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Stars Aligned For San Bernardino Unified School District

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Improvement funds, search for a new chief puts District on fast track

By Chris Levister –

San Bernardino City Unified Schools has, by many indicators, benefited from the harsh spotlight surrounding its academic struggles. Deemed among the state’s worst in 2010, the district is in ‘program improvement’, a federal program for failing schools that do not meet set growth targets for two years in a row.

But with a state funding boost and search for a new superintendent underway, the District is on a fast track to reform. “This is a time of great challenge, but also great opportunity,” says School Board President, Danny Tillman.

Last August the State Board of Education awarded the District $57.6 million in School Improvement Grants (SIG) geared to boost student learning at 11 campuses previously identified as low achieving. The funding is the largest block of money awarded to a single California school district.

“This funding puts the District in an enviable position to support, and turn around low-performing schools, so that the success of the few becomes the success of many,” said Tillman.

The District is counting on the money to fund state-mandated transformation plans at Davidson and Rio Vista Elementary Schools and Arroyo Valley, Pacific, and San Gorgonio High Schools.

The funding will also go to schools that are using the turnaround model, Barton, Hunt, Marshall, and Wilson Elementary Schools and Serrano and Shandin Hills Middle Schools.

The changes will result in a new organizational structure for the schools, increased flexibility for the curriculum and will open the door for more creative approaches to learning, said Tillman.

Every student not at grade level will have an individualized learning plan, so no students will languish unattended simply by going from grade to grade with below-basic skills.

The District looked at student performance data—the API and the AYP, the benchmark assessments—leadership of its low performing schools— such as how long has the principal been there, their track record and what professional development has occurred at that site.

Staff looked at the capacity of teachers to enact reforms at each site, the culture and climate of the school, parent complaints, suspension rates and other data.

The school’s turnaround strategy also calls for increased outreach and counseling for families, a community counseling center to help with mental health issues, nighttime family literacy classes, and more.

Tillman says holding town hall meetings to discuss the reforms, was beneficial because it opened up an important dialogue with parents and community groups. “Turning around low-performing schools is not rocket science, but it is hard, hard work,” he said.

“It’s not foreign to us to do evaluations of our schools and make changes. We’ve been doing it since I’ve been on the board, for 16 years.”

Tillman thinks labeling schools as the state’s “worst-performing” did more harm than good.

“If you’re really concerned about closing the achievement gap, and if you’re really concerned about providing the best resources at the schools with the most challenges, then the political overtones could not have hurt that process more.”

“Everybody assumed that when they said these are the state’s worst 5 percent of schools, somebody did some sophisticated analysis and came up with the conclusion that things are bad here because of the staff, teachers, principals and administration.”

The truth hits much closer to home, he says. Schools on the list typically have a majority of students on free and reduced-price lunch; many are homeless, and many have parents who are in and out of the correctional system or are otherwise absent from the home.

Tillman, said despite big challenges, he feels the district is making some academic inroads with programs aimed at closing the achievement gap for minority students. He pointed to the 2011 graduation at San Bernardino High.

“When the principal asked students who were the first in their family to graduate from high school, at least a third of the class stood up. That’s amazing. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we are changing entire family’s futures.”

While the district has improved its graduation rates, dropouts are still a big issue.

In 2006-07, the most recent numbers available, the district had a 34.5 percent dropout rate. The rate for African-American students was 38.4 percent and for Latino students 35.1 percent.

“We are one of the few districts in the state with a policy in place that specifically targets underperforming African-American students.

We have an African American Parent Advisory Council at several schools. With increased funding and resources we’re now able to hire staff and professionals to find creative ways to reach out to our underserved students. Parents who were previously not engaged are now showing up ready to work.”

The rosy outlook comes at a time when the District is grappling with budget woes and searching for a new superintendent to replace longtime leader Arturo Delgado. Delgado left the district in June to become the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools.

Leadership Associates has been hired to find candidates for interim superintendent and permanent superintendent.

Tillman said the new superintendent’s role will encompass more than putting out daily fires, responding to budget crises and volleying the political tetherball that a leadership role in education seems to encompass these days.

“My goal is to hire a leader who is committed to putting student success first. He or she must serve all children, be accountable to parents, innovative, flexible, and remain replicable in the wider school system.”

The District has also hired two veteran educators with experience working with English learners and at-risk students as new assistant superintendents.

The new positions are funded by money that has been saved since other assistant superintendents left the district.

“At the end of the day, policy and funds create the conditions to turn around schools,” Tillman said. “Going forward, will it be a challenge? Sure. Will it require some sleepless nights and a lot of contemplation on my part?

Absolutely. But it’s something that I welcome. San Bernardino is a community that I love, that I’m dedicated to. And I look forward to working with parents, students, teachers, staff and my colleagues on the board to turn this ship around.”

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