A case study for NCLB waiver

A couple hundred children sitting cross-legged covered the floor of the multipurpose room at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento. Behind them, parents, grandparents, and siblings filled rows of metal folding chairs, while teachers stood beside their students. The room was abuzz with excitement as principal Doug Huscher bounded onto the stage and led everyone in a cheer.

“When I say ‘Oak Ridge,’ you say ‘Feel the pride,'” shouted Huscher. Three times he called and they responded.

It was the warm-up to the school’s first-ever awards ceremony for student performance on the California Standards Test (CST). Teachers presented more than 200 Olympic-style medals to their students: bronze for moving up at least one level on the exam, silver for scoring in the proficient range, and gold for advanced.

It was also a celebration for the school itself. Two years ago, when it was in the bottom 5 percent in the state for academic achievement, Oak Ridge, along with five other low-performing schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District, applied for a piece of the $316 million in federal money allotted to California through the School Improvement Grant program. They lost.

So superintendent Jonathan Raymond launched his own reform, the Priority Schools program. He installed new principals and many new teachers in the six schools, gave them additional funds from Title I and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, told them to come up with a school improvement plan, and held them accountable.

Raymond sees this as a prototype for education reform efforts and that’s why he’s pushing the State Board of Education to seek a waiver under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), in which the federal government would give districts and schools flexibility and not hold them to the rigid models of NCLB and other federally-funded reforms.  A waiver would also allow low-income schools that receive Title I funds to use that money as they see fit.  So far the State Board has not been persuaded to apply.  Raymond said if they did, it would also solve another cruel irony related to Oak Ridge; after all its work and achievement on California’s standards, it’s still considered a failing school under NCLB.

Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source:  Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.
Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source: Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.

After Huscher’s first year as principal of Oak Ridge, its ranking on California’s Academic Performance Index, or API, soared by 82 points, from 658 in 2009-10 to 740 last year. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recognized the accomplishment last August, by holding his news conference to announce statewide API results at Oak Ridge.

Given those plaudits, Huscher was understandably frustrated when the school again failed to meet the federal benchmarks for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind. Out of 25 measurements, Oak Ridge fell short in one: Asian students who were English learners didn’t score high enough on the English language arts exam. Oak Ridge wound up in year five of program improvement, opening it to a number of severe penalties.

“After all this effort, you have this amazing increase in API, and the feds come in and say, ‘Guess what?  You didn’t make it,'” said Huscher.

The disconnect between state triumph and federal failure isn’t unusual in this era of No Child Left Behind. Of the 3,890 California schools in Program Improvement, 476 met their API targets. What’s different today is that the U.S. Department of Education realizes that NCLB is a flawed law, and is offering waivers to states to provide relief from sanctions, including those that are psychological.

“The punitive elements of NCLB – this public labeling of schools that are working hard to improve learning – are damaging and destructive,” said Raymond. A waiver, he added, “would go a long way in helping to remove stigma and repair the reputations of many schools.”

But State Superintendent Torlakson has so far convinced the State Board of Education not to apply, warning that the requirements in exchange for a waiver are too costly. California is one of ten states that haven’t submitted either formal requests for waivers or letters stating they intend to apply.

Oak Ridge an example of waiver flexibility

Under pressure from local superintendents, the State Board is going to reconsider the issue at its next meeting in March.

Sac City’s Raymond said schools like Oak Ridge are case studies of what’s possible when they’re given latitude to be creative and develop improvement plans based on their specific student populations instead of the prescriptive remedies and sanctions of federal education officials. “We had that, and it didn’t get us anywhere,” he said.

Through the Priority Schools program, Oak Ridge principal Huscher has been able to hire a training specialist who meets weekly with teachers from each grade to analyze data from student work, design interventions and lessons based on the data, model those lessons for the teachers, and work in their classrooms if necessary.

“The first year I was here it didn’t seem like there was very much collaboration between grade levels,” said third grade teacher Kelly Toomey, one of four teachers who remained on staff after it became a priority school. “I think the most important change that I’ve seen is that the focus and the culture of the school across the board with parents and students is academics.”

During a visit to her class earlier this year, Toomey had nearly every student engaged in a lesson on the difference between expository and narrative writing, using two books about penguins, one nonfiction and one fiction.

She broke into song when Tacky the penguin sang “how many toes does a fish have?” sending the kids into giggling fits; she paused after reading the word “odd” to make sure the students understood it; and she prodded them to think deeper.

“So what could we say about narratives?” Toomey asked one of her students. “It’s make believe,” he answered. “But was your personal narrative story you wrote make believe?” she prompted. “No,” he said, “it was very true.” “It was very true,” she agreed. “This is odd, like Tacky.”

Strengthening the home school connection

Teachers are required to make home visits, and Toomey said she’s noticed more parent involvement as a result. They ask questions about academics and homework, and they come to school more often.

Anthony Bookhamer’s grandmother said it was important for him to have his teacher see where he lives. Anthony won two gold medals at the awards ceremony, one for math and one for English language arts.  After returning to his spot on the floor, he looked through the door to his right, into the hallway where his grandmother, Lenna Tryon, watched from the seat of her walker. Anthony waved enthusiastically and raised the medallions off his chest to show her.

“The school’s so good for him,” said Tryon. “They know he’s got special things; he has to have water, he has to wear a hat, and he can’t play more than ten minutes or be out in the sun more than ten minutes…and they set him up in the front so he can see better; his eyesight is pretty bad. He’s done remarkable and just everything’s come back to him.”

About two years earlier, Anthony was in an apartment fire that killed his mother and left him with burns over 70 percent of his body. His hands, legs, back, and stomach are scarred, he lost several fingers, and he has a bald spot on the back of his head where the flames scorched him. Anthony spent five months in the hospital and went to live with his grandmother.

Before Huscher came to Oak Ridge, it was a different place, said Tryon. There were no awards for the kids, she never received any communication telling her what was going on, and she didn’t feel welcome at the school. Now they call her a few times a week to let her know how Anthony’s doing and what’s going on; they have family game nights and monthly parents’ meetings.

Sac City has been adding more schools to its Priority School program, and Raymond is looking for ways to keep it going and sustainable. A waiver would help in that as well. Relief from NCLB sanctions would free up millions of dollars that districts with program improvement schools are required to set aside for private tutoring companies that have no accountability.  It amounts to $2.4 million for Sac City.

“We sort of look back and we chuckle now because we didn’t get the [School Improvement] grant for perhaps a variety of reasons, none of which made sense to us,” said Raymond.  “But we said the heck with it, we’re going forward anyway, we’ve got a good plan, we believe in it.”