Monday, March 03, 2008

School's class shift criticized

Lawyer who blasted Johnson High's lengthy use of subs also finds fault with its solution.

By Kim Minugh | Sacramento Bee
March 1, 2008

Sacramento City Unified officials overhauled Hiram Johnson High School's master schedule in November to get rid of classes that had been taught by substitute teachers for nearly three months.

In the shuffle, at least two dozen students designated as "English-language learners" were removed from an intensive language tutoring class and placed mostly in elective classes including piano, art, French and Spanish-for-Spanish-speakers, according to the students and their records.

About half of them were moved into a landscaping class filled with developmentally disabled students.

Some of the students' English grades fell after the move, records show. Others earned lackluster or even failing grades in their new classes – except for most of the landscaping students, who said the "easy" work helped them get A's and B's.

"This school, they don't think about our education," said freshman Manuel Andrade, who was placed in an art class. "They just move us like nothing."

Associate Superintendent Mary Hardin Young said the administration worked hard to place students appropriately.

"There was never any intent – there never is an intent at any of our schools – to take kids that need some extra support and cast them aside," she said.

In November, a San Francisco attorney warned that Sacramento City Unified was violating students' rights by not giving them full-time teachers.

On Friday, John Affeldt, the lawyer with Public Advocates, said the district's solution seems to do the same thing.

"Unfortunately, the district's taken steps that seem to be satisfying what's convenient for the district instead of what is most important for kids' educational success," he said.

Affeldt was a lead attorney on the landmark Williams lawsuit, which established that California students must have access to quality materials, facilities and teachers. He said the district now appears to be violating the spirit of the law by moving kids rather than just hiring the teachers they needed.

The two dozen students who were transferred originally were in two periods of English, one a core academic class and the other a follow-up tutoring class. Such scheduling is common for students considered English-language learners.

Cyndi Swindle, interim principal at Johnson High, said she felt confident that the impacted students had other options if they needed extra support, such as tutoring after school and on Saturdays.

"It's not like we took these students and moved them somewhere else and that was it," Swindle said. "They may have gotten a class that was different, but it also applies to their diploma."

Swindle also said that campus officials are reviewing schedules of all English learners to make sure their placements are appropriate, given recent test scores.

In interviews with The Bee, several students said they showed up for school one day in November and were given new schedules. Some said they tried to have their schedule corrected – a few brought older siblings or parents in – but to no avail.

"They said it was too late for me," Cathy Truong, 14, said of her trip to the counseling office.

Others, such as Andrade, said they were afraid to ask.

"I thought I would get suspended or in trouble," he said.

Swindle said she was surprised to hear that.

"That just boggles my mind," she said. "The counseling office is always open to them."

Hardin Young said she is confident that campus administrators will begin reaching out Monday morning to any students who feel alienated by the changes.

"They take a lot of pride in supporting students and families," the associate superintendent said. "That'd be the last thing they'd want to feel is happening."

In November, several concerned teachers brought to light a teacher shortage at Johnson High that had left nearly 400 students in classes with substitute teachers. District officials attributed the situation to the last-minute departure of three teachers before the school year began and an unexpected increase in enrollment.

Officials said at the time that they had fixed the problem mostly by moving students from substitutes' classes into under-enrolled classes with permanent teachers.

For 11 students, that meant moving from a second period of English into landscaping.

Records obtained by The Bee show that the landscaping class is designated as a Regional Occupational Program – or vocational education – class. Records also show that many of the other students enrolled are developmentally disabled.

Some of the students who were transferred into the landscaping class said they did not understand the placement and that the class has been a waste of time.

"We just plant. I already know how to do that," said Jose Hernandez, 15.

"It's not really what I want to learn," said Truong. "I want to improve more on my English. I think that English is more important than landscaping."

Avnick Chand was moved out of his English tutoring class and placed into French. The semester was so far along, he said, that he felt completely lost, and ended the semester with an F. He said he is failing this semester, too.

"I don't understand what they talk about," Chand said.

Even though the new elective classes count toward graduation, Affeldt said that without a solid grasp of English, he and the other students are likely to struggle with other academic classes. And they need a solid English foundation to pass the exit exam, required for graduation, he said.

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