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Rating Mendo Schools

U.S. educational policy has been in freefall for the past two decades. There was the wildly unpopular No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required states to regularly measure and report student performance against certain standards. If states didn’t do it they risked the hammer of losing their federal school funds. Then came the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, which pretty much stripped away federal requirements and turned most everything back to the states and brought us home to roost finally in the recently released California Dashboard, a new performance measurement scheme in effect for the first full year this year.

Dashboards are one of today’s trendiest organizational metaphors, meant to organize information into easily digestible bite-sized pieces – kind of like separating the gauges for the gas level in your car from the one for your engine temperature. California’s Dashboard, blessed by none other than U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos herself, is meant to distill the newest performance measures into what are now considered to be the six most important measures of K-12 education, expressed in a horizontal half moon that sort of looks like a real dashboard, complete with a pointy black indicator that swings from red on the far left (very bad) to blue on the far right (very good). The California Department of Education describes the Dashboard as “an online tool designed to help communities across the state assess important information about K-12 school and districts…and features six state measures that provide important information on how schools are serving their students.”

So…the six key dashboard measures that the feds and therefore the state now consider essential to the success of Mendo’s K-12 students are: (1) Academic Performance (but only for English-language arts/literacy and mathematics); (2) Chronic Absenteeism (school districts receive per-pupil money based on attendance, not enrollment); (3) College/Career Readiness (college and career preparedness); (4) English Learner Progress (measures English proficiency for non-English-speaking students); (5) Graduation Rate; and (6) Suspension Rate. These measures cry out for what’s missing: history (world, American, and California), civics, social studies, political science, life sciences, languages, and the arts. It’s not that public schools can’t teach these subjects anymore, it’s just that the mandated requirements for the six Dashboard measures have to be met first – because that’s how a school’s success is now determined. In a nutshell, those academic subjects of “lesser” importance─virtually all of the humanities, arts, and social sciences─are not, at least in the eyes of our national and state education policymakers, important enough to be acknowledged and measured in the new Dashboard mix. 

The first California Dashboard results for districts and schools, covering the partial year of 2018 after the measurements took effect, were recently released. A failing grade in three or more of the six categories earns a school a red button (failing) grade overall. There were four in Mendocino County: Eel River Charter School (K-6), Covelo, in Round Valley Unified, Pomalita Middle School in Ukiah Unified, Point Arena High School in Point Arena Joint Union, and Manchester Union Elementary School in Manchester Union Elementary. We visited the first two─the first one of the smallest schools in the county and the second one of the largest─to talk with their principals about the new Dashboard in general and how their schools fell into its failure bucket, as well as what they have to do to climb out of that bucket the next mandatory testing go-round.

The town of Covelo, home to just 1,255 souls in the last census, looks like a movie producer’s idealized vision of the perfect rural northern California town. After turning east off Highway 101 onto twisting, two-lane Highway 162 for 30 miles, much of it along the raging Eel River, the serene and pastoral Round Valley opens up, with the town of Covelo right smack in the middle of it. The Eel River K-6 Charter School is on Main Street, home to three teachers and 53 students. The historic school building, which once housed a mercantile that went belly-up during the Great Depression, was built in 1906. Its cavernous interior, painted a cheerful mint green, was filling with students sitting down to their lunch trays at metal picnic tables. With 95% of the school’s students below the poverty level, every student at the school gets a subsidized breakfast and lunch. 38% of the 53 students, or more than a quarter of them, are not native English speakers. 

Tina Wilson

Eel River Charter is too small for a principal so I spoke with Tina Wilson, the school’s business manager. Wilson and her husband raised their two daughters here and, before taking up her current job in 1997, she served two terms on the parent-run school board. The school was chartered in 1993 and opened in 1994, at the beginning of the charter school movement when charters were often far different from traditional schools. Subsequent state laws have since required charters to operate much as traditional schools do. 

“The Dashboard is much more user-friendly for parents,” Wilson said. “It’s basically still the Common Core with a different way to measure it.” She added that Eel River Charter was misleadingly unrated in some categories because of the school’s small sample size. “If one kid has a bad day that’s a 5% reduction in your score,” she said, adding that confidentiality is another a factor when reporting test results if there are 10 or fewer students in a class. “Somebody could say ‘that’s Johnny or that’s Becky,’” she said. That accounts for the absence of the school’s actual academic Dashboard test results. What Eel River got dinged on, however, were absenteeism and suspensions, the new Dashboard’s Holy Grail. Its defenders claim that absenteeism and suspensions can point to problem students who need extra help of some kind. But then there is that money thing, where if a student’s not in school the district loses his or her per-pupil payment, which according to Wilson has increased from around $4,500 per student to about $7,400 statewide. A significant increase, to be sure, though the new, larger amount still puts California in the number 45 spot for per-student spending. The national average is $12,526 per pupil. Critics point out that most of that increase will go to shoring up the teacher pension program and making up for years of underfunded neglect, though Wilson said she hopes with more money to be able to hire another teacher. Then there’s the “Schedule of Preliminary Funding for the Every Student Succeeds Act Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) Local Educational Agencies.” (Nobody does bureaucratize like top-brass educators do.) Looking at Page 4, where Mendo’s schools appear, it looks like a page in the early computer days when a key would get stuck and endlessly print the same thing – in this case $166,211 for EVERY eligible school, regardless of size or any other factor. In what alternative universe would that even make sense? Incidentally, there are three pages describing what that money can and cannot be used for. The single sheet of allowable activities and costs includes things like “capacity building,” “partnering with stakeholders,” “using data to develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate improvement efforts,” and a couple of other vague indecipherables. The list of disallowable expenditures, twice as long, includes such concrete items as “hiring additional permanent staff,” “acquisition of furniture unless it is an integral part of an equipment workstation, “food services” (including meals), and several other actual necessities. 

As to the Dashboard’s actual measurements, Wilson believes in general that, long-term, “a test-oriented culture creates less opportunity for history and social science. It’s all math and English, math and English.” So what happens next, I asked her, do the Dashboard police pay surprise visits to schools that haven’t made the grade, whatever the reason? Wilson said that so far, no surprise here, it has just meant more paperwork. She said that what she’d really appreciate is somebody to help her tiny school navigate the new waters. “They’re telling us that we have to do this and we have to do that, but there’s nobody who comes along to say ‘we want to help you develop a plan.’”

While Eel River Charter is among the smallest schools in the county, Pomalita Middle School with 800 students is the second largest; only Ukiah High, with 1,600 students, is larger. The school is in a green, park-like space in the heart of Ukiah, and its front entrance is covered with cheerful art and inspirational messages. Despite its size and facilities, Pomalita shares many of Eel River Charter’s woes. 78.8% of its students are below the poverty line, and 24.7% are not native English speakers. Also like Eel River Charter, according to the new Dashboard results, Pomalita failed absenteeism and suspensions. More on that later.

Byran Barrett

Though the middle school was technically closed the day I visited because of flooding, Principal Bryan Barrett and his office staff were all working. Barrett is head principal and has two vice principals. He’s a native son, born and raised in Ukiah, and grew up with educators. Before becoming principal at Pomalita nine years ago he was an elementary school teacher. He is one of a rare breed of optimists who, despite being whipsawed over the years between different educational requirements and philosophies, believes that somehow things will all work out in the end. “I’m not fearful because I know we can make these changes,” he said, adding that there’s been no exodus of students from Pomalita to area private schools. He also said that Pomalita has a high graduation rate, that only nine students failed to “walk the stage” last year. “We want to turn out good high school students,” he said. 

As far as the Dashboard is concerned, Barrett said it could be a useful tool for educators and parents. “It’s important that we have a dashboard so that educators and parents know where we need to improve,” he said. “The closer we can get with the lesson, the better off we are.” 

Where Pomalita needs to improve, like Eel River Charter, is in the Dashboard measures for absenteeism and suspensions. “Our low rating [for suspensions] basically says ‘Just stop suspending students,’” he said, adding that suspending students is the easy part of the problem. “Counseling takes more time and effort.” At Pomalita, tackling suspensions dovetails with security. Barrett said that suspensions are higher this year than last, and that his team is breaking down the reasons for the increase. “About 6% are for defiance, 11 % for disruptions, 14% for inappropriate behavior, 5% for dangerous behavior, and 4.8% for drugs,” he said. Using cannabis edibles as an example, he said that identifying drug use on campus can be tricky. “A student was eating what looked to be a high-end chocolate bar,” he explained, when, in fact, it was a high-dosage cannabis product. The school now has a full-time security person and a police officer makes scheduled rounds.

Barrett said that Pomalita is big enough to offer students some art, and there is both a band and a choir. On the exclusive English/math academic emphasis he theorized that once students are proficient in the two foundational disciplines of English and math, they can then branch out to the humanities and social sciences. Maybe. 

A curse to be avoided in advancing age is to compare one’s own educational experiences with those of today’s fresh crop of students. But we all still do it. By far the greatest academic stress looming over my eighth-grade self was the three-hour Constitution Test. My mom spent hours helping me study, drilling me on the federal court system, cabinet positions, the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. It was stressful because you couldn’t go on to high school until you passed it – no exceptions. If as a society we still consider that knowledge to be essential for today’s students to one day fully function as adult citizens, where will those students learn it? 

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