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The Face of Failure

How do schools measure success when the floor for failure keeps moving up? Patch's series on Program Improvement in the San Lorenzo Unified School District begins today.

For Colonial Acres Elementary School, it was a slap in the face. But then, year four is always hard. 

Last September, despite exceeding its state accountability target and scoring major academic gains among its many English learners, Colonial Acres fell into year four of Program Improvement, a federal designation for failing schools.  

That month, while celebrating their 28-point jump on California's Academic Performance Index (API)—the largest of any district school except Arroyo High—parents and teachers were presented with a list of options for what's known as alternative governance, an intervention meant to reverse failing practices at persistently underperforming schools.

The options read like the choices on the battery of standardized tests that had made Colonial Acres a success in the state's eyes even as it failed under federal ones. 

Please Choose One of the Following:

a) replace all or most of school staff; b) surrender the school to a private management company; c) convert the school into a charter; d) other.  

Parents shook their heads. It didn't make sense. 

"I don’t know that they really know what to believe," said Barbara DeBarger, the district's director of elementary education. "But the way I approached it with them is that every school needs to improve in different ways."

As a district, San Lorenzo Unified is in its third year of program improvement, among 341 districts in California the federal government has deemed failures. More than half of its eligible schools now find themselves somewhere on the PI timeline. Three—Hillside Elementary School, Edendale Middle School and Colonial Acres—are already in alternative governance. 

They're not alone. More than half of California's 6,142 Title I schools are failing, and a steep incline in required improvements each year guarantee that number will balloon. (The name comes from Title I, Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged, of the 1965 federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.)

"To me, the issue of Program Improvement is getting a little ridiculous, in terms of how fast schools are failing versus whether they're actually failing," DeBarger said. "Colonial Acres is an example of that."

All this week, San Lorenzo Patch will explore what the federal government means when it says local schools are failing, and what that failure looks like from a variety of perspectives, including parents, teachers and administrators at all three of the district's most persistently underperforming schools.

But first, it helps to know a little history.  

Program Improvement is one of many education reforms begun under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. At the heart of that reform were standardized tests, meant to measure nationwide student performance—and therefore school performance—on a uniform scale.

"Truthfully, all of the reforms behind No Child Left Behind are good solid research-based things that should be happening," DeBarger said. "We've seen tremendous improvements in our schools as a result of No Child Left Behind."

The problem for San Lorenzo, as for many similar districts, has been continuing to improve at the rate required under federal guidlines. 

Anyone who followed the subprime mortgage crisis will find this next bit familiar: Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the government's metric for improvement, increased gently by a few percentage points a year until 2006, when expected improvments suddenly accelerated to about ten percent anually.

 By 2014, 100 percent of students must test "proficient" in all subjects. 

"It’s an impossible goal," said Colonial Acres Principal Linda Santillan. "If you put 100 people in a room, 100 percent of them will not be able to do long division."

The difficulty for educators like Santillan is that public schools with few disadvantaged students can more or less blow their AYPs in perpetuity. Only schools like hers that receive Title I funding are beholden to the rules. 

Established in 1965, Title I was meant to level the playing field for schools in poor neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of students came from low-income homes. 

But, particularly in California, Title I schools are also the most likely to serve large numbers of English learners, face high rates of transiency (students who move in and out of the school during the year) and lose swaths of their young staffs to what have now become annual layoffs—none of which is captured in the metric. 

That's precisely the problem San Lorenzo's most persistently underperforming schools face.  

Edendale and Hillside each lose roughly half of their teachers to layoffs every year. Months of expensive specialized training—much of it mandated by Program Improvement—walks out the door with them. 

Colonial Acres has been fortunate to duck most of the layoffs, but large numbers of English learners, high poverty, and a population heavily impacted by the recession make improving student performance intensely difficult. And yet, they do it—just not well enough. 

 "What’s the point of telling Colonial Acres when they’ve made 28 poiints on the API that they stink?" DeBarger said. "The rules don't match the intent any more."

Thomas Clarke May 11, 2011 at 09:33 PM
Good to see that the state is finally dealing with the issues at Colonial Acres, especially after the ridiculous actions of some of the teachers at the Food Court at Bay Fair. Clean up your school district. Grow some accountability.
Rebecca Olivera May 17, 2011 at 05:16 AM
Accountability must begin at the top. Colonial Acres saw 15 years straight of Olivera brothers. I never had an issue I couldn't resolve with a teacher or administrator. The staff knows my family by name and have become friends to us. Each teacher my child had made themselves available not only to my children but to my family. Each teacher I have interacted with at this school has taken their job as educators seriously and held their students in high regard despite the circumstance they face. 4 sons, 15 years straight, a cumulative of 24 years worth of Colonial Acres teaching my family. My two oldest sons are in college in Tennessee. My third son, who ran for student council at Colonial Acres 7 years ago, is student body president at Arroyo. My fourth son is a well adjusted middle school tween who still talks about his experience with some of the best teachers he has ever had at Colonial Acres. Low income school? Sure. Disadvantaged? Absolutely. Failure? No!
Lisa Dones May 18, 2011 at 03:58 AM
Reading this article brought me to tears. I attended Colonial Acres as did my siblings and more recently my two children. We all had wonderful experiences both socially and academically. The environment was nothing short of wonderful. The teaching staff always put learning first and provided every opportunity for success. The expectations put upon our schools to provide impressive test scores is unreasonable. To use the word failure in the same article as Colonial Acres is simply unacceptable.

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