CUSD looks on bright side of improvement plan

It was only a small “subgroup” that tested poorly and got the Chico Unified School District labeled a district that needs improvement.

But instead of crying “no fair,” district leaders are using the designation as a chance to apply for grant dollars and consultants’ expertise in a way that will ultimately improve how students learn in the CUSD.

“We’re going to benefit,” said Assistant Superintendent Cynthia Kampf. “It’s exciting.”

The “program improvement” designation is one of the paradoxes of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind plan: Mathematically, not everyone is going to immediately reach the Adequate Yearly Progress targets set by the federal government. In 2004, at least 12 percent of students should have scored “proficiently” in math and 12 percent in language arts. The percentile is ratcheted up each year, and by 2014, 100 percent must be proficient.

In the CUSD’s case, it was the “students with disabilities,” or special-education, subgroup that failed to meet state and federal targets. With few exceptions, students must all take the same standardized test, even if they have learning disabilities or speak no English.

“What we have to do for the state is report the negative,” said Kampf, who predicts matter-of-factly that the CUSD will probably fail to meet state targets for its English-language learners next year. The district is in the first year of program improvement—the “planning” stage. If a district goes three years without meeting its goals, it enters a “corrective-action” stage that could include replacing staff or even a state takeover of the school.

The CUSD is among 145 school districts statewide in the predicament. “Within five years, every district in the state that takes Title I money is going to be in ‘district improvement,'” Kampf said, referencing the grant funding that comes with a low-income student population.

The program-improvement designation comes with some money—$310,000—to hire an outside consultant and implement changes that should improve learning and raise test scores. “It gives us money to put into practice some things that we haven’t been able to.”

A 24-member District Leadership Team for Program Improvement worked with an external entity, WestEd, to identify areas where the district falls short and create a Local Educational Agency (LEA) Plan to improve classroom learning. Each school then got a copy of the district-wide LEA Plan and created a campus plan.

Problems identified included: standards-based textbooks not provided to all students, lack of communication with the community, inadequate professional development and a less-than-ideal data management system.

The CUSD plans to raise its expectations of traditionally low-scoring populations, improve cooperation, increase parent involvement and resist “blaming circumstances beyond the control of the district.”

Kampf said that, while some earlier efforts at improvement came up short, this time schools will have the help of outside consultants through December. “WestEd is going to be in every school, monitoring.”