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More freshmen are failing math in the Santa Rosa school district

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Less than a year after Santa Rosa school board trustees approved a college-preparatory course requirement for high school students to graduate, the district found more freshmen are failing mathematics.

About 21 percent of ninth-graders earned an F in math, an increase of nearly 7-percentage points compared with freshmen the previous year. The district rolled out a more rigorous course called Math 1, which integrates algebra and geometry and meets requirements to qualify for state university systems. The course change also reflects the district’s shift toward heterogeneous grouping, or classes with students of mixed-ability.

“With a new implementation, there usually is a dip,” said Anna-Marie Guzman, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.

Last April, the school board adopted the more rigorous graduation requirement, starting with this year’s freshmen, amid a crowd of Latino students and families, who urged the district to squash its two-track system that channeled high school students into either a university-bound courseload or classes that would qualify them for vocational and community college. They argued the district would level the playing field for minorities by requiring students to complete the so-called A-G courses, which cover seven different subjects, including history, math and lab sciences, that are needed to get into the state’s public universities.

However, some teachers, counselors and students have criticized the district, saying it rushed to implement the college-prep course requirement without putting in place enough supportive services.

District officials defended the decision as a way to be more inclusive, desegregate students and better prepare them for an evolving world.

Jenni Klose, the school board president, said the decision to move to college preparatory courses was about civil rights. The previous system negatively affected students of color, she said.

In 2017, 15.8 percent of Latino graduates in the district had completed college-preparatory courses, compared with 40.5 percent of white students. The gap was wider than state and county figures.

“The idea of waiting when you’re dealing with a civil rights issue didn’t weigh right with me, and ultimately with the board as a whole,” Klose said at a meeting earlier this month.

Additionally, a state law passed last fall makes it impractical for courses to be anything but A-G, Klose said.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown last September signed into law AB 2735, which prohibits English-language learners from being denied enrollment into core courses required for high school graduation or college admission.

More than half of California school districts have made the move to college preparatory classes for all, according to district officials.

Nevertheless, some teachers say the transition has been difficult and more students are struggling. They’ve asked for smaller counselor-to-student ratios, more classroom aides, smaller class sizes and more tutors.

“Level of rigor is a real concern. We would like our college prep classes to actually prepare our kids for college,” said Margie Bradylong, math department chair at Maria Carrillo High School.

Will Lyon, the teachers union president, said faculty aren’t only concerned with F grades, but with Ds, too. While they’re still a passing grade, Ds also take an emotional toll on students, Lyon said.

Last school year, 28.4 percent of freshman had a D or F in math. This year the rate was 38.3 percent.

“These kids have souls. You’re telling them that they’re almost a failure,” Lyon said at a board meeting last month.

“My analysis is math teachers and counselors are having the most amount of trouble with the transition, but English, science and world language are also struggling with some of these same issues,” Lyon said.

District officials say there are multiple support services, including extended hours at the college and career centers, parent meetings for students who failed math, an upcoming professional development day and reaching out to community partners.

Different types of tutoring services are available, including peer-to-peer, online and with volunteers, a district official said. However, it’s unclear whether the district has hired additional tutors since adopting the college-prep course requirement.

The district is compiling information on tutoring services, but a district spokesman did not provide a date of when it would be available.

Last week, Superintendent Diann Kitamura was scheduled to meet with superintendents from the nine feeder districts to discuss curriculum — the first time they’ve met for that purpose.

“We’ve heard from a lot of staff who have concerns and frustrations, but I know that we’ve also heard from a number of staff who would not ever go back in terms of not having heterogeneous grouping,” Kitamura said.

Jill McCormick, a school board trustee who previously taught at Piner High School and now works at the Santa Rosa Junior College, said last week that while the shift to college-prep courses is controversial, it creates opportunities for students.

McCormick said she has taught both homogeneous and heterogeneous classrooms, and it was a simpler and easier workload to teach a course where everyone is at about the same level. But it’s not reflective of life outside of school, she said.

“It’s very hard and very frustrating and you’re exhausted as an educator trying to make it happen. But when it does happen, it’s more powerful, it’s more beneficial, and I really feel like it’s more realistic for what they’re going to face as adults,” said McCormick, who was appointed to the board last fall.

“Real change is real hard,” she added. “And I think that all of us, all the players, need to be involved in this and we gotta keep being creative and figuring out ways to tackle this and keep moving forward.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage point increase in failing math grades. It has been corrected.

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