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Sonoma County schools overall continue to post gains on California's key measure of academic performance, yet more local schools than ever have fallen behind academic targets set forth under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In addition, local students are not making gains on the state scale at the same rate as their peers across the state.

While county students increased their scores by an average of nine points on the state scale, California schools overall on average boosted their performance on the Academic Performance Index by 13 points. Sonoma County remains ahead of the state's average on the API score at 779, compared with 767.

The state goal is 800 out of a possible 1,000.

Both the API and the federal No Child Left Behind law's adequate yearly progress targets are based largely on the Standardized Testing and Reporting program exams given to students in grades two through 11 each spring.

"The rest of the state is catching up and we need to analyze why we are not making as much progress year-to-year," said Sonoma County Office of Education Superintendent Carl Wong.

Last year, Sonoma County schools posted an average jump of 15 points. Still, a number of schools in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties posted massive gains. Calpella Elementary in Ukiah tops that list with a spike of 86 points, while Kawana Elementary in the Bellevue District surged 70 points.

West Side Elementary in Healdsburg and Rincon Valley Charter School gained 65 points, and Cook Middle School in Santa Rosa gained 61 points.

Still, more Sonoma County campuses than ever before fell into program improvement — the penalty portion of the federal No Child Left Behind Law.

Last year, 33 schools started program improvement sanctions. There were 40 this year. No school or district in the county exited, said Nancy Brownell, county Office of Education assistant superintendent. Only schools that receive federal Title 1 funds, which target low-income students, can be hit with sanctions.

Statewide, 52 percent of campuses receiving Title 1 money are in program improvement, said Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of schools.

Nearly 570 schools fell under Year 1 sanctions after missing two consecutive years of target scores, while only 83 campuses exited program improvement.

Targets are climbing by about 11 percent each year until 2013-2014 when all students will be required to be proficient or advanced in core subjects.

"What kind of accountability system do you have when 100 percent of your schools are going to be program improvement" by 2013-14?, O'Connell said Monday as the state Department of Education published the results.

"I think the fairest, accurate portrayal of a school's performance is improvement," he said. "The starting line is not the same for all students."

Local educators expressed equal parts pride and frustration that county students continue to post academic gains while an increasing number of campuses are falling under sanctions that can lead to replacement of staff, school closure and other options.

"It's really no surprise to anyone that more and more districts are falling into program improvement and more and more schools are falling into program improvement because that is the model the (federal) government is using," said Sharon Liddell, superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools.

Santa Rosa, the county's largest school district, is expected to enter Year 3 of program improvement sanctions this year for failing to meet the necessary benchmarks for all of its subgroups.

A final determination on program improvement status for schools and districts serving 12th graders isn't expected until November because of a delay in the processing of the most recent graduation data.

But amid the concern over more schools in Sonoma County and statewide falling deeper into federal penalties, some local campuses posted eye-popping numbers.

In Sonoma County, the largest point gain was earned by the students and staff at Kawana Elementary School.

The Moraga Drive school had been placed just last spring on the state Department of Education's list of 188 "persistently lowest achieving" schools. The list makes campuses eligible for federal School Improvement Grant funding, but also requires some major changes, including changing principals, becoming a charter or at the extreme, closing the school, .

Kawana, where 97 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 65 to 70 percent are English language learners, posted a 54-point gain last year. This year, they topped it with a surge of 67 points — tops in the county. The school's score now is 744.

"Rather than go into a classroom and see what a teacher is doing, we are trying to see what the kids are showing," said Principal Jesse Escobedo, who called the school's inclusion on the state's watch list last spring "a slap in the face."

Sixth-grade teacher Kulbir Sandhu said she has raised the level of discussion of literature with her students while also incorporating science and social science in many discussions.

"You decide that, &‘My kids are capable of a lot more' and you give it to them," she said. "Every moment in the classroom is spent teaching, not a moment is wasted. You challenge the child and the challenge will be met."

At Sheppard Accelerated Elementary School, where 89 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged and 72 percent are English language learners, the students posted a 39-point gain to top the state's goal of an 800 API score.

Principal Jenny Young praised the Sheppard staff for its "commitment to high expectations, academic expectations."

"I just couldn't be more proud of the students," she said.

In Mendocino County, Calpella Elementary School's 86-point gain brought its API score up to 761.

West Side Elementary School posted the third-largest gain in three counties, but Superintendent and Principal Rhonda Bellmer said the scores, although well above the vaunted 800 threshold, do not give a full picture of her school or any school.

"We have the same wonderful staff that worked just as hard as they did last year," when the school's numbers showed a significant decline, she said.

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