Gray Avenue making strides
EDITOR'S NOTE: Politicians and educators around the country have been arguing over a controversial federal school reform initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
This is the final installment of a three-part series looking at the initiative and its impact on Yuba-Sutter schools.
By John Dickey/Appeal-Democrat
Critics of the No Child Left Behind school initiative say the federal government won't pay for its bold plans.
But if a school were to secure some money to improve test scores, how might it be used?
Gray Avenue Middle School in the Yuba City Unified School District started receiving state money in 2002 to improve test scores - the same year the federal initiative was enacted.
California already had a school accountability program before No Child Left Behind. The state's Public Schools Accountability Act was signed into law in 1999.
Gray Avenue started getting underperforming schools grant money from the state after a subgroup in the school's student population missed a testing target. This year, the grant paid $159,000.
Gray Avenue is not wealthy school by any means. About 64 percent of the students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.
Many of its students come from immigrant families and are just learning English. One in five students are English learners.
But money, hard work and a close eye on students' learning has helped the school improve its math and English proficiency test scores.
The school has moved up every year of the last five years on the state Academic Performance Index for testing, another measure of school performance. It went from a 572 score five years ago to 677 last year.
The hard work has not gone unnoticed. The school was highlighted as a model school at a January conference.
Gray Avenue was picked as a model for the use of an educational program sold by Pulliam Group, a Redlands educational consulting firm. The school had purchased the group's educational tracking system with state money.
Karin Lynch, a Pulliam consultant, was at the Yuba City school Jan. 29 and said Gray was one middle school that has been able to make nice achievement gains.
But when it came to No Child Left Behind, the school discovered in August that it was on the federal government's radar.
The school and all of its subgroups but one made goals for percentages of English and math proficiency. The school's English learner subgroup, however, missed the mark for the percentage of students who tested proficient in English skills, scoring just 6.2 percent. The goal was 13.6 percent.
If just one of the school's subgroups miss the mark in the next round of testing this spring, the school will be designated a "performance improvement school" and be subject to sanctions. It would have to allow students to transfer to other schools in the district.
School Principal Mario Johnson said this was a wake-up call to improve learning in that area.
Johnson said one of the problems with No Child Left Behind is that there are cut-off points that schools have to meet to avoid program improvement status. But there are no guidelines to get out of that - and no funding either.
Still, Johnson said he isn't "looking over his shoulder" at the state tests used to formulate No Child Left Behind figures. And he shouldn't have to, given the amount of effort the school has put into keeping everyone on track.
School buckles down
State grant money bought the computer tracking system to break down testing results by classroom. Every six weeks, students take a test on math and English subjects, one of those "fill in the bubble" type of tests that requires a sharpened No. 2 pencil.
For the past two years, teachers have met regularly to talk about what's working and what's not.
Every six weeks, they hash out testing results during a teacher planning day. When something does work well, teachers share it among themselves. Or if a whole class is struggling with a subject, they can work on it some more. If only a few students haven't mastered something, they can set up special clinics to get them up to speed.
During a session in January, teachers put the scores for a number of topics on an overhead projector. For each class, the tracking system provides a breakdown of how well the class has mastered subjects like the addition and subtraction of fractions, the numbers below mastery and far below mastery.
Every one can see whether the class is on track to do well. They hash out which techniques are working, which are not. For students who don't master the topics, the teachers decide how to get them back on track.
"It's not one size fits all," Johnson said.
The standards being reviewed will end up on the CAT-6 state test in May that all students take. The test is used to calculate No Child Left Behind performance measures.
Teacher Jim Baker said the learning in his classroom has made him more satisfied than he's ever been in his 17 years as an educator. He's excited about getting students to learn, raising their expectations and challenging them.
"By the time we got done, every kid was doing math," Baker said. "They got frustrated, but they got to where they were doing it."
Baker said he didn't think it was the result of standardized testing so much as the result of having qualified teachers, and money, to do the job.
Consultant Lynch said one thing different about Gray Avenue's planning days is the level of teacher participation. That's in contrast to some other schools where Lynch often finds herself or an administrator orchestrating discussion at planning days.
"There's no other school I know of where I can sit and watch them go through the process," Lynch said. "Most places I go, I end up facilitating the process."
Students have made sacrifices, too. When the school started buckling down four years ago, it cut back on field trips, assemblies and electives, Johnson said.
Part of that was budget related. But the school also needed to have students in school, working on their math and English. Electives were cut to free up teachers.
But all work and no play can make for dull boys and girls. And Johnson is trying to augment the three Rs with electives, intramural sports during recess breaks and wacky events like Pajama Day and Weird Hair Day.
"We try to make it fun to be a kid here," Johnson said.
That can sometimes be a "touchy" line between studying for tests and participation in classes like the hands-on wood shop - the kind of class that might keep a youth interested in school. The school wants to offer support and a well-rounded education, Johnson said. Students do get a certain amount of satisfaction from the tests sometimes, as when they find out they did better than expected.
Change isn't free
Although the school is on track, Johnson doesn't know what will happen when the money runs out.
"That's what's got us worried," Johnson said.
What educators at Gray Avenue have to do is figure how to keep everything going once the extra state dollars disappear.
The school became eligible for state funding after a subgroup of the student population missed the target score by four points on the Academic Performance Index.
The teacher planning day was put in place with state funding designed to help improve academic performance. Gray Avenue Middle School gets money through a state program called the Immediate Intervention Underperforming Schools Program (IIUSP).
"What we needed to do was to figure out instructional strategies that would help English learners succeed," Johnson said. "That data helped us to realize we had a subgroup in which we had to come up with better ways of educating them."
Using the money, the school purchased a Pulliam Group system to track student performance, the Instructional Data Management System. The school also pays for 24 substitute teachers to fill in while the teachers are in half-day sessions. That adds up to $2,400 every six weeks.
A data analyst works for three hours every day, crunching numbers. And the school has to pay for a full-time facilitator, a half-time English learner coordinator and teacher stipends for extra math and English course loads.
Appeal-Democrat reporter John Dickey can be reached at 749-4711. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.