SMMUSD HDQTRS — All four district schools that receive federal money have fallen into program improvement after failing to meet federal student achievement benchmarks on California’s standardized tests for at least two years in a row.

Parents with children at McKinley Elementary, Edison Language Academy, John Muir Elementary and Will Rogers Learning Community all received letters explaining the situation, and offering to move children to other schools that have not been assigned program improvement status provided there was room available.

Of the 40 families that requested transfers, only 13 have accepted a new placement, said Maureen Bradford, director of Educational Services at the district.

The schools must also set aside 10 percent of their federal money, called Title 1 funds, for teacher development, and have to create a plan to address the shortcomings identified by the tests.

Will Rogers was the first school to reach program improvement status last year, and faces slightly different consequences. It must provide individual tutoring for students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, paid for by the district.

Families get $720 to spend on a tutor they choose out of a selection approved by the state government.

The system is part of the 2001 federal education bill No Child Left Behind. It aimed to provide accountability systems for schools and required that schools break out student achievement data for standardized math and English tests by subgroups of the population to ensure that traditionally underserved populations didn’t get “left behind.”

Each year, a higher percentage of students in every category must score “proficient” on the tests, meaning that even if a school makes it one year, there’s a higher bar for them to hit the next.

Schools with greater diversity find it more difficult to meet their annual yearly progress goals, or AYP, because they have more groups that must meet the proficiency standard.

Fail in any one category, and the school fails.

Edison, for example had 21 subgroups and 20 of them met their goals compared to Franklin Elementary, which met its AYP but had only nine subgroups.

Will Rogers met all but two of its 21 requirements, an improvement over the year before when it didn’t meet the mark in four.

John Muir and McKinley elementary schools struggled the most, meeting 14 and 13 of their 21 criteria, respectively.

By that measure, 10 of the district schools did not meet their targets, but program improvement status only bears consequences for schools that take federal money.


Taking a closer look

The administration at Edison held informational meetings for their parents explaining the testing data and program improvement process, said Lori Orum, the principal at Edison.

Edison faces a rough road when it comes to standardized testing because its dual-language immersion program doesn’t sync up with the information tested on state exams.

Children at Edison do not begin formal reading instruction in English until second grade, meaning students haven’t been taught some of the things on which they are assessed.

The administration believes it has seen success with the strategy, despite the program improvement label.

The school scored 877 as a whole on its Academic Performance Index, a composite score that looks at a variety of standardized tests, which is well above the state goal of 800, Orum said.

The school has also won four Title 1 Academic Achievement awards from the state and was designated an Honor Roll School for the last two years by California Businesses for Education Excellence.

“Still, it’s a little daunting to get a long letter saying that your child’s school is in program improvement, so it was great to be able to have those conversations again with parents,” Orum said.

The letter is heavy on facts and light on explanation, said Erin Inatsugu, the president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, which made the informational sessions held by Principal Steve Richardson helpful.

That presentation showed that Will Rogers had improved in areas that had challenged students the year before, and that the school would continue to target students in data-driven ways to make sure they’re addressing the shortfalls.

The scarlet letters of “program improvement ” haven’t changed the fundamental way that the school and its community work, Inatsugu said.

“The biggest takeaway is that if you liked who we were before the letter came out, we’re still that school, community, great teachers who care about children and meet your child where they’re at,” Inatsugu said.

SMMUSD’s Title 1 schools are not alone with the program improvement burden.

According to the State Department of Education, 71 percent the 6,209 schools that receive federal funds are in program improvement. That number is only going to get worse after the 2013-14 school year, at which point 100 percent of students are expected to be proficient.

That includes groups like English language learners that, by definition, do not test proficient, Bradford said.

The difficult road ahead has caused the state of California to request a waiver from the federal government on some of the requirements along with a number of other states pending Congress taking any action to improve the bill.

A report by the RAND Corporation released in 2010 points to several areas in which No Child Left Behind could be improved, including the creation of uniform standards of achievement.

States set their own performance goals at the outset, leaving a patchwork of requirements.

The report also pushes for more measures of student learning than simply math and English, more appropriate achievement targets and incentives for teachers to teach in low-performing schools, among others.


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