Monday, September 03, 2007

A mixed report card for area schools

9 Modesto schools reach last stage of watch list

September 01, 2007

When Kelli Redman asked her second-graders to name common jobs, some of the answers she got would surprise most elementary school teachers.

Milker was one. Then came farmer, servant and SWAT team member.

Those answers aren't out of place at Chatom Elementary School, a "little country school" of nearly 500 students west of Turlock. It's common for the children, most of whom are low-income and learning English, to bounce around as their parents follow jobs at area dairy farms.

Data released Friday by the state Department of Education show Chatom and Cloverland Elementary in Oakdale were the only two Stanislaus County schools earning their way off a federal list of underperforming schools. Five Merced County schools, including El Capitan Elementary in Delhi and Elim Elementary in Hilmar, also got off the list.

In Modesto City Schools, nine elementary and junior high schools have hit the fifth year of program improvement, the last stop for the federal system. They could be forced to implement special programs and state takeover, though the latter is unlikely.

The news wasn't all bad: the state measure of improvement, also released Friday, shows most area schools making gains.

To get off the federal program improvement list, schools must meet the federal government's improvement goals for all groups of students, including English learners, ethnic group members and disabled children.

"We didn't always function as smoothly in education," said Chatom reading coach Lisa Bos. "Teachers used to do their own thing, so a kid in the same grade could get a different experience from another (student)."

The changes haven't been comfortable at Chatom, but they've made a difference this year.

Over summer break, teachers attend seminars on reading instruction and teaching English learners. For six years, they've looked at student data to see who's falling behind and use it to place children in after-school tutoring programs. Teachers formed a book club focused on education and held family literacy nights to show parents ways to help their children learn to read.

"We ensure every child keeps growing throughout the whole year," Bos said.

Being in the fifth year of program improvement is no small thing. If test results don't improve, a school can be targeted for restructuring, replacing staff or losing students to other schools.

There are nearly twice as many Modesto schools in the last stage of program improve- ment as in the rest of Stanislaus County. The negative connotation has prompted changes in the district, said Pat Portwood, who oversees elementary education.

Three years ago, the district implemented benchmark tests to gauge student growth throughout the year.

More scrutiny needed

Superintendent Arturo Flores, who began in July, applauded those changes but said more scrutiny of the scores is needed to determine which tactics are working.

"It's a really arduous task to examine every single kid in your classroom, but we have to do that just a little bit better," Flores said. "At this point, you've got to really ask yourself as a district and have that courageous conversation about 'Are these interventions the right ones?' "

Portwood said intervention teams have made three elementary school visits since the school year began in mid-July. The teams visit campuses to coach teachers on classroom strategies and help principals make schoolwide improvements.

"It's done some good things," Portwood said. "With English learners, the spotlight has been on them, and they've had good growth. Our teachers have really gotten onboard."

The federal program improvement list hardly tells the full story in Modesto. Many of the schools on the list have improved by state measurements.

The state Department of Education on Friday handed each school its Academic Performance Index, or API score, which ranges from 200 to 1,000 and is based on standardized tests students take in the spring. Each school is expected to reach a score of 800.

All but two Modesto schools showed improvement on their API score in 2007. More than half improved their API by double digits; the statewide median growth was six points.

"We've never had this much growth before," said Craig Rydquist, associate superintendent of educational services.

Raising the bar for subgroups

For the first time, the state also asked for the same level of progress from traditionally low-achieving subgroups and from the school as a whole.

In the past, Latino and black students, among others, had to make 80 percent of the progress expected of the entire school.

The state Board of Education adopted the tougher standard last year based on the recommendation of Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. He wants to close the achievement gap, which he has called the most pressing problem facing the state's schools.

O'Connell also acknowledged the confusion of having two school rating systems, one for the state and one for federal compliance.

He said he has talked to federal officials about how to change that, but nothing is likely to happen before the reauthorization of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress is expected to take up next year.

Nowhere is this conflict more evident than at Fairview Elementary in south Modesto. The school improved its state API from 678 to 700 this year. But the school must hit goals for all subgroups of students, including English learners and low-income students, to meet federal requirements.

The school missed meeting federal targets in those two groups by two students.

"What's difficult is you can be making growth, but it's easy to lose sight of that because of the system," said Susan Rich of Stanislaus County Office of Education. "The truth is, more kids are proficient than ever before."

Even at Chatom, the celebration is ex- pected to be short-lived.

In the coming school year, federal targets will rise steeply to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind. This year, about a quarter of elementary students had to be proficient in math and English to satisfy federal requirements. Next year, that benchmark rises to 35 percent.

"If we do what we did last year, it won't be enough," said Chatom Principal Chanda Rowley. "It makes it look like so many of the schools aren't good enough. I have to tell the teachers, 'You did a great job. Do that and more.' "

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