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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.

"Socorro comes on board and I think she identifies within a relatively short period of time that the data provided to the board doesn't have the depth and breadth that really tells the story," Board President Bill Carle said. "What the board wasn't getting was a really clear understanding of what was there and also a clear understanding that there was probably a heck of a lot more that can be done."

"Perhaps if we had known that information two or three years ago, maybe we could have done a substantial amount," he said.

Carle and others said the district has sustained deep and lasting budget cuts since approximately 2008, leaving the district little opportunity to augment intervention programs or offer supplemental support for struggling students.

The district's director of English language learner programs was slashed from a full time to 50 percent position three years ago.

Summer school is largely a thing of the past, academic counseling specific to students with the deepest academic holes was cut and dwindling professional development opportunities for teachers have left many students — and teachers — on their own, educators said.

Also, Program Improvement sanctions, varying at many schools, left many administrators and teachers to cobble together their own strategies, rather than implement a district wide plan.

"We seem to have kind of anarchy," Gonzalez said.

"I think (English learners) are being worked with, but there isn't a real comprehensive program out there. There is just people doing what they think works or what they have been doing for a while. I don't know that it's best practices."

But trustee Larry Haenel, a former English teacher at Montgomery High, said any plan put forth by the board to create consistency among schools in their English learner program must first get buy-in from teachers.

"It's really imperative that the teachers at the sites want the program," he said.

Shiels said a plan doesn't have to be restrictive.

"We don't want everybody doing the exact same thing because they don't have exactly the same students and they don't have exactly the same strengths as teachers," she said.

The lock-step approach has been part of the problem in the past, teachers said.

The district has in recent years put increased focus on addressing mandates put forth under the federal No Child Left Behind law for those schools that fell into Program Improvement sanctions for failing to meet standards. The district itself fell into Program Improvement in 2008-09.

"At no fault of anybody here, they were following the direction for being a Program Improvement school, so you have to give honor to that," Kitamura said of the district's campuses. "They were following the rules."

No Child Left Behind requires that all students, English learners included, be proficient or advanced in core subjects by next spring — a goal deemed unrealistic by most educators.

"We are dealing with human beings and we have a one size fits all system out of necessity really. And unfortunately not every one fits into that system," said Elsie Allen High School English teacher and instructional coach Erika Raffo.

Students who don't speak English at home can often lack homework support and in many cases are living in poverty, meaning enrichment at preschool age and over the summer months might not exist.

Many students who come in at a deficit only see that gap widen over time, experts said.

Even as conversational English blossoms as the student ages, academic language skills — expository reading and writing — can lag, teachers said.

Because schools are judged — and punished — if they fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress and graduation rate targets under No Child Left Behind, a school's graduation numbers became a major focus. That emphasis pushed some students into academic classes they were not yet ready for simply because they kept the student on pace, Raffo said.

"The district is feeling an enormous amount of pressure," she said. "The emphasis has been on 'Speed it up.'<TH>"

"The truth is, these kids might not be ready to take a world history class when they have been here one year," she said.

Elsie Allen High School English teacher Cynthia McCabe credited No Child Left Behind with bringing English learners into the broader conversation, but said there has been a distinct lack of support or direction for programs that will address the achievement gap.

"It was great to have that light shone for the first time," she said. "But it didn't say anything about how to fix it."

"We need funds for after school programs, for things that they don't get at home," McCabe said.

Despite the sense of urgency among district officials, Santa Rosa City Schools is not lagging the state in English learner scores. Santa Rosa's graduation rate for English learners is equal to the state's.

That's not good enough, officials said.

"I look at the state as an indicator, but I don't look at the state as a goal," Kitamura said. "I want our achievement gap to close as our overall achievement continues to rise."

"It is not just something in Santa Rosa City Schools or Sonoma County," said Jenn Meyers, English learner coordinator for the Sonoma County Office of Education. "It's a crisis across California."

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)