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CALIFORNIA SCHOOLS AND PUBLIC EDUCATION—ESSAYS • NEWS • RESEARCH • RESOURCES
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July 31, 2010

Doomed to damn 1,000 schools

Sandra Nichols
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  "But wait! There will always be schools that are the lowest performers no matter how you rank them. The Obama administration, by requiring such a list for states seeking the elusive bucks, is dooming California to damn 1,000 schools every year."

There is an emergency in our California public schools but the 1,000 "low-performing schools," including six in Santa Cruz County, are not the problem. They are the symptom.

In its infinite wisdom, the California Board of Education has approved emergency regulations and deemed the 1,000 schools utter failures from which parents can rescue their kids via "open enrollment," transferring them to other schools. State board member Benjamin Austin commented, "The schools in this list are bad schools."

Mr. Austin, go to the schools on the list. See what's going on there. Then suggest a remedy to any problems you uncover. Don't just sit around and label schools you know little about as failures. Talk about living in an ivory tower and being the decider while Rome burns.

But wait! There will always be schools that are the lowest performers no matter how you rank them. The Obama administration, by requiring such a list for states seeking the elusive bucks, is dooming California to damn 1,000 schools every year.

Should parents pull students out of these schools? Perhaps. If a school is failing your child—yes. If a school is not safe for your child—yes. If a school does not respect your child as a student and a human being—yes. But I wouldn't switch schools based on a formula approved by those who know very little about what goes on in the classroom.

"Open enrollment" invites families to transfer their children to other schools. But does transferring between schools fix anything? It may change the life of the student who transfers, but it does absolutely nothing to fix problems of low-achieving schools. In fact, when motivated students flee an underperforming school, the students who remain have fewer positive role models. Average test scores naturally go down as the best students flee a school.

Students in more affluent school districts with well-educated parents have distinct advantages over students in poverty stricken communities. Library cards, computers, internet connections, study desks, private tutors, books in the home, learning games and role models who enjoy intellectually challenging pursuits. These kids arrive at the kindergarten door with vocabularies vastly greater than children from poverty-stricken families. Add to this the fact that some schools have huge numbers of students who arrive at that door with a whole other subject to master, English as a second language.

Look at the schools on the list of 1,000 and you will find schools impacted by the real culprit, poverty. Poverty goes hand-in-hand with gangs, violence and drugs. Such distractions reduce a student's ability to take advantage of the gift of a free public education. Instead of blaming our schools, we should be targeting these real causes of educational failures.

The California Department of Education website provides school demographics, revealing that all six local schools on the list are high-poverty schools, indicated by the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. These schools have 74 to 88 percent of students living in poverty—huge percentages of at-risk students.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are success stories in which students drag themselves out of poverty via our public schools, given the support of a caring, dedicated teacher who goes beyond the call of duty.

Meanwhile, we have some schools winning the prestige of being declared "Distinguished Schools." These draw from well-to-do communities with well-educated parents. The two Santa Cruz County schools so honored in 2010 have just 20 and 21 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

Public schools do not have entrance exams. They are open to all. There will always be children who learn slower and achieve less. This is a reality we can't ignore. If a school teaches your child to enjoy learning, think critically and work cooperatively with others, that school is NOT a failure. That school is making a positive difference and deserves to be adequately funded and held in high esteem in the community.

Sandra is a board trustee for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, California, and a recently retired, 31-year public school teacher. Her opinions are her own.

© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2010

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