October 11, 2008

Schools Get Scores – and They’re Not Pretty



* A list accompanying "Schools get scores - and they're not pretty" Wednesday on A1 should have included Borton Primary Magnet School and Sahuarita Primary School as "excelling" schools.

31 fail to make the grade in Pima; 3 get 'failing' label

The number of Pima County schools not meeting state standards has nearly tripled in two years - and three area schools are now "failing" after repeatedly missing standards.

In 2006, 12 local schools didn't meet the bar set by Arizona Learns, the state's accountability system. This year there are 31, according to numbers released publicly today by the state Department of Education.

Locally, the trend was downward across the board - fewer schools received "excelling" or "highly performing" labels as they had to hit higher targets to get 100 percent of students proficient in core subjects by 2014, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

After three straight years of "unsatisfactory" performance, schools are deemed failing under the state model - which measures test scores, graduation rates and other criteria, including how fast they reclassify English-language learners.

This year, 20 schools across the state are failing, including the three in Tucson. That classification can mean a host of changes, including a wholesale overhaul of the schools, replacing principals and staff.

That already happened at Naylor Middle School in a $2 million effort that didn't move the needle. Naylor is in failing status again this year.

As a result, school officials don't sound too eager to repeat the experiment at Hohokam Middle School. There, Principal John Michel has been trying to turn things around for eight years after he was asked to leave his thriving placement at Booth-Fickett Math-Science Magnet School to help the struggling middle school on the Far Southwest Side.

Jim Fish, the Tucson Unified School District's chief academic adviser, who oversees a batch of middle schools, is working with Hohokam for the first time this year. He said while restructuring is not off the table in the future, it's too early to have those discussions.

"What we've been doing out there hasn't worked, clearly, because we're getting the same results," Fish said. He said he wants to put more focus into training for teachers, strengthening relationships between staffers and students, and building a more positive culture.

"They didn't get into failing status overnight, and they won't get out overnight," he said.

State Department of Education officials are expected to visit Hohokam in the next 30 days, evaluating instruction and meeting with the staff and parents. That team will work with school and TUSD officials to craft an improvement plan.

At 71, Michel could have retired long ago. He hasn't, he said, because he loves Hohokam and its 740 students and because he has a "macho instinct" to try to put things together.

He rattles off a litany of hurdles at the school.

In part because its far Southwest Side location demands long commutes, the school loses up to half of its staffers yearly. Few teachers are highly qualified, and none is in math, the area of greatest struggle.

The high-poverty area brings challenges, too. Michel had one mother tell him her son couldn't stay after school because he needed to be home to watch his siblings, given that she had two jobs, working 16 hours a day.

"It's not that parents don't care here, but they have to survive. We forget these things."

Gabriela Contreras, who was dropping off her seventh-grade son, Louis, at the office Tuesday, said she can see a new focus at the school this year.

"The first day, teachers were outside welcoming us. They're more organized. They're more focused. They want to get to higher levels," she said.

In the office, 29-year-old Rosemary Corella was re-enrolling her 12-year-old daughter, Rachelle Velarde. The seventh-grader said she tried Booth-Fickett but missed her old school and wanted to return. "It's a good school. Everyone here is nice," she said.

All three of the failing schools locally are middle schools. And about one-third of the TUSD middle schools are underperforming this year.

Officials say middle school is tough developmentally and socially. And students are getting their first taste of freedom, going from a smaller elementary to a larger, often less personal middle school where it's easier to get lost in the crowd.

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said the district has a more concentrated focus on individual middle schools.

There's a lot at stake, she said. "We know the No. 1 dropout year is ninth grade. Success in middle school greatly influences how successful a student will be in high school, so if you're worried about the graduation rate, you need to be focused on making sure that middle school students know who they are, what they're good at, what they'd like to be when they grow up and what kind of training they need to get there."

Dodge Middle School Principal Catherine Comstock runs the district's sole excelling middle school. Comstock said her secret weapons are her parents, since Dodge is not a neighborhood school but a choice school with a long waiting list. They sign contracts agreeing to the school's traditional philosophy and acknowledging that students are required to do up to two hours of homework a night.

Comstock said the school held onto its excelling status with very targeted work. The school parsed all of the test scores to find out which students needed to boost their performance.

Each staff member, including Comstock, took roughly four students from the pool of 99 who were underperforming and worked with them to strengthen their weak areas. Almost 80 improved their AIMS scores.

"We had a chance to meet with them in private and let them know they needed to strive for excellence. Just that individual time made a huge difference," she said.


This is how the 1,875 public schools in Arizona were labeled:

* Excelling: 321

* Highly performing: 250

* Performing-plus: 392

* Performing: 734

* Underperform-ing: 158

* Failing: 20

This is how the 310 public schools in Pima County were labeled:

* Excelling: 56

* Highly performing: 36

* Performing-plus: 57

* Performing: 130

* Underperform-ing: 28

* Failing: 3

* Star reporters Ernesto Portillo Jr. and Andrea Rivera contributed to this article. * Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at [email protected]


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