SUNSET PARK — Parents gathered at Will Rogers Thursday night to hear Principal Steven Richardson dispel their fears about news that their chosen elementary school had failed to meet requirements set forth by the federal government for school funding.

The answer was plain. The benchmarks required to get those federal dollars are set to rise between 10 and 11 percent every year, a pace that almost two-thirds of federally-funded schools in the state have not been able to match.

“The goal changed between 10 and 11 percent, which is enormous growth,” Richardson said.

So enormous that 63 percent of schools that receive those funds couldn’t meet the demands. That number is projected to hit 80 percent next year.

Scores released by the California Department of Education on Wednesday showed that Will Rogers, and nine other schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, fell short of federal requirements under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NLCB) passed by the Bush administration to increase accountability for schools that receive federal funding under a program called Title 1.

Only four schools in the district receive those funds and therefore are affected by those test results, including Edison Language Academy and Will Rogers, McKinley and John Muir elementary schools.

NCLB requires Title 1 schools and districts, and all the distinct ethnic and socio-economic populations within the schools, to meet ever-climbing expectations. The ultimate goal is for all students to reach proficiency by 2014, regardless of background.

That includes students whose first language is not English, and students with learning disabilities.

Each state gets to define “proficiency.” That flexibility has a strong impact on how many schools and districts met those proficiency requirements, according to a study conducted by the Rand Corp. in 2007.

California sets one of the highest bars in the country, said Dr. Jose Escarce, chair of the district’s Board of Education.

“Other states have defined away the problem,” Escarce said.

While none of the four Title 1 schools passed muster, this was the second time that Will Rogers didn’t make its Annual Yearly Progress, or AYP, which sent it into a status called “progress improvement.” That status requires the school to inform parents of the change and pay for transportation to a non-PI school in the district if parents decide to enroll their kids at another campus.

Will Rogers joined 3,892 of California’s 6,157 Title 1 schools in that category, and will now be setting aside 5 percent to 10 percent of the federal money it receives for transportation costs.

The district already uses Title 1 money for teacher development and training, and parents have always had the ability to move their child into a different school within the district through the open enrollment policy, said Superintendent Sandra Lyon.

Whether parents will want to move their children from Will Rogers, and put scarce Title 1 dollars on the line in the process, is the question at hand.

Maria Franco wasn’t sure. This is the first time she’s put a child through school, and she’s new to the process.

When she first learned of the school’s PI status on the second day of classes, she felt hoodwinked by the district, as though it had been withholding the information from her.

“There were so many other parents here at Kindergarten Roundup, and I don’t see those parents,” she said. “Then I heard about the scores and put two and two together.”

But here’s the catch. Under the No Child Left Behind act, or NCLB, schools are judged based on certain criteria that they fill. A school like Roosevelt Elementary, also in the district, must only fulfill nine of those criteria.

Fail in even one category and you fail overall, which assigns the school a scarlet letter.

Will Rogers, on the other hand, must meet all 25 criteria, in part because of the diversity that attracts parents like John Sencio.

“It may sound cliché, but the diversity is strength,” Sencio said.

And diversity it has.

Will Rogers has significant populations of African-American and Latino students, as well as socio-economically disadvantaged students, those still learning English and students with disabilities.

Despite the challenges of demographics, Will Rogers has exceeded California state standards since 2008, after missing by just one point in 2007.

The accountability index that California adopted is called the Academic Performance Index, or API. It’s a flexible standard that assigns points to districts based on the number of students that achieve higher levels of performance.

Therefore a student that was not proficient one year, but jumped to proficient earns a district more points than one who began proficient and jumped to the advanced level.

“It’s not about how many have reached proficient, but about moving kids from low performing bands to proficiency,” Richardson said.

To that end, the staff and teachers at Will Rogers focus their time and energy on doing intensive literacy training with students, pairing them with kids of a similar reading level and then assigning more teachers to the struggling groups than the ones already excelling.

They use a program called STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math, to teach difficult concepts through projects, and get kids excited about the subject.

Finally, Will Rogers has a curriculum that includes emotion-based learning, which helps young kids learn the social underpinnings of being in a classroom or group environment.

The school will continue with those programs, and will not embrace a teach-to-the-test model to pander for federal money, Richardson said.

The evening’s frank conversation helped put many parents’ minds at ease.

“My main concern is that my son needs to keep climbing up,” Franco said. “After hearing what Steve said, they take the approach that moves you around to make you excel.”

Administrators assured parents that the district will stand behind Will Rogers, and give it all the institutional support it needs to overcome the challenges put before it by the federal government.

“If you liked this school yesterday, it’s still the same school,” Escarce said. “It’s just a label.”

There will be two more meetings for parents who want to see the numbers themselves. Those will be held on Sept. 14 and 21.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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