Families Flee School's Sinking Scores
Ohanian Comment: Here is a close-up look at how a school serving a diverse population is ruined by the numbers game--labels sent out from the state and from NCLB.
Oak Grove Middle School has low state test scores, and for many parents -- and teachers -- that's all they need to know.
It doesn't matter that the Concord school once was honored as a California Distinguished School and has classes for gifted and talented students, a state-of-the-art technology program and even a psychologist on campus to support the kids.
What matters is that widely publicized state test scores and the federal No Child Left Behind Act have labeled the school underperforming, giving parents a reason to leave. Enrollment has dropped from 915 last year to 750, and the parents of another 180 students have requested transfers by next fall. The act also has figured in the loss of 40 teachers in recent years, Principal Lorie O'Brien said.
"The court of public opinion has not served us well," she said. "When these labels first became part of our lives, a tremendous amount of (my) time went into being a counselor. It took a lot for people to come to terms with that."
The flight of well-prepared students from once-well-regarded schools such as Oak Grove is happening across the nation as a consequence of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, educators said. The schools fail to meet state and federal accountability standards often because they're struggling to teach low-scoring students who are learning English after immigrating to the United States, said Jack Jennings with the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., which has studied the effects of the federal law.
Jennings and other education experts say that as the schools' test scores spiral downward, it's not uncommon for the more educated families to pull their kids out, increasing the percentage of low-scoring students and making it even more difficult to raise the scores. As a result, the schools -- which range from suburban ones such as Oak Grove to urban campuses -- lose per-pupil funding and the benefits of parents with the time and resources to get involved. Education experts say that while No Child Left Behind has benefits, such as English learners getting more attention than ever before, schools get labels that are hard to shake.
"(At) schools that are so labeled, sometimes teachers feel they're being blamed unfairly and sometimes teachers are looking for ways to leave," Jennings said. "Sometimes the better-educated parents take advantage of the school choice option."
Oak Grove has always had a mix of students from blue- and white-collar families who live in Concord and more affluent Walnut Creek. In 1996, the state named it a California Distinguished School for its exemplary teaching and high standards.
But in the seven years since the first of the state's new test scores -- which the federal law uses to gauge a school's performance -- the school has seen a marked shift in its demographics: the Hispanic population -- which is largely from the Monument Boulevard area in Concord -- has jumped from 27 to 52 percent, while the white population has dropped from 57 to 30 percent, according to the state Department of Education.
One parent who pulled her son from Oak Grove and sent him to Sequoia Middle School in Pleasant Hill called it "The Great White Flight."
Kristy Caldwell's two children, who attend the high-performing Bancroft Elementary in Walnut Creek, would attend Oak Grove, and that deeply concerns her.
"I'm not prejudiced, (but) the school became English-as-a-second-language," she said. "You would be taking my kids from a great environment to a ghetto environment where they're struggling with other needs ... The test scores at Oak Grove are terrible."
Oak Grove scored 611 on its state Academic Performance Index on a scale of 200 to 1,000, with 800 being excellent. Under No Child Left Behind, four of two-dozen subgroups failed to meet standards in math and English last year: Hispanic students, English learners, students from poor homes and students with disabilities.
When California's new accountability program test scores were first made public in 1998, parents began gradually transferring their students to other schools in the district, which has an open-enrollment policy.
After that, Oak Grove failed to meet No Child Left Behind standards two years in a row and this year became a "Program Improvement" school. That's when enrollment plunged.
And then there are, by numerous accounts, the many parents who put their children into private schools or move. Walnut Creek parent Roxy Wolsenko decided to educate her children privately to avoid Oak Grove.
"I understand they don't want people to leave, because it's going to exacerbate what's already a bad situation; and on the other hand, as a parent you want to do the absolute best for your child."
One of the biggest problems educators see with the federal legislation is that it expects students still learning English to achieve at the same level as everyone else. Some Oak Grove students are recent immigrants with just three or four years of formal education.
The school, O'Brien said, has made progress in raising the achievement of those students.
"We know the stigma it puts on the school," she said of the test scores. "We would like the children to achieve at a level that those labels go away."
Several teachers didn't know how to teach reading because that is something generally taught at elementary school, but they began intensive training. State and federal accountability mandates have prompted the school to use a new language arts curriculum and provide students who failed to meet standards with intensive reading and math support in lieu of their electives.
Teachers have learned new ways of teaching English learners, who make up 41 percent of Oak Grove's student population. In a lesson on prepositional phrases, Kristy Warren uses an overhead projector to move a picture of a dog around a dog house.
"Using a prepositional phrase, tell me about this dog," she says to students who describe it as near the house and above it.
Warren, who says she loves teaching at Oak Grove, believes it's easier for English learners to catch on with the visual prompts than simply reading a paragraph and answering questions. O'Brien has asked parents who are concerned about Oak Grove to visit and sit in on classes.
"I say, 'Come on down. Make a decision based on knowledge you have firsthand rather than what you heard at the supermarket,' " she said. "They very rarely take me up on it."
Parent Anna Menchaca, who lives in the Monument Boulevard area, strongly supports the school.
"I think the teachers are very good -- they really care about the students that go to the school," she said through her 13-year-old daughter Gabriela, who translated for her. Menchaca thinks it's rash of parents to pull their children out. "I don't think they're giving the teachers a chance."
Besides the low scores, persistent rumors circulate that Oak Grove has a problem with fights. Some parents have warned others not to go on campus alone. But teachers insist it's no different from any other school and that the demographic changes, test-score labels and rumors have unfairly conspired against the school.
Teacher Michelle Dudum blames ignorance and racism for some of it. The negative talk about Oak Grove is so pervasive that she asked her students to list why people should or shouldn't go to Oak Grove and then went about trying to debunk some of the myths.
"Who is going to bring the community back to the school if we're not proud of it?" she asked.
Julian Morris, 14, overheard her and said his mother told him the school has low state test scores, and then he uttered a phrase that teachers and administrators are loathe to hear and trying to change.
"She knows it's the worst education in the district," he said.
E-mail Carrie Sturrock at firstname.lastname@example.org.
San Francisco Chronicle
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