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Education Desk: June 3, 2015

Scott Lane Elementary: Signs of Academic Turnaround

Santa Clara Unified’s Scott Lane Elementary School has the district’s highest number of at-risk student, highest number of English Language Learners (89 percent), highest population of migrant workers’ children and highest number of students coming from low-income families (81 percent).

The school is also in what the state calls “Program Improvement (PI) Year 4.” Schools enter the PI category when they don’t reach the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. SCUSD has seven schools in PI, according to the California Department of Education website. The state didn’t calculate AYP scores last year, simply leaving PI placement at the 2013 level. Scott Lane has been in PI since the 2009-10 school year.

PI has five levels of increasing intervention that culminate in forcing the district to completely reorganize the school.

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PI is costly for districts. Once a school goes into PI, there’s more district oversight, additional peer reviews, and more required teacher training. Parents also get to enroll their children in non-PI schools, with the district paying the bill for transportation, as well as any supplemental tutoring needed.

Years one and two are “school improvement” and include a two-year plan for getting back on track and additional teacher training. Year three is “corrective action,” and schools are expected to replace staff, implement a new curriculum, move management authority to the district, appoint outside experts, extend the school year or day, or reorganize the school.

Year four is “Prepare plan for alternative governance” of the school – reopening school as a charter, replacing all or most staff including the principal, and contracting with an outside entity to manage school, or another form of reorganization. Year five is simple: “Implement alternative governance plan developed in Year 4.”

The private non-profit Innovate Public Schools – a private organization funded the Silicon Valley Foundation and Walton family (Walmart) – is providing a full-time assistant principal dedicated to the turnaround. (IPS’s Executive Director, Matt Hammer was Executive Director of People Acting In Community Together, which created the ACE charter school chain. The San Jose ACE school, started in 2012, recorded a 30-point drop in API scores during its first year of operation.)

At the May 14 SCUSD board meeting, Scott Lane Principal Melissa Alatorre provided an update, saying the proficiency levels of Scott Lane students have significantly according to district assessments, including the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) standard tests. For example, district math benchmarks based on the Common Core State Standards. Scott Lane’s fourth graders performed 4 to 13 percent better than SCUSD averages in all but one evaluation.

School “Turnaround” About Student Learning, Not Latest Teaching Methods

Educators have been talking for 30 years about how to turnaround schools that aren’t making the grade academically. The latest idea is “data-driven decision-making” which translates into demands for all kinds of numbers – multiplying achievement tests, data walls, progress charts, and the focus on the ever-increasing Average Yearly Progress (AYP) targets and the real estate-inflating Academic Performance Index (API). This year, there’s plenty of education jargon that accompanies this effort, such as “strategies that utilize scientifically-based research,” “promoting effective parental involvement,” and “high quality professional development.”

But more numbers and more jargon don’t mean more learning. Few schools have made a comeback from the damning designation “failing school;” especially those with large proportions of students who aren’t fluent in English and come from backgrounds of poverty.

In 2007 the S.H. Cowell Foundation sponsored a study of one school that did change course, “Turning Around a High-Poverty School District: Learning from Sanger Unified’s Success.” Located in the Central Valley, more than 70 percent of Sanger’s 11,000 students were low-income, and 22 percent weren’t fluent in English. Between 2004 and 2009 the district went from being significantly below state proficiency averages to being significantly above them.

After studying Sanger, authors Jane David and Joan Talbert wrote that most people “are looking for answers in the wrong places … What program or restructuring design or support provider can they use to replicate Sanger’s success?” The answer, they report, is changing the question from “how and what are you teaching” to “how and what are students learning.”

“…Across the system, decisions would no longer be based on routines, assumptions or compliance with external mandates, but instead on evidence of student learning,” David and Talbert reported. “This meant that adult needs and comfort with the status quo would no longer be valid criteria or concerns for district or school policy and would be replaced by using evidence to select and refine strategies leading to improvement.

“Typically districts introduce reforms by adopting new programs or best practices that are focused on what the adults do,” they continued. “Central office staff stay within the functions of their divisions, school administrators press teachers to implement the new programs and teachers accommodate new practices to varying degrees.”

Instead of imposing new teaching methods, Sanger implemented a flexible system, with interventions for students according to need. The district also fostered collaboration, where principals and teachers spend time in one another’s schools and classrooms, observing and learning from each other. Sanger also took the special ed model of “response to intervention” (RTI) – graduated interventions for different levels of students – and used it for all students.

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