“The brutal fact is that we are not really showing much traction” in academic improvement, said AUSD Board President Walter Ruehlig. “And that particularly disturbs me because we have had success in so many other areas.”
The district has improved its Academic Performance Index by just four points over the last three years. “At that rate it will take us 84 years to get to the state benchmark of 800 – the year 2093,” said Ruehlig. “Obviously, three points a year ain’t gonna get us there. So we have got to do something different. Whatever we have been doing isn’t working.”
At the Oct. 14 school board meeting, Stephanie Anello, AUSD director of program improvement, delineated several of what she called “the brutal facts”:
• Fewer than 7 percent of the more than 1,000 ninth-grade students who took the Algebra I test scored proficient or better – “10th grade doesn’t look much better, and 11th grade looks worse,” said Anello.
• More than half of Antioch students are not proficient in English or math.
• Six schools – Jack London, Lone Tree, John Muir, Sutter, Turner and Park Middle – ranked 3 or lower on a scale of 1 to 10 when compared with similar schools in other districts.
AUSD’s newest school board member Wade Harper said that when he read Anello’s report, “it was like a sock in the stomach,” and asked how often the board receives updates on academic progress.
Anello said there will be more frequent reports in the future because in the past “we have spent time looking at student outcome and being surprised that the patient doesn’t come back to life. (In the future) we won’t be performing an autopsy. We will know the patient is sick earlier on.”
The school district has failed to meet the No Child Left Behind requirements for the second year in a row.
Failure to meet those requirements in the coming years could result in federal sanctions, including replacing district officials, transferring students out of failing schools, cutting funding and implementing a new curriculum.
To avoid that, district officials are hoping to get back to basics after several years of dealing with just about everything but improving test scores under the leadership of Superintendent Deborah Sims, who resigned in May and has been replaced by Donald Gill.
“I’m so glad to hear the refreshing stress on fundamentals,” said Ruehlig. “I’m just now starting to recover from the dizziness. There were so many balls in the air it was dizzying.”
He believes that Anello is the right person for the job. She supervised the tripling of math scores and mainstreaming of special-education students when she was principal of Antioch Middle School.
“I think we have to break away from a very theoretical construct,” said Ruehlig in an interview. “I think we were very heavy on theory and not so much on practice. That’s one thing I do like about Ms. Anello. She brings that sort of down-to-earth, common sense, dirt-under-the-fingernails approach.”
It might require a lot of fingernail dirt to turn around Antioch’s schools. The district has taken several steps in the past month to begin reversing the academic malaise:
• Converting academic coaching/mentoring to a district-wide responsibility instead of focusing on one school at a time.
• Asking principals and vice principals to spend at least 30 percent of their time in classrooms observing, coaching and mentoring students and teachers.
• Emulating the success in high-performing schools and districts such as Los Medanos Elementary in Pittsburg, where the students have been scoring in the 800s for several years.
Board member Claire Smith used a culinary analogy to describe the district’s newly focused approach. “Put too much on the plate and it’s a big pile of nothing,” she said. “If we separate the peas and potatoes and steak, we can work on it better than if we throw it into one big pot and say, ‘Here it is, have some ketchup.’”