Guest commentary: WUSD answers the mayor
NEWS-LEDGER – MAY 4, 2011
By Dayton Gilleland, Ed.D.
Washington Unified School District
When I arrived in West Sacramento about ten months ago, I expressed to the Washington Unified School District Board of Education that I was enthusiastic about the incredible gains the district had made in the past few years and optimistic that I could manage the next iteration of academic improvement and promise for our 7,300 students. There is a consistent pattern among school districts that have demonstrated solid academic improvements, and I recognized many factors that affected such gains in Washington Unified. My message resonated well with the Board, and I am grateful for this opportunity to serve our students and community. I remain true to my initial enthusiasm and committed to the work before us to sustain the accelerated growth that this school district has demonstrated. Our kids deserve no less, and our future depends on our success.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend Mayor Cabaldon’s Annual State of the City Address with the WUSD Board of Education. I knew that evening that I would be providing a response to the message that was shared by the mayor. I suspect that he has anticipated my response as well. Reflected in the mayor’s silence on matters of the school district’s excellent financial health, in the midst of such horrendous economic tragedy, and disregard for students’ significant academic gains achieved in our schools, is evidence of the inconvenience or threat he perceives toward his objective to “save our schools” through the efforts of city government. While my wife suggests that my delay in finalizing this copy is a problem and that the whole issue has lost some luster, I maintain that this delay was needed to assure the degree of objectivity and accuracy in the facts that I have prepared for print.
In my various reviews of a certified copy of the mayor’s address, as delivered on April 14, 2011, I have found several areas of concern with a variety of inaccuracies, misrepresentations of truth, and an apparent neglect to mention actual gains that the school district has demonstrated. I will address my findings specifically but first need to state that much of what the mayor shared that evening, while narrow in scope, was factual, and while some comments he made were simply wrong, I find that I am mostly troubled by the information and data that his presentation lacked and a bias that appears in the picture he portrayed. On April 4, 2011, I sent an e-mail to him offering “any pertinent data and/or talking points” that he felt might fit into his message. His non-response to this offer suggests that he already had the information he needed and is consistent with numerous invitations Board President Dave Westin and I have extended in an attempt to meet.
The mayor stated in his address that our students’ academic progress has “slowed some” over the past three years. It is important to note that our students’ academic gains have not slowed but rather accelerated during this period. During the three years in question (2008, 2009 and 2010) the district’s Academic Performance Index (API) improved a total of 44 points. Over the course of the three previous years (2005, 2006 and 2007) the district’s growth was 34 points. The 20 point API gain in 2010 represents the second highest gain of the twenty school districts in the entire Sacramento region.
The Annual Yearly Progress measure (AYP) is the performance indicator reflected in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative. This measure identifies the percentage of students performing at proficient and advanced levels in English/Language Arts and Math. Over the last three years, the district’s AYP has improved in English from 41.3% to 49.1% with consistent gains each year. In Mathematics, the gains have been more modest but follow a similar path from 44.1% to 49.5%.
I remain confused by the mayor’s statement that for “the last two years the total number of Latino kids in our community who tested proficient in English and Math and were college ready: Zero.” I had referred to district-wide proficiency levels earlier. The disaggregate for the Hispanic/Latino student subgroup over the past two years reveals growth in both English and Math with gains from 34.3% in 2009 to 38.4% in 2010 in English and from 35.0% in 2009 to 39.6% in 2010 in Math. Further to the point, 343 seniors graduated from River City High School last year. Of that group, 34% are Latino (117) and of this group, 19 students entered a four year university, 68 enrolled in a community college, 7 continued their studies in a trade school, and 7 entered the military. 107 of the 117 Latino graduates last year are reflected in these numbers. While we are by no means satisfied with these percentages, we are encouraged by sustained gains and there is a considerable distinction between the facts and what was stated by the mayor. His reference to “zero” is incongruent with the actual data and appears to me to be more inflammatory or alarmist than it is a call to action.
Mayor Cabaldon’s claims our improving statistics are due to “changing demographics” and that our community now has “a lot more high achieving kids”. Any reference to demographics in the context of student performance is risky. The most important factor to consider is that all students can learn and it is our obligation and intent to meet the needs of all students who enter our classrooms. The mayor’s opinion that this is the basis of our gains is inaccurate. The school achieving the highest API gain this past year was Riverbank with an increase of 39 points. Riverbank is a school in the northern portion of town. Our schools in the north are situated in the most established communities and those which have been affected the least, if at all, by this change in demographics. Additionally, free/reduced priced lunch rates are an indicator of socio-economics in communities. This factor is used by the California Department of Education (CDE) in calculations of comparable districts for API demographics. In 2007, 55% of our students qualified for free/reduced priced lunches. In 2010 the number increased to 67%. In this regard, Washington Unified has demonstrated academic gains that have surpassed those projected from this changing demographic by the CDE. The gains our schools demonstrate are reflective of how we have become more responsive to students’ specific educational needs.
The mayor stated that “a lot of our overall statistics look pretty decent.” I would concur. I also agree fully with his claim that “we can’t accept schools that are good enough.” We will continue to improve and wish to be collaborative with the community and the city in all efforts to support our students and their success. It is my sincere hope that the political flavor that accompanied my dinner that night does not represent continued barriers to cooperation and collaboration between the school district and the mayor’s office.
I found the State of the City Address to be disparaging to the nearly 800 employees in the school district that have dedicated themselves to this work. I will maintain my focus on the educational work our teachers and staff do for students in Washington Unified. This work occurs daily in our classrooms. Our teachers are an invaluable asset who have been too frequently and for too long discredited. I don’t intend to venture any deeper into the political abyss that West Sacramento seems to offer; however, without regret or apology, I will continue to defend what is working and acknowledge those responsible for our success.
My intent is to focus on the work at hand, and to further establish cooperative and collaborative relationships with those who share common interests and commitments to students’ success. We will continue to reach out to the mayor’s office in an attempt to align our efforts and enhance our potential for great gains. The School Board President’s Initiatives validate our commitment to work within and throughout our surrounding communities. In title alone, these initiatives demonstrate the collaborative intent:
— The Whole Child Initiative,
— The Parents Bill of Rights Initiative,
— The Better West Sacramento Initiative, and
— The Community Networking/Outreach Initiative
The work that has been underway for the past several months, with substantial participation from local agencies, city employees, and elected officials from throughout this region, will continue. It is my hope that we can all come to the table to share ideas and reach the enhanced benefits that collaboration will provide and isolation will deter.
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