12 Sonoma County schools land on low-performing list, including two impacted by the wildfires

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Low-performing schools

The state identified 12 Sonoma County schools as low performing. They are:

Dunbar Elementary School

Laguna High School

Windsor Oaks Academy

Montgomery Elementary School

California Virtual Academy

Schaefer Charter School

Pivot Online Charter-North Bay

Gateway to College Academy

Carpe Diem High School

Sonoma Mountain High School

San Antonio High School

Ridgway High School

See full report here

Twelve Sonoma County schools made the state Department of Education’s list of lowest-performing schools, released quietly this month.

Among the 12, half are continuation high schools — an alternative for students who may have poor attendance, drug problems or behavioral issues. Two public schools and three public charters also made the list, including Schaefer Charter School in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, a neighborhood in the process of rebuilding after the 2017 Tubbs fire leveled entire streets.

School officials said they aren’t surprised their campuses landed on the state list, but to keep morale high they’re moving forward, leaning on community support and social and emotional services for traumatized students.

“We knew that we lost a lot of instructional time due to the fires,” said Kathy Harris, Schaefer principal. “We don’t want the fires to define who we are, but we don’t want to ignore that it happened.”

The list of 781 lowest-performing schools was made public two weeks ago without mass notification or a news release. State officials said they released the list without much ado to avoid emphasizing negative labels.

“All schools and districts have strengths and challenges. Every school and district can improve,” said Scott Roark, a spokesman for the California Department of Education. The state is required to identify the poor-performing schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Schools make this list based on English and math standardized test scores, suspension rates, chronic absenteeism and other indicators from the California School Dashboard. High schools with a graduation rate of less than 67 percent averaged over two years also are considered low performing.

At Schaefer, students took state standardized tests in math and English last April — six months after the 2017 wildfires. The tests were taken by third- through sixth-graders who didn’t have sufficient time to prepare, Harris said. Students had missed three weeks of class during the fires and then were split between three different campuses after their school closed for over two months as a result of air quality concerns from toxic debris cleanup from burned homesites in the surrounding neighborhood.

In the district, 133 students and 12 teachers lost their homes.

One third-grade teacher last year had a class of 22 students, 10 of whom had lost their homes. The teacher “was really focused on keeping her students together, emotionally” in the aftermath of the fires, Harris said.

“I know that testing was the bottom of the priority list last year,” Harris said.

However, Schaefer struggled with the tests before the fires. In 2018, 33 percent of Schaefer students who took the state tests met English standards and 21 percent met math standards, a few percentage points higher than the previous year.

Harris credits the improved English test scores to a writing program introduced three years ago, presented to K-6 students in a workshop format. Students impacted by the fires were able to therapeutically express their thoughts and emotion through writing.

“I’m expecting them to be much better (this year) because we’ve done so much work on curriculum and professional development,” said Harris, who became principal last summer and has made ample efforts to keep the school engaged with the community.

Dunbar Elementary, a Glen Ellen school impacted by the fires, also landed on the lowest- performing schools list. The 200-student campus closed for three weeks after the 2017 wildfires erupted.

Low-performing schools

The state identified 12 Sonoma County schools as low performing. They are:

Dunbar Elementary School

Laguna High School

Windsor Oaks Academy

Montgomery Elementary School

California Virtual Academy

Schaefer Charter School

Pivot Online Charter-North Bay

Gateway to College Academy

Carpe Diem High School

Sonoma Mountain High School

San Antonio High School

Ridgway High School

See full report here

Socorro Shiels, Sonoma Valley superintendent, said the district is working to get additional mental health services, but it can be a challenge to bring providers in from other towns. “I think all the families were affected by the fires,” Shiels said.

Before the low-performing designation, the school was already looking for ways to improve, implementing college-readiness strategies adopted by thousands of schools and developed by Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, a San Diego-based nonprofit.

About 28 percent of Dunbar students met English standards last year, compared to 30 percent the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of students who met math standards remained about the same over the two years.

Dunbar Principal Jillian Beall said she’s working with staff to boost morale in spite of the low-performing label, and teachers have been energized by AVID.

“We’re just excited to move forward,” Beall said.

Eighty-one percent of Dunbar students qualify for free and reduced meals, and 59 percent are English language learners, who require more academic support. As a low-performing school, Dunbar can apply for about $166,000 in comprehensive support and improvement funds, according to the state. Shiels said the district plans to do so.

Brian Bushon, resident of Coffey Park and parent of a Schaefer student, said his family has had a good experience at their neighborhood school, where the Coffey Strong group holds its meetings. He said his first- grader is excelling at spelling and subtraction.

“It was an abnormal year last year. You can’t use that as a track. It’s not a good place to rate where the school was at,” said Bushon, who pointed to attendance being affected. “You had kids who were emotionally affected by this, and their performance has gone down.”

Piner-Olivet and Santa Rosa City Schools applied for a waiver for fire-affected school districts from administering the state English and math standardized tests. The waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in the fall. By then, the Piner-Olivet district already had tested its students, and the Santa Rosa district decided to forgo the tests.

For Santa Rosa City Schools, math and English scores on the California School Dashboard remains the same as the year before the fires, and so far there has been no financial penalty. The district expects to hear an update from the state soon, which will be presented at the Feb. 27 board meeting, according to a district spokesperson.

“We will move forward, as we know this was the right thing to do for our recovering community and students,” the district wrote in a December newsletter.

Pivot Online Charter-North Bay, a virtual school of about 400 students with a tutoring and resource center in Santa Rosa, also was identified by the state as low performing. Executive Director Jayna Gaskell said the school is an option for students who may not fit in a traditional school model. Some students come because they’ve been bullied or have chronic health issues and need a flexible online school schedule.

Next month the school will apply for the Dashboard Alternative School Status. The school’s mission is to “re-pivot students to improve,” Gaskell said.

“I’m not surprised by the low scores,” Gaskell said. “It is important to us to make sure our kids are making progress.”

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

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