, referring to the "white flight" that has happened at La Cumbre. Because of its proximity to the UCSB campus -- home to visiting professors from around the world -- Isla Vista elementary is by far the South County's most diverse public school.
"My three children are adopted, and are of different races," she added. "They love it here. . . . But if all these people in the PTA leave, then I will be feeling the fear."