Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 50
Not measuring up?Recent tension between parents and teachers at Santa Maria High School sheds light on No Child Left Behind's strict standards
STORY AND PHOTOS BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
The message “S.O.S. Save Our School”—emblazoned in white on red T-shirts worn by teachers, parents, and faculty association representatives—appeared on a quarter of the crowd at a Feb. 13 school board meeting in Santa Maria. Attendees wore the shirts in response to a January KCOY 12 TV interview with Arnulfo Romero, parent of a local high schooler, in which the words “charter school” and “petition” were used.
In his interview, Romero had a message for the city: Parents are upset with the high school and the district. He said they felt their voices weren’t being heard, that they’re concerned their children were falling behind.
The report went on to say Romero had started circulating a petition to open a charter school in the district. To move forward, he needed signatures from 51 percent of the parents and guardians of Santa Maria High School’s students. KCOY reported at the time that 30 percent of the necessary names had been inked.
Thanks to California’s Parent Empowerment Law, often called the parent-trigger law and enacted in 2010, someone can trigger change at a “failing school” if he or she can show support for the effort from more than half of the school’s parents. A school is considered to be failing if it doesn’t reach federal targets set for students for two years in a row.
The other three high schools in the district are also considered to be “failing” schools, which is on par with the majority of Santa Barbara County’s schools.
The triggered change can take one of four forms: The school in question can covert to a charter; the staff and faculty can be replaced; the school’s administration can be replaced; or the school can be dissolved, its students relocated to other schools.
Romero’s effort seems to have created a new world within the district, one where students and teachers are upset with parents and nobody seems to understand what’s going on.
The hubbub started because of a school committee called Shared Decision Making. Romero served on the committee as a parent representative and said the body wouldn’t listen to him and didn’t want to make changes.
“ I worked in the process for two years and they never moved,” he told the Sun. “That’s why I dug into the trigger laws.”
Shared Decision Making formed in the early 1990s to make collaborative policy decisions for Santa Maria High School. Pioneer Valley, Righetti, and Delta high schools each have their own decision-making committee as well. Santa Maria’s is made up of seven teachers, three classified staff members, two administrators, and two parents.
For two years, Romero was part of the committee as a representative for the Santa Maria High School parent group El Cafecito, which is made up of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking parents who meet once a quarter with Principal Joe Domingues. Through those meetings, parents learn about what’s going on at the school and are able to voice concerns about their children.
Romero said that when the two parent representatives in Shared Decision Making disagreed with a decision made by the rest of the committee, or when they brought up something controversial at a committee meeting, they didn’t have enough representation to make their voices heard.
El Cafecito elected a new parent representative for this school year, Rafaela Moreno, and the concerns with the Shared Decision Making committee carried over. Moreno said she’s felt alone and unwelcome participating in committee discussions.
Because of this, El Cafecito is asking that some changes be made to the committee. One request is to alter the body’s makeup so parents and students have the same number of representatives as the faculty, staff, and administrators. Another request is to make the meetings completely open to the public. The last is to change meeting times; they’re held once a month during school hours, but if they started in the late afternoon or evening, working parents could attend.
That response? The committee’s makeup is contractual, and changes have to be negotiated. Parents and Santa Maria Joint Union Faculty Association members are currently at the table with the district trying to work collaboratively toward a solution.
However, conversations about charter schools and the parent-trigger law continue to rage. Moreno is concerned that the current dialogue is taking attention away from what parents actually want.
“We want equity as far as numbers,” she explained. “We, the parents, don’t want [a] charter school; we already made that clear, and yet at the meetings, they continue to talk about it.”
Since Romero’s Jan. 16 TV appearance, Moreno said they’ve told parents, faculty, and the district multiple times that parents don’t want a charter school, and that parents are only interested in an equal voice on this committee.
To be heard
Romero apologized to the nearly 300 parents, faculty members, students, and district employees at the Feb. 13 board meeting. He said he went on KCOY to speak about the trigger law so parents could be heard. He then reiterated several times that parents—including himself—didn’t want to turn Santa Maria High School into a charter school; they just wanted to combine forces with the school and the district.
In the article, Romero said his frustrations with the school and the district prompted him to contact an organization called Parent Revolution for help.
Parent Revolution is backed in part by the Gates Foundation. So far, the organization has successfully lobbied for parent empowerment laws to pass in California and six other states and has helped parents from three California schools through the process of invoking the parent-trigger law, which begins with garnering support through petition circulation.
Parents at McKinley Elementary School in Compton were the first to test the law, but ran up against legal issues that prevented the trigger from going forward.
On Jan. 8, Desert Trails Elementary School in San Bernardino County successfully pulled off a parent-triggered action, and their school board voted to move forward with changes in August. Parents from 24th Street Elementary in Los Angeles also successfully rallied for changes that their board voted through on Feb. 12.
Desert Trails is ranked in the bottom 40 percent of schools with a similar size, demographic makeup, and income level; 24th Street is in the bottom 10 percent. For 2011-2012, neither school met overall growth targets laid out by the state for student test performance.
Santa Maria High School is ranked in the top 20 percent of similar schools and met the overall growth target California set for the school in 2011-2012.
Parent Revolution National Communications Director David Phelps confirmed to the Sun that a parent from Santa Maria High School contacted them in January. Phelps didn’t know whether anything moved forward from that initial contact.
Before the national organization involves itself too heavily in a trigger-law campaign, it tries to gauge how much support is actually there.
“We always consider them and look at them carefully,” Phelps said of the potential trigger law sites. “It truly needs to be a parent effort, that there are parents there that are willing to do the work.”
He also said that simply initiating petitions can often result in better collaboration between the schools and parents, which in turn ends the need to continue the parent-trigger process.
Locally, petitions were circulating, but Romero said they aren’t anymore, that he brought them and Parent Revolution up as a scare tactic.
“It’s [too] bad that I have to bring this name [up] to get attention,” Romero said. “Now they listen too much.”
As a scare tactic, however, the threat of a petition seems to have served its purpose.
Confusion and uncertainty
While Assistant Superintendent Davis and Santa Maria High School Principal Domingues said they believe parents don’t want a charter school and won’t invoke a parent-triggered school changeover, not everyone is convinced.
Many people who spoke at the Feb. 13 board meeting were concerned that Parent Revolution was working without the parents, continuing to circulate petitions, and pushing forward with an attempt to create a charter school.
Faculty association president Mark Goodman said teachers have heard that trigger-law petitions and charter school discussions are still going on; they’re concerned it will end with job loss.
“One of the problems with Parent Revolution is they take over and cast parents aside,” Goodman said. “A majority of parents don’t want petitions signed.”
He went on to say that teachers understand what some parents are asking for with the Shared Decision Making committee. But those teachers also want to make sure no changes occur to the overall structure and purpose of the committee as they come to an agreement with the district’s negotiating team.
“We want to move forward,” Goodman said. “But we want the pro-petition people to pull back and work from the same position as we are.”
The Feb. 13 meeting also included teachers voicing concerns over losing their jobs. Parents said they didn’t want an outside entity taking over the school, that they were confused, and that they didn’t understand exactly what was going on. Students said they were worried about losing their teachers and school programs like Future Farmers of America; they advocated for their school to stay the way it is.
Parent Lisa Dilullo admonished the board for not taking steps to reassure parents after the charter-school-rumor discussion started in January. She asked the members how they would handle parent complaints in the future and what parents were supposed to do with concerns over the way things are handled within the district and at the high school.
Board members said they opposed turning the school into a charter and applauded the strides Santa Maria High School has made over the last three years.
‘Failing’ doesn’t mean failure
By No Child Left Behind standards, Santa Maria High School has been considered a failing school for the last seven years. However, under the guidance of Principal Domingues and Vice Principal Peter Flores, the school is making improvements.
Domingues stepped in as principal when the school began its fifth year of Program Improvement, a federally mandated program for failing schools that don’t make test-score, participation, and graduation-rate targets for two or more years in a row.
Schools in Program Improvement are allocated funding through Title I grants to help make changes where they’re needed. This means the school is über-focused on bringing test scores up to try to change their status.
A collaborative school site council made up of equal numbers of parents, teachers, and administrators decides where the federal dollars go. Domingues said the school uses the money to bring in tutors, counselors, and more staff, and to supplement curriculum.
When Domingues arrived at the school in 2010, he said he saw two potential changes that could help the school achieve its goal of getting out of Program Improvement: he needed to spark change within the school’s culture and students’ attitudes, and he needed to bridge the gap between Spanish-speaking parents and the school.
Senior Valerie Cañas said her involvement in school activities and the way she feels about school has changed a lot since she was a freshman. She said administrators and teachers are more involved now, and students have fed off of that connection.
“Students seem more happy to be here, more happy to be in school,” Cañas said. “School pride, I think that’s been brought back to our school in a major way.”
The passion her teachers have for educating students and creating a school community where students feel safe when it comes to learning and actively participating is something she’s seen reflected in the community.
Domingues said increased community support is a huge step forward, and it’s mirrored in the way students are performing on state tests. Those tests are measured through the Academic Performance Index (API), with annual growth targets set for each school by the California Department of Education.
Santa Maria High School’s API scores have increased by 35 points over the last two years. In 2011-2012, its API score was 693, 15 points higher than in 2010-2011. Assistant Superintendent Davis said that kind of two-year growth is tremendous.
“I don’t think there’s any other Santa Barbara County school that’s seen that,” he said.
Even with the kind of improvement it’s been enjoying, Santa Maria High School is still part of Program Improvement and labeled as “failing” because not all its student groups were able to reach growth targets in 2011-2012.
Those groups—English learners and students with disabilities—both had API scores that dropped. These are groups that parents like Romero are concerned about.
English learners make up more than half of the 2,300 students at Santa Maria High School. Principal Domingues said that looking at last year’s test scores shows him where the school needs to shift its focus and its Title I funding in the upcoming years.
He also said some of the issues with English learners stem from cultural differences. Although El Cafecito has helped, bridging the gap between the community and the school is still a work in progress.
“The key to the success of our school is the relationship with our kids,” Domingues said. “We have a lot more to improve upon, but we have made great improvement.”
While the state’s system measures a school’s improvement through growth, the federal system measures the worth of a school based on the requirements of No Child Left Behind, which in turn, is partly based on the state’s API measurements.
Another part is based on the percentage of students who rank proficient or higher on annual tests, such as the high school exit exam. The required percentage has been rising every year since 2001, and by 2014, 100 percent of the students in a school will be required to perform as proficient or higher on these tests in order for the school to not be labeled as “failing.”
Jenny Singh, administrator of the Academic Accountability Unit with the California Department of Education, said reaching that federally mandated goal is statistically impossible. She said it’s not an adequate measure of a school’s progress and student growth.
“They’re just looking at, ‘Did you make it over the bar?’” Singh said.
All it would take is for one student—say an English learner who recently moved to the United States—to not perform at the proficient level, and a school fails. This could mean that by 2014, all of California’s schools—and, by that measure, all of the schools in the United States—could be in Program Improvement and labeled as failing.
“That’s why the [California Department of Education] is not a big fan of the federal accountability model,” Singh said. “We’re hoping that there’s a change, and that the federal model becomes more like a growth model.” m
Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at email@example.com.