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Case in Point: Who says this isn't a good school?


Volume 9, Issue 1 - September 2004

To see what's wrong with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), one need look no further than Southwest High School.

Located in San Diego a stone's throw from the Mexican border, the school has its work cut out for it with 45 percent of its students classified as English language learners (ELL). Nevertheless, Southwest students, who are mostly poor and Latino, have finished first in the San Diego County Academic Decathlon for two consecutive years, beating out wealthier students from the prestigious Torrey Pines High School.

Southwest was named one of the top 300 schools in the country by Newsweek for its many AP classes and its AP results. The school's AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) college-prep program is used as a national model. Not surprisingly, a high percentage of Southwest grads attend college: Approximately 25 percent of the class of 2004 has been accepted at four-year colleges and another 56 percent at two-year colleges.

The school has more than met its growth target on the state's Academic Performance Index; test scores have risen 117 points since 2000, with Southwest making the second-greatest gain of all high schools in the district.

Despite these achievements, Southwest High School has been branded a "failing" school under federal standards and could ultimately be taken over by the state, closed down or turned over to a private company. It is just one of thousands of good schools throughout the United States that fall into the "failing" category under NCLB, which growing numbers of people now recognize as a mandate with impossible requirements that deliberately set up schools for failure.

How could a good school like Southwest be labeled as failing?

Under NCLB, students in all "subgroups" must achieve a certain level of proficiency, even those who can't speak English or are enrolled in special education classes. Because ELL and low socioeconomic students at Southwest failed to score high enough on the English Language Arts test, the entire school did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements, was put into Program Improvement (PI) and is facing sanctions.

Recently NCLB was revised to allow more flexibility for ELL students, but since the changes are not retroactive, Southwest remains in PI. Under the revisions, students who have been in the country for less than a year are now exempt from the English Language Arts portion of the test. Nevertheless, most teachers agree that it takes more than one year for ELL students to become classified as "proficient" in the English language. And ELL students in the country for less than one year must still take the math portion of the test, which has many word problems written in English that ELL students have difficulty understanding.

Once it entered PI, Southwest had to send letters informing parents that they have the right to send their student to non-failing schools at the Sweetwater Union High School District's expense. So far, 11 students have transferred.

"My parents got letters from the school about transferring and I didn't like the idea of it," says student Ana Villegas, 15. "Those letters make it sound like it's a really bad school, but it's not. I like it here because the teachers really care about the students."

Learning is serious business at Southwest High School, whether students are enrolled in AP classes or English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.

In Warren Roper's world history class, students thoughtfully discuss South Africa's apartheid laws, such as those banning intermarriage between races and perpetuating inequitable education and pay for blacks.

In Rebecca Lee's English Language Development class, students discuss the Vietnam War in halting English. One student observes that the war was "unique" because the U.S. was not technically "at war,"rather was supporting another country during its war.

In Mark Carpizo's AVID class, students review their goals for the week and plan trips to UCLA and UC-Irvine before breaking into small groups for tutoring.

Every day at the end of second period, everyone — students and teachers alike — hunkers down with a book for 15 minutes of silent reading as part of the school's campaign to promote literacy.

In addition to having 17 Advanced Placement course offerings with 872 students enrolled, the school has an award-winning music program and a Health Career Academy, and even offers Tagalog classes, taught by Romando Reyes, that meet college entry foreign language requirements.

It is an environment in which teachers, most of whom are members of the Sweetwater Education Association, go the extra mile, conducting after-school tutoring programs, coaching one another, and even spending summers writing their own standards-aligned curriculum ("unit plans") to share with fellow teachers. Once teachers started writing their own curriculum, test scores went up.

"For unit plans, we consulted with professors at San Diego State University. We wanted to make students ready for freshman year, without their needing remediation," says Mary Zambruski, who teaches AP English literature. "We revise the units every summer. It's a huge undertaking. Some teachers think it's the greatest thing since peanut butter."

Before that, learning tended to be more uneven, says math teacher Tom Foster. "Some teachers are strong in certain areas and weak in others," he recalls. "That doesn't happen anymore; we are coordinated and teaching the same thing. We are planning, collaborating and prioritizing for teaching the California standards." 

Southwest High School also has tremendous community spirit, says Ana Maria Flores, who teaches AP Spanish and Ballet de Folklorico classes. "We are an integral part of the community. We visit orphanages regularly and take food, toys and clothing. We have several cultures represented here, and people are very respectful of one another." 
A special Puente Program sponsored by the counseling department is designed to encourage low-income students to attend college. Puente, which stands for "bridge" in Spanish, assigns 9th- and 10th-graders to the same English teacher for two years in a row. The program, which emphasizes writing, reading and critical thinking skills that will be needed for higher learning, is not just for the top students, says head counselor Henry Silva. "The top kids know they are going to college, so we push the middle and bottom students."

"We're not perfect, but we are doing more to find ways to improve than almost any school I know," says biology teacher Steven Wavra. "We're working our fannies off and our kids are growing by leaps and bounds. And a school that has been labeled 'low-performing' has achieved all this."

"It is absolutely absurd that the federal government has instituted such a punitive and degrading system of school evaluation that relies totally on a continually changing set of standardized tests and omits positive achievements of a school and its students," says Wavra. "Sometimes a number just can't be used to accurately rate the quality of a school and its associated community."

"It's discouraging," says Carpizo, who teaches the AVID program. "The state government says you're good and the federal government says you're not. We've done all the things we were supposed to do and our scores went up. But I try not to think about it. I just try to do my job and concentrate on that."

"Every single day I feel the pain of knowing we have been labeled a low-performing, failing school," says Lee. Her ELL students also feel bad. "I can see the hurt in them. They try, but it's very difficult for them to read a passage, select a multiple-choice response and be correct when they don't have the background in vocabulary, idioms and meanings in the language they are learning. I wish the members of the Bush administration would take a third-grade exam in Chinese, because I would like to see how they would do."

Lee says her students are highly motivated, very bright and very capable. "They think they have a wonderful school. And they are concerned that they will not be able to graduate, or that their school might be taken over by strange people from outside the community because of their test scores. They have heard other kids say that ELL students are bringing down their scores."

Students also chafe at the label. Papla Naranjo, who plans to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, says, "Teachers here put a lot of effort into helping students meet their goals. They are working hard to prepare us for college."

"Teachers here have told us that we have to try harder, and we do," says Ivette Valdez, who serves as student president of Puente.

Academic Decathlon teacher Ken Boulton says Southwest may be labeled a failure, but the students are winners in his eyes. "My academic decathlon winners did not have one Anglo student on the team this year or last year. They are not rich kids by any stretch of the imagination. They come from single-parent families or families where both parents work. They have overcome great odds. These kids have not been given anything. They have had to work hard for everything, and they are accustomed to that."

"I think people were definitely surprised last year when our team won by 1,500 points," says team member Orlando Escobales. "Most of them thought it was a fluke. But this year we won again and set a county record for points and proved it wasn't a fluke at all. We won because we work hard — and because this is a good school."

Every child deserves a chance to learn and no child succeeds alone.

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