LA Times, October 14, 2004
School Is Down but Looking Up
By Duke Helfand, Times Staff Writer
On paper, Sun Valley Middle School looks like a loser.
The campus of 3,000 students has repeatedly failed to meet testing targets required by federal law.
On Wednesday, the school landed on a list of nearly 300 faltering campuses facing the possible removal of principals and teachers. The schools were among 1,626 statewide that failed to meet expectations for at least two years in a row, triggering increased scrutiny.
But a walk across Sun Valley's neat campus tells a different story. This school in the eastern San Fernando Valley is ripe with new faces, new ideas and new energy.
Sun Valley's principal and four assistant principals were hired to replace predecessors who were reassigned for letting the school founder.
The new administrators and teachers have reorganized classes so that teams of teachers now work with students — a strategy meant to catch youngsters who fall behind.
The school has added an extra period to the schedule, shrinking class sizes and providing struggling readers with an additional hour of English instruction each day.
Test scores, while still low, are rising.
Teachers believe their school's presence on the failure list does not reflect their efforts to improve a campus where walkways once strewn with trash are now immaculate and quiet.
"It paints a picture that isn't even close to being accurate," said history teacher Nate Bogan, a 21-year Sun Valley Middle School veteran. "I think they should look at the big picture. Kids come to school expecting to learn. The culture is more academically focused."
The school is among thousands of California campuses struggling to meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law. That two-year-old measure requires schools to meet strict test targets each year until 100% of their students are determined to be proficient in English and math by 2013-14.
More than a quarter of the state's 5,700 public schools that receive federal funds for poor children fell onto this year's watch list for failing repeatedly to meet targets under No Child Left Behind, the state reported. (For the list of schools, go to: http://www.latimes.com/schoolscores )
More than 500 schools were added to the watch list for the first time, bringing the total this year to 1,626.
The failing schools are allowed five years to improve. During that time, they must spend some of their federal money to offer their students after-school tutoring or transfers to better campuses.
If they continually fail to meet test targets, they face such sanctions as takeovers by outside managers or the removal of principals and teachers.
While 277 schools, including 72 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, may face such sanctions this year, 65 other schools are being removed from the list because they have made improvements or increased the number of students tested.
Huntington Drive Elementary School in El Sereno made it off the list — to the delight of Principal Susan Saenz.
She attributed her school's gains to intensive teacher training efforts and interventions with flagging students.
"It has not been easy," said Saenz, who has been at Huntington for three years. "But I think teachers now get … that this is the best way to go. They are feeling more excited about their teaching, because it's working."
Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer said he intends to evaluate schools that remain on the watch list. He said he would recommend early next year whether to offer the schools extra assistance such as teacher training or take more drastic measures such as replacing principals.
"We're taking it one at a time," Romer said. "We're going to go in with a thoughtful evaluation of each one before we prescribe remedies."
Sun Valley Middle School is on Romer's list. And this is not the first time the school has caught his attention.
About 2 1/2 years ago, Romer reassigned Sun Valley's principal and four assistant principals after a state audit found poor management, unsanitary conditions on campus and uneven instruction in classrooms.
Romer and his staff also removed the principals at several other Los Angeles schools for similar reasons. He has not yet weighed in on Sun Valley this time.
But Sue Shannon, the superintendent in charge of schools in the eastern San Fernando Valley, expressed confidence in the school's progress and the leadership of its principal.
She said the school district already enacted the sanctions required by No Child Left Behind when Romer removed the former administrators.
Shannon credited Principal Jeff Davis with fostering a collegial atmosphere that has led to more teacher collaboration and rising test scores at a school where one-third of the students are still learning English.
She pointed out that just 7% of the school's students were proficient in English-language arts two years ago, shortly after Davis took over. Last year, 14% were proficient.
The figures, while still low, represent a significant improvement, she said.
"That school is absolutely headed in the right direction," Shannon said. "They have committed staff and community. The next step is to analyze data so we know where to give resources to take them to the next level."
Davis said the school has placed about half of its students in an extra hour of English instruction every day, and that sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders now attend school in separate sections of the campus so that they don't waste time getting to classes.
Attendance is up and teachers, who said they felt stifled under the former administration, now talk with a sense of optimism — even if their school remains on the watch list.
"There's a lot of energy here," Davis said Wednesday, as he listened in the auditorium to students delivering PowerPoint presentations about the geography and natural resources of different states.
"I believe in my heart that [we] are changing this school," he said.