After accepting more than $50,000 from the state to implement a rigorous reading-intervention program called High Point, the West Contra Costa Unified School District has neglected to install it properly in its worst high schools, violating state policy and possibly putting the district's most vulnerable students at risk of failure.
Public-school students in Richmond face tough odds as it is. The majority come from homes where the parents lack high school diplomas, and the district, burdened with a myriad of social and disciplinary problems in addition to educating its students, regularly churns out some of the worst academic achievement scores in the state.
The stats are abysmal: Richmond's two high schools have been repeatedly sanctioned under the federal No Child Left Behind Act -- Kennedy High for the past three years, and Richmond High for the past two. Both rank among the state's lowest-scoring schools on reading-assessment tests, according to the Academic Performance Index, with hundreds of high school kids reading no better than the average fourth grader.
The scores are even lower than average among children of recent immigrants, mostly Spanish-speaking, who comprise the biggest single chunk of the high school population. At Richmond High this year, according to the state's Standardized Testing and Reporting program (STAR), so-called English-language learners made up 45 percent of the junior class, yet only 4 percent of these students scored high enough on the STAR English test to be considered proficient in reading.
In this context, the actions of district officials regarding the state-sanctioned program have been particularly puzzling. In 2001, the legislature addressed the problem of chronically low scores at schools like Kennedy and Richmond High with a bill, AB 466, that made available more than $30 million to train public school teachers in specialized math and reading programs.
To bring immigrant kids up to par, the state chose High Point for English Language Learners, a rigorous program published by Hampton Brown. For High Point to be effective, its makers stress, it must be implemented as directed: Students' reading abilities are determined by specific tests. Then, based on the results, kids are placed into one of four study levels and given High Point reading materials specifically designed for their level. Students must spend two hours a day on the program, but if it's done properly, educators say it can raise reading levels of its participants by two grades per school year.
The West County district took the state up on its funding offer last September, applying for $56,500 to cover High Point teacher training. It put 34 high school teachers through a weeklong training program -- and one-third of them pursued an additional eighty hours of follow-up instruction. To collect the money, however, district officials had to sign off on a statement certifying that the appropriate study materials were already in the hands of students.
The district indeed signed that statement, but it was false. Harlan Kerr, the district's director of literacy, acknowledges that students had not been tested for High Point placement, nor did he know what basis was used to assign High Point books or whether they were assigned at all. The district did test its students this year, but used a hodgepodge of three different tests, again clashing with the state's recommendations.
Those familiar with High Point say the district's failure to properly test its students is a serious blunder. "Proper placement in the four levels is very critical," says Vickie Alterwitz, a state-approved High Point training instructor with the Sacramento County Office of Education. "It is essential because instruction needs to be within reach for the students to be successful. It would be very harmful to have a student misplaced whether the level work is below his grasp or above his grasp."
While High Point is being used properly in West County middle schools, its implementation at the high-school level has been piecemeal at best. Kerr says he decided against fully implementing the program in high schools. Instead, an altered version has been taught one hour a day in combination with another program called Write Institute, which Kerr says has shown good results among English-language learners.
The district's adulteration of the program, however, also violates the pact it signed with the state. According to state law and state education officials, districts may not apply for AB 466 grants unless they intend to teach the complete High Point program. "For those teachers that are trained, there's more than an expectation that those kids will have appropriate books in their hands," says Terri Emmett, administrator of the state's Reading/Language Arts Office. "Also, if they are going to send those teachers to the training program, then there should be an intent to use the program as recommended."
If a district tries to fully implement the program at the high school level and it doesn't work as well as expected, she adds, there's nothing to prevent officials from altering or abandoning it. In this case, however, the district never properly put the program in place.
That's a problem in the eyes of Ed Rodriquez, whose children -- and now grandchildren -- have attended West County public schools. Rodriquez is concerned that officials tend to give up on students once they reach high school. "The district is focusing on the lower grades, and that's where the money is being spent," he says. "But when you concentrate on the lower grades you are essentially cutting off older students as a lost cause. Those kids should be spending 60 percent of their time in school studying reading."
Susan Dunlap, the district's English Language Development coordinator, said she was shocked that a parent felt that way. "I've never heard anyone utter anything about us writing off upper-grade students," she says. "In fact, we are very excited about the Write Institute because we have data that it's working in the high schools."
District officials claim High Point wasn't fully implemented because it doesn't best serve the needs of immigrant students, but some local Latinos suspect the district is simply inclined to take the easy route with English-language learners because officials can count on immigrant parents not making a stink.
"Immigrant parents don't know what's going on in the schools. In their own countries, no one complains because nothing ever changes," says Olga Ibarra, a youth worker with the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, an advocacy group for Latino students and their parents. "Those few parents who want to get involved say they are lucky to find a person who speaks Spanish."
Ibarra -- who has secured promises from administrators that the district would start addressing this problem -- says she is also aware of Latino students who take advantage of their parents' lack of involvement and teacher apathy to coast through school in English Language Development classes, where they fly below the radar getting good marks for studying the same simple materials repeatedly. But ultimately it is the students who lose out. "Reading opens the door to learning about math, history, science, literature, geography, and much more. Thus young capable readers can succeed in these subjects and take advantage of other opportunities," reads the official Web site for the No Child Left Behind Act. "On the other hand, those students who cannot read well are much more likely to drop out of school and be limited to low-paying jobs throughout their lives."
With this realization, Jorge Lopez -- who spoke on condition his real name not be used -- dropped out of Richmond High in 2002, one year before he was scheduled to graduate, in order to finish high school studies at a junior college. "The teachers weren't challenging the students, the parents weren't involved with the school, and the students were just reading the same [English Language Development] books and filling out study sheets," recalls Lopez, who was able to test out of the school's ELD program. "The system seems to keep students in ELD classes because it's easier for everybody."
Kerr defends his decision to alter the High Point program, saying that it would be unwise to fully implement a reading intervention program in high schools when students are preparing for their exit exams. "At the high school level you have to build not only reading skills but speaking and writing skills because of exit exam requirements," he says. "If you just focused on reading and not writing and speaking, you would not be covering all the areas necessary for passing the exit exam."
The state exit exams, which have been delayed -- some say watered down until they are little more than an exercise in sciolism -- aren't slated to take effect until 2006. In any case, some parents don't buy Kerr's explanation. They say the district has simply neglected to address its students' severe reading problems because a program like High Point can mean scheduling headaches and extra work for teachers and administrators. "At Richmond High School, you have well over 50 percent of the students who are reading at a fourth-grade level or below and the administrators don't want the parents to know it," says parent and school-site counselor Kevin Rivard. "They are using these kids to bring money into the district and then not letting the money trickle down to the students."
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