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44 Ways for the Feds to Call You a Failure

There are 44 ways to miss the federal government's new Adequate Yearly Progress mark, making the consequences of failure, which seemed so far off under the state's longer-term accountability plan, suddenly feel much more real.

Thirty-five schools in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties are in the fifth year of the federal government's aggressive seven-year school improvement plan, which incorporates the sanction process that was already in place at the state level.

If these and other struggling California schools continue to founder over the next two years -- either academically or by not testing the mandated number of students -- they face state takeover or a forced conversion to charter school status.

This severe set of consequences has earned mixed reviews among educators. Some laud the AYP's school improvement plan for promoting a quick turn-around for troubled schools.

"These are not sanctions," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, a key player in the No Child Left Behind law that created the AYP. "These are efforts to try to provide the tools for these schools to improve."

Others see the short time frame for change, combined with a system that labels schools inadequate if they miss only one of the 44 targets, as little more than a fast track to failure.

"There are many who say the entire progression is designed as a move toward privatization and vouchers," said Toni Oklan-Arko, head of state and federal programs for the Richmond-based West Contra Costa school district.

"I've seen predictions that by 2013 (or) 2014, all Title I schools will be in Program Improvement and taken over (by the state). Something's got to give."

Adequate Yearly Progress, a key piece of the No Child Left Behind legislation signed by President Bush in 2002, is designed to push schools, especially chronically under-performing ones, to do better. The law asked states to develop accountability systems that would ensure that all schools meet AYP targets in English and math.

In California, the AYP is based in large part on the California Standards Test that students already take each spring known as the STAR test. Using that test and other measures, the AYP acts as a bar that schools must hurdle in order to avoid federally-mandated intervention. The bar starts low and is steadily ratcheted up until 2014, when the federal law requires that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and English.

Schools that do not meet their AYP targets two years in a row are placed in the state's Program Improvement category. These schools are required to implement a barrage of federal improvement measures while also working to boost student achievement on the state tests.

One often-missed aspect of the federal sanctions is that they apply only to schools that receive federal "Title I" funds because some of their students come from very-low-income families.

About one-third of the schools in this region receive Title I money. But most educators, including those at non-Title I schools, feel that receiving a pass or fail mark on the AYP is a benchmark they can't ignore.

As the consequences of failure mount, many schools are ramping up reform efforts that began long before the AYP surfaced.

Central Jr. High in Pittsburg is one example. The school, now in the fifth year of the AYP sanctions timeline, is one of the lowest-performing in the 9,500-student Pittsburg district.

While teachers here say they are too focused on the immediate task of boosting student performance to worry about a possible state take-over, their principal isn't so cavalier.

Fully aware that his and his staff's jobs are on the line if the school doesn't improve, Principal Tim Galli has instituted a series of reforms designed to bring his campus up to par.

Galli recently signed a contract with Stanford to provide electronic support for students in math and English. He also has trained teachers in what is known as "differentiated instruction" to help them teach students with varying abilities, and has authorized more than $1 million in grant and other funds to pay for new programs designed to boost student achievement.

Perhaps the biggest changes, at least for Central's 1,165 students, are the 90-minute math and English intervention classes that debuted this year.

The courses are designed to bring students scoring below the 40th percentile up quickly to grade level. With already-jammed class schedules, the intervention classes have left hundreds of Central students without room for social studies or science classes.

Twelve-year-old Ninnette Alfaro is one of them.

Ninnette took the California Standards Test last spring very seriously.

"I was so nervous," she said. "I was really scared. I'd be literally shaking. I didn't think I would do very well."

Months later, when Ninnette's scores came in the mail, her fears were realized.

"I saw my results," she said. "I felt bad because my language was really low. That's why I have three language classes."

And that's why Ninnette, who plays in the school band, does not have science or social studies.

Ninnette's English intervention teacher, Mary Robillard, said the courses are working -- on balance.

"I'm a social studies teacher so I personally don't like the idea of them not having those classes," Robillard said. "I understand the reason why, but it's hard. They're overwhelmed with the amount of reading they have to do. It's a lot of work, but I think it's going to benefit them."

Principals called the concentration on only two core subjects unavoidable.

"They've forced us to focus on math and English," Galli said. "So there are students who don't get science or social studies.

"But here's the equation. You can do math without knowing science. You can't do science without knowing math. And you can do English Language Arts without knowing social studies. But you can't learn social studies if you can't read."

While schools struggle to understand and live up to AYP targets, it is the needs of students, particularly those at under-performing schools, that Russlynn Ali points to when asked about the feasibility of the tough new federal standards. Predictions of mass public school failure are nothing more than "fatalistic," said Ali, director of Ed Trust West, an education think-tank based in Washington, D.C.

"I just feel like, for the first time in federal history we're talking about all kids learning, and to say that it's going to set the system up to fail in my opinion is to say that all kids can't (learn)," she said. "We need to try."

— Kara J. Shire
Sword of accountability hangs over struggling schools
Contra Costa Times


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