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NCLB Outrages

High School District Board Faces Music and Prepares for Sanctions

The federal No Child Left Behind Act is now the elephant in the room for the Sequoia Union High School District.

While poor academic performance among certain subgroups of students has long been a concern in the district, the NCLB act is forcing it to the top of the list with requirements for a remedial education regime intended to quickly elevate the abilities of students with average or less-than-average scores on standardized tests.

At its January 12 meeting, the district's five-member Board of Trustees unanimously accepted the recommendations of an advisory team representing the state Department of Education. The team's report, based on a district survey, details remedial steps for teachers, students and administrators, steps that echo federal sanctions expected to take effect in September.

For the 2004-05 school year in a district with a budget of about $75 million, the report puts the cost of the remedial efforts at about $900,000, including $562,000 for new textbooks. The books -- designed for a range of abilities -- will be used in advanced-standing and advanced-placement classes, but teachers will be free to use supplemental material.

The impending sanctions for the Sequoia district were triggered when 40 sophomores failed to show up for the high school exit exam last spring.

The remedial steps will restructure the daily curriculum of about 45 percent -- 3,500 students -- of the 7,959 students in the district, said assistant superintendent Francisca Miranda. Students who scored in the bottom three categories of a five-category scale on standardized tests will see their school days altered.

The Almanac's previous estimate of 1,200 affected students was based on preliminary information.
Academic challenges

The impact will fall most heavily upon students who receive free or reduced-price lunches and/or whose parents did not graduate from high school, students with learning disabilities, and students whose primary language is not English. They'll have to forgo some elective classes.

"There is some very serious work that has to be done," said Mary Camezon, who heads the advisory team and is a director of secondary school reform at the California Institute on Human Services at Sonoma State University. "There is a group of students who are seriously under-performing," said Ms. Camezon. "We have to draw a line somewhere and say 'No more.'"

The new classes will augment ongoing remedial efforts, said Ms. Miranda, adding: "It will mean a delay, a bit of a delay, to get them to grade-level reading, to grade-level algebra 1, and then they'll have access to the core curriculum."

Recognizing that reading and algebra are middle-school classes and that the Sequoia district has had to respond to a wide range of student preparedness, Ms. Camezon said the district still "has not fully addressed this issue" and needs to build a system based on principles of educating all students.

"It must be a concentrated, systematic, focused effort across the district," said Ms. Camezon, who taught English for 30 years. "The (education) principles need to be living and breathing in these schools."

Close attention to assessment data and the use of proven research will be key, she added.

Students with reading problems will attend intense remedial classes. Pre-algebra and beginning algebra classes will be terminated, with those students assigned to mainstream algebra-1 classes and a mandatory algebra-support class.

Finally, the district must focus on getting all teachers working from the same playbook, particularly when working with under-achieving, struggling and limited-English-speaking students.

"Thanks for really zeroing in on this really, really serious problem that we have," said Trustee Olivia Martinez. "I think we have been compassionate enablers. We've kind of let go of student accountability. ... The responsibility is really going to be for our students to jump on board or they're going to get left behind."

District teachers appear to be responding cooperatively, with reservations.

"There is concern among the teaching ranks that those providing instructional services are simply left to administer decisions made by others," said teachers' union president Mike Radoye.

But federal law leaves the state and the schools few alternatives. "The choices are in how well we implement, how quickly we move on," said Ms. Camezon.

As the plan unfolds, teachers want "full, accurate and honest" communication, participation in the process, authority to use professional judgment, and negotiations over new working conditions, said Mr. Radoye.

Plans to eliminate pre-algebra and beginning algebra courses were singled out for repeated questioning and reassurance by Mr. Radoye and others. "It strikes me as one size fits all," said school board president Gordon Lewin.

But the advisory team repeatedly cited research showing it to be effective, including an example in which a 50-percent pass rate became an 85-percent pass rate.

Asked by student trustee Kelly Wright about the consequences of mixing unprepared and prepared students in the same algebra classes, Ms. Camezon responded: "I believe that is a challenge that math teachers would rise to. Those problems become an opportunity to improve delivery for all kids."

— David Boyce
The Almanac


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