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Local Schools Get Good News and Some Warnings

Ventura County students rank high, but some campuses in low-income areas face U.S. sanctions.

August 16, 2003|Jenifer Ragland and Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writers

Ventura County students continue to outperform their peers across California on annual academic achievement tests, but results released Friday show that more than a dozen campuses face federal sanctions because they aren't improving fast enough.

Those schools, clustered in low-income neighborhoods on the county's west end, must offer to transfer students to other campuses in the fall and pay for their transportation under a new federal law. But a number of factors, including little room in already crowded schools, would very likely limit the numbers of transfers, officials said.

"I don't believe many parents are going to be opting to have their children bused across town," said Oxnard School District Supt. Richard Duarte, who has five schools on the federal discipline list. "It comes down to the relationship of the classroom teacher and the family, and the majority of parents are happy with their teachers."

As in the past, Ventura County's elementary students posted the largest increases on this year's tests, which measure student ability in a variety of areas such as reading, writing and math.

When students achieve proficiency on these rigorous tests, it means they are on track to qualify for admission to a University of California campus, said Charles Weis, Ventura County's superintendent of schools.

"Proficient is a high standard in California," Weis said. "It means they are very competent. The big question is, 'How are we going to house all these kids on UC campuses when they get out of high school?' "

According to a Los Angeles Times analysis of the test-score data released Friday by the California Department of Education, 39% of Ventura County students are proficient or better in language arts, while 38% reached that level in math. Statewide, 35% of students are proficient or better in language and 36% reached that level in math.

The Ventura County data did not include results for schools in Thousand Oaks and Fillmore, which were among 31 school districts statewide inadvertently left out of this year's report. State education officials said they were working to determine the reason for the error.

Moorpark Unified School District and two small elementary-school districts in the Santa Clara Valley -- Mupu and Somis Union -- posted the greatest gains on the 2003 California Standards Tests, taken by second- through 11th-graders this spring.

Peach Hill School in Moorpark had the biggest single-year gain in the county, from 32.5% proficient or better in 2002 to 52.5% this year.

"I can't tell you how excited I am. We are just thrilled," Principal Donna Welch said. She attributed the growth in part to an effort by teachers to spend an extra hour a day focusing on specific problems students were having in reading and math.

"When people work so hard, it makes me so happy that I can come back to them and let them know we made a difference," Welch said.

The Oxnard Union High School District was the only local school system to lose ground on this year's round of testing.

Only a quarter of the district's 15,000 students demonstrated proficiency in math and language arts, down 1.4% compared with the previous year. Camarillo, Oxnard and Rio Mesa high schools each posted percentage gains over the previous year while Pacifica, Channel Islands and Hueneme high schools had a lower percentage of students proving proficiency on the standardized tests.

Oxnard district officials said they have not yet had time to study the results, but said efforts to improve student performance have been hampered by skyrocketing enrollment and an influx of limited-English speakers.

Results also could have been affected by the testing for the first time of all special-education students.

Judy Warner, the district's assistant superintendent of educational services, said she and others plan to review test results for the past three years to identify academic areas that need shoring up.

"Our entire focus is on what is happening in the classroom," Warner said. "I really believe that is the key to improved test scores and we are doing everything possible to help our teachers and students [meet] the standards."

Four of the district's six traditional high schools made the list of 925 campuses in low-income areas statewide that have not boosted test scores sufficiently for at least two years in a row.

Under the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law, those schools must take a number of steps to improve scores, including providing private tutoring, diverting at least 10% of their federal funding to teacher training and busing children to a better-achieving public school in the district. If a school fails to improve over seven years, it could be taken over by the state or a private contractor.

In Ventura, E.P. Foster Elementary is in the second year of the prescribed improvement program. The west Ventura school invested more money in teacher training and adopted new standards-based books.

School officials also offered to fund student transfers, but not a single parent took the school up on it.

"Students have shown tremendous growth," said Pat Walsh, director of student performance for the Ventura Unified School District. "Our parents were able to see that, and none of them wanted to leave."


Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.

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