MODESTO — Campus communities joined Monday to protest the firing of four Modesto City Schools high school and elementary principals. But by the letter of the law, at least 16 of the district's school leaders should be leaving and their campuses completely made over.
The No Child Left Behind Act demands no less.
Countywide, 35 schools (22 percent) have missed federal targets for at least six years in a row, languishing in Year 5 status, where the system stops counting. In Year 5, schools are supposed to be made over: new principal, new plan, new oversight or new charter. Modesto City has 16 such schools.
But while extra help does go to poor children and elaborate testing protocols are followed to a T, the harshest sanctions of the federal education reform law have not come to pass.
"I think our state board really understands that the standards that were mandated eight to 10 years ago really aren't that helpful," said Rick Bartkowski, head of instructional support for the Stanislaus County Office of Education. "There is no one-size-fits-all answer. There is no evidence that replacing the principal always works," he said.
The state has chosen to be "less prescriptive," Bartkowski said, working to fix schools instead of remake them.
Modesto's Robertson Road Elementary, however, got a remake.
Finding a way forward
After falling onto a national list of lowest performers, the school got a new principal whose first job was to engineer a turnaround. The next year it qualified for federal grant money to extend the school day, hire three expert teaching coaches and add a science teacher.
"NCLB really made us look at ourselves, look at our weaknesses," said Thor Harrison, director of educational services for grades 7-12. "And that really is the path that Modesto City has taken, using it as a tool to look at ourselves and improve."
Starting in 2013-14, Robertson Road teachers will be graded in part on students' improvement, a unique provision agreed to by teachers selected for that school, said Marla Mack, director of educational services for elementary schools.
The south Modesto campus in many ways exemplifies the schools that No Child Left Behind set out to help. All of its kids are low-income and most are learning English. Of 275 second- through sixth-graders taking state tests in spring 2012, only 92 had been at the school at least since October.
"The goal of NCLB all students proficient is a noble goal. And a goal for which we should continually strive," said Turlock Unified Superintendent Sonny Da Marto. That said, he added, "Considering the most basic, elementary statistics, it is impossible to fully achieve."
The law's provisions force educators to help kids historically left behind, said Ceres Unified Superintendent Scott Siegel. "Don't ignore students that are more challenging is the law," he said.
But he sees the law's leap to 100 percent proficiency by spring 2014 as hurting the very schools it was designed to help. "It's impossible to keep up with," Siegel said.
Ceres Deputy Superintendent Mary Jones said the law's drive for excellence for all has changed school culture. "It's whether or not you believe that they can do it," she said, that drives success.
The Ceres district has five schools at Year 5, but also three Title I campuses still not on the federal watch lists.
Modesto has only one: Rose Avenue Elementary. But it missed 2012 targets and could begin Year 1 this fall. If so, Rose Avenue students would have to be given the choice to go to a school doing better.
To make sure they can, fewer schools will get federal funds for poor children next year, Mack said. "We have to have school choice," she said.
In 2011-12, five Modesto City schools did not get Title I funds, exempting them from federal watch lists. All but one would be on the lists otherwise. But even the standout, Enochs High, missed goals last year. Nearly 71 percent of California schools are on watch lists, and more than half the remainder missed their targets.
"You may have 33 indicators where you have to achieve mastery, and if you miss one, you don't make it," Harrison said, pointing out a key frustration of the law.
Educators and President Barack Obama are urging Congress to change the system to one that measures success by how much a child learns in a year, a measure that even kids who start from behind can meet.
No Child Left Behind at its core was a five-year education spending package that took effect Jan. 8, 2002. It was due for a do-over in 2007. In 2010, the Obama administration released a proposal to update the law. In 2011, it started encouraging states to get waivers. California's waiver request was denied recently.
There are no indications Washington will tackle a turnaround for education funding this year.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.