New figures show English language learners in Sonoma County's largest school district are lagging well behind their peers in key academic areas while officials acknowledged that the deficiencies have caught them largely unaware.
English language learners in Santa Rosa City Schools graduate at a far lower rate than their peers and score well below their classmates in both English language arts and math.
But the district wide achievement gap has caught officials — still reeling from years of deep budget cuts and punitive mandates required for schools and districts that failed to meet escalating federal No Child Left Behind standards — off guard.
"I don't think there has been a lot of forward thinking with EL students, to be honest," said school board member Laura Gonzalez. "There has been a feeling for a while that we haven't been doing what we need to be doing with our EL students."
English language learners graduate at a rate of about 63 percent from Santa Rosa's high schools — the same rate as English learners across California — but far below the 81 percent graduation rate for all students in Santa Rosa City Schools.
In the most recent figures available, only 35 percent of the district's English learners met federal academic targets in English language arts set forth under the No Child Left Behind law, compared with nearly 57 percent of all students. The law called for 89 percent of students to reach the target on last spring's exams.
Slightly less than 46 percent of English language learners met federal targets in math, compared with nearly 61 percent of students district wide.
On the most recent state Academic Performance Index, English learners scored a 698 compared with 791 district wide. The gap in 2008 was 126 points.
"I think the board as a whole showed pretty clearly that it's anxious for the superintendent and her new team to come up with a plan which I think they are in the process of doing and bringing it to us and hopefully we will be able to implement something as soon as possible," said trustee Jenni Klose, who began looking at the numbers just after she was elected last fall. "This is a huge part of our population."
Forty-one percent of all elementary school students in Santa Rosa City Schools and 21 percent of all students are considered English language learners. Statewide and across Sonoma County, English learners comprise 22 percent of all students.
"For reasons unclear, I believe that the board was not aware that we were really struggling in this area," Klose said. "As soon as the board was aware, there is very clear board consensus that we have to do whatever we have to do to fix the problems."
"I think there was probably a slowness, not a recognition of the real change in demographics for a period of time," said Ron Kristof, trustee since 2010.
The district has had fairly dramatic turnover at key district office positions in the past 18 months. Superintendent Socorro Shiels was hired in June 2012 and Diann Kitamura and Rachel Monarrez were both hired in July as assistant superintendents over curriculum and instruction 7-12 and transitional kindergarten-6, respectively.
Board members credited the new hires with looking at data from a new, perhaps more critical, perspective.