The miseducation of Sac High

There were plenty of plans to improve the school, and expensive programs were in place. Then, reality set in.

Kevin Johnson, founder of St. Hope Corp., hopes to reinvent Sac High as a charter school, in spite of loud public protest.

Kevin Johnson, founder of St. Hope Corp., hopes to reinvent Sac High as a charter school, in spite of loud public protest.

Photo by Larry Dalton

During a public meeting held in the Little Theater at Sacramento High School in December, a representative of the state’s Department of Education dropped a bomb on the audience: In 1998, only three out of every 10 students at Sac High could read at grade level. In the last three years, even as extra dollars were pouring into the school, that number had dropped to 2.5 out of 10. In math, only 4.1 of every 10 students could perform at grade level.

This snapshot of failing academic performance given to the Sacramento Unified School District Board of Education was enough to make some parents at the meeting gasp. Adults murmured that this was the first they’d heard of it.

That was one of the problems at Sacramento High, the district superintendent would later claim. The Oak Park community should have been concerned about school performance much earlier. Parents say that if they’d been made aware of falling scores earlier, they certainly would have been concerned.

The data presented by the state showed that students defined as “socioeconomically disadvantaged” had made some overall improvement since 1999, but very little. African-American students had improved between 1999 and 2000 but then had dropped below their 1999 scores by 2002. Hispanic students had improved in 2002 but hadn’t in previous years. Overall, scores were simply dismal.

The upshot was that Sac High was facing state sanctions, meaning the state was obligated to intervene, by reassigning the principal, by conducting an academic audit to find out what went wrong, or by any of a number of other options that bottomed out with school closure.

At that meeting on December 11, district Superintendent Jim Sweeney, who has been viewed by many as a powerful and intractable force in education, said that to keep the state from exercising its broad powers of control over Sac High, which could happen at any time, the board needed to present the state with a viable solution as soon as possible. He proposed closing the school in June and opening it as a charter school in the fall of 2003—with the help of one of the community’s most respected leaders.

Enter Kevin Johnson.

“We have a packed house here,” said the attractive ex-basketball star with the boyish grin. “Must not be a Kings game tonight.”

Johnson told the audience that he and his team at St. Hope Corp. were designing a charter-school plan that would improve on the best elements of Sacramento High School. The school’s stellar Visual and Performing Arts Centre, or VAPAC—a superstar program that offers training in dance, drama, music, animation, radio, photography, writing and visual arts—would be expanded and supported. Parent involvement would be an integral and non-negotiable part of the new school, and students would enter into “small learning communities” of fewer than 500 students each. Those learning communities, each dedicated to either the arts, medicine, social services or business, would be schools within schools where students worked consistently with the same group of teachers and peers. And yes, Johnson assured those shell-shocked parents in the audience, academic excellence would be expected from all students.

This information, presented to the public for the first time at the December 11 meeting, divided the school community almost immediately into two camps: those who thought the school needed to be reinvented from the ground up, as in Johnson’s plan; and those who thought recent reforms could turn scores around—provided they were given enough time to work.

Public comment that night was cautious, but it took a nasty turn in the weeks that followed, partly because the district presented Johnson’s charter proposal as a foregone conclusion. VAPAC students and teachers, parents from the VAPAC booster clubs and students from the school’s health-studies program joined teachers from McClatchy High, union leaders and alumni to protest closure—often at the tops of their voices. To them, it looked as if Sacramento’s second-oldest high school was sliding into the pockets of a nonprofit corporation that didn’t have the track record to run a troubled high school.

In the few weeks following December 11, both sides waged a passionate battle during a series of long, vitriolic public meetings that bordered on being riotous but came to a peaceful end on January 21 with the board’s 4-3 vote for closure.

This is the new slogan for Oak Park parents frustrated with falling student performance.

Photo by Larry Dalton

But, for many involved, two serious questions remain: How could such a passionate fight to keep the school open end in failure? And how could Sac High, even with the infusion of so many tax dollars, fail to improve in the first place?

One could simplify the issue and say that Sac High faced closure for one reason and one reason only: The administration had volunteered for the state’s Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program, or II/USP for short. The program offered volunteering schools $50,000 to design a new school plan and $200 per kid per year to implement the plan in an effort to improve performance on the state’s standardized tests. Schools had to make 5-percent progress toward their Academic Performance Index goals for two years in a row. If they failed, they found themselves in Sac High’s situation: Of 430 volunteering schools statewide, Sac High had just been identified as one of only 24 that couldn’t meet those targets.

Concerned about state sanctions, school-board members came together in Sac High’s auditorium on January 11 to vote on whether to close Sac High. Instead, they listened to hours and hours of public comment.

Those who spoke for closure pointed to the test scores and said the whole school was “broken” and that Johnson was the one who could fix it.

The other side, calling to keep Sac High open, was louder.

“You don’t have to close it to improve it,” said a speaker trying to save Sac High. “You have to close it to give it to Kevin Johnson!”

Though the board had said publicly that it welcomed other charter proposals, Johnson obviously had a head start. It made some community members suspicious. Attacking St. Hope became one of three main strategies for opposing closure. The other two favorites were to blame the administration for mismanagement of the school or to defend Sac High by saying that the low test scores told an inaccurate story.

Those attacking St. Hope didn’t trust the organization because it had never managed a high school. Students and educators involved in programs like VAPAC felt that their programs would be compromised needlessly under new management, especially since those programs’ students already performed fairly well academically.

“If you have a very expensive piece of cloth,” said one man, “why would you put it in the hands of an inexperienced tailor just to save a few dollars?”

Those blaming the district and the board mentioned the instability of leadership. One teacher said he’d worked for nine principals in five years and that each one had implemented new plans before the previous plans had had a chance to succeed or fail. Another said he was still copying textbooks for his students because Sac High lacked critical resources. Still others said that small learning communities already had been implemented at Sac High that fall. Why reinvent the whole school if the most important piece of the proposed charter plan was already in place and showing early signs of success?

Those who defended the school thought the test scores had been skewed by student disinterest, and they wanted Sac High to remain a public institution—one that remained accountable to public taxpayers. The board had been elected to protect and improve schools like Sac High, and the audience wanted to hold the board to it.

From the back rows at that January 11 meeting, came a sustained chant: “Do your job! Do your job!” the audience yelled at the school board. The chant was applauded uproariously.

Board members, who refrained from responding to the comments, made a few notes and listened impassively. Occasionally, a speaker would bring up a point, such as whether a new charter school could be accredited by the right authorities in time to help its first seniors into college, and Sweeney would look up thoughtfully and put his fingers to his lips. It was true that students from unaccredited schools would have a harder time getting into college and receiving financial aid.

William Zinn, Sac High’s orchestra director, passionately protested a charter or any other reform that could threaten the school’s successful arts program.

Photo by Larry Dalton

After hours of passionate comment, the great majority of which was in opposition to closure, one parent asked the obvious question: “How can you support this when you see that the community doesn’t want it?”

The applause and the shouting overwhelmed the board’s president, Robert Fong, who tried to regain control by banging his gavel and pleading for quiet. With the crowd at near frenzy, he called for a 10-minute break and was met by such a wave of protest that he had to reduce the break to five minutes. The audience, committed to opposition after listening to hours of accusation and rumor, couldn’t see that what it was booing with all its misspent energy was nothing more than a potty break.

When the board reconvened to discuss closure, board member Manny Hernandez said he was “uncomfortable” with the possibility of closing the school before he could investigate issues like accreditation. He prevailed by constantly repeating his concerns in a polite, cheerful voice until he wore out even the most aggressive audience members at about 1:30 a.m. There would be no vote that day.

The two-week delay between that meeting and the vote planned for January 21 threw teams of angry teachers and parents into quick action to save their school. It also threw some of them into serious soul-searching. Why had the school failed? Could current reforms really save it?

A group of teachers and community members who had designed recent reforms at Sac High went back to the drawing board in hopes of offering an alternative to closure.

In the fall of 2002, under the group’s recommendations for “education in the 21st century” or “e21,” the first crop of freshmen had entered Sac High as members of small learning communities. Those small communities of students would work with core groups of teachers for the first two years and then transition into “academies,” or theme-based, small learning communities. The plan was to transition all Sac High students into the e21 program by 2003 and to add more academies on additional subjects over time.

Though e21 offered hope for improving performance at Sac High without reinvention under a charter, it also had its resisters.

VAPAC and its beloved orchestra director, William Zinn, had fought e21 just as strongly as they would fight St. Hope. Under e21, and under the St. Hope plan, VAPAC would have to stop offering all its classes to the whole school and become an autonomous academy that didn’t just focus on the arts, but also provided its few hundred core students with classes in English, math and science.

VAPAC’s resistance was one of the things that convinced Sweeney and others that e21 couldn’t save Sac High. The environment at the school, Sweeney claimed, wasn’t conducive to a cooperative reform effort.

Even as the e21 planning group (which included Zinn, despite his reservations) tried to revamp its plan, group members feared it was just another expensive experiment that would get ditched before it had time to work.

That was one of the reasons teachers were so resistant to talk about new programs. They’d dedicated hundreds of hours to planning and implementing e21.

The grant that funded the program offered $228,000 a year no matter who managed it, as long as organizers implemented small learning communities.

As the teachers discussed the future of Sac High, they hit on some of the challenges that might follow the school right into the hands of new management. Sac High educated a large percentage of students who were learning English as a second language, the school managed a sizable special-education program, and the school drew deaf students from around the county. Those students’ test scores contributed equally to the overall performance of Sac High.

Sacramento Unified School District Superintendent Jim Sweeney believed that the environment at Sac High was too fractious for newly instituted reforms to improve student performance.

Photo by Larry Dalton

A remedial reading program that the teachers respected had been cut because of a lack of funding, and as an open public school, Sac High had to test and place new students mid-year, even when some came in reading at the third-grade level.

Obviously, these things could have affected overall performance, but they weren’t the school’s only challenges.

Mutiu Fagbayi, an independent evaluator with Performance Fact Inc., had helped design the II/USP plan for student improvement for Sac High. Asked why the school had failed, even with the support of extra funds, he pointed to a list of differences usually observed between low-performing and high-performing schools.

Low-performing schools seemed to lack a shared vision, he said. The schools tended to offer their greatest resources, accredited teachers and materials, to succeeding students, as opposed to those most in need. At low-performing schools, educators tended to blame low student performance on uninvolved parents and then let their students skate because “your life is already so difficult. Therefore, I won’t push you too hard.” Educators in these schools also couldn’t find the time to work collectively on professional development, which deprived them of opportunities to share student information. Finally, these schools suffered constant turnover and instability in leadership.

“Change is driven by the administrative cycle,” explained Zinn at the e21 meeting to revamp the program’s plan. He implied that administrators wanted to make their mark on a school and then get out before the consequences hit.

“Sac High should be a destination, rather than a stepping stone,” he said.

If Sac High showed some of the signs of under-performing schools mentioned by Fagbayi, it also nurtured some of the district’s successes. That’s why so many teachers and parents would protest the closure so bitterly.

Nancy Reclusado, who ran the prestigious health academy, remembered when approximately 20 of her 60 or so students had GPAs under 1.0. (This year, only about five of them do. She has a 100-percent graduation rate, and almost all her recent students have gone on to college.)

Reclusado had earned her own grants and had managed her own budget, but even her grant money had been pilfered to buy textbooks for another department. The error had been explained away, but it had led to deepening mistrust.

Teachers and others questioned how funds had been spent on campus. The grant that had funded e21 and the state’s II/USP dollars seemed to have left little mark on the campus, and they had been given to the school specifically to improve performance.

Former Principal Judy Billingsley, who left this December to take a post with the district office, was shocked by the school’s low performance—especially, she said, after everyone had worked so hard to implement the many programs outlined in the II/USP plan. The extensive list of programs included everything from partnerships with local businesses to restructuring the school day for greater flexibility.

Asked why performance had dropped, Billingsley said she was unsure but thought it had something to do with the school trying to accomplish so many new goals at once. The school had done everything that was recommended for success but couldn’t do any of it very well. As for the II/USP money, she said, it went mainly to pay more teachers.

At Sacramento High School, an advisory group of parents and educators called a school site council, should have assisted Billingsley and teachers with the implementation of the II/USP plan, but such a council didn’t even exist, one audience member told the board.

Former Principal Judy Billingsley thinks Sac High implemented too many reforms at once, making it difficult for any of them to succeed.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“By law,” she said, “you’re supposed to have one!”

There is still some question as to whether other advisory teams inherited some of the responsibilities of a school site council.

While some teachers were working on the reinvention of e21 and others were trying to understand the budgets, still others were using the two-week delay to research new laws that govern education. Through a presentation on state and federal education law, parents and teachers learned what benefits the district might receive by closing the school this spring. Patricia Rucker, a representative of the California Teachers Association, had an extensive knowledge of education law. She started her presentation with what was, at the time, a showstopper.

The California Department of Education had implied in November that it would delay any official action against under-performing schools from the II/USP until March 2003. Despite Sweeney’s stated concern that the state could impose sanctions at any time, it was unlikely that Sac High’s situation even would be addressed by the state before March. And when state officials did decide to act, they would turn their attention first to the lowest-performing schools. Sac High’s test scores were cause for concern—only 12 percent of graduates could meet application standards for California state colleges and universities—but they were hardly the lowest.

A score of 800 out of 1,000 possible points was the school’s target for the Academic Performance Index, a number that was derived by looking at student scores on standardized tests. Sacramento High School only reached an average score of 580 in 1998, which became its baseline. In 1999, the year in which the administration was putting together the II/USP school-improvement plan, the average actually increased to 600. But, as the plan went into effect, performance dropped to a score of 569 in 2001 and dropped again to 564 in 2002.

The drop might be attributed to a lack of cooperation, too many conflicting goals or too few funds. But if funds were an issue at Sac High, they’d just become a much bigger issue for the state: Politicians like Jack O’Connell, the new state Superintendent of Public Instruction, likely will remember 2003 for its extreme budget deficit.

With the budget in mind, was the state really going to take over the management of California’s 24 failing II/USP schools? Rucker said she didn’t think so.

The actual sanctions allowed under II/USP included: permitting students to attend other schools, allowing parents to apply for a charter school, assigning management to a school-management organization, reassigning principals and other employees, renegotiating collective bargaining agreements, reorganizing the school, closing the school, or placing a trustee at the school for up to three years.

As an alternative to all this, the state could ask for an audit from a School Assistance and Intervention Team, a SAIT, that independently would look for the reasons why the school had failed to make progress under II/USP.

The California Department of Education had shown a preference, under outgoing state Superintendent Delaine Eastin, for the organization of SAITs, which meant that even if the state took action, it probably would research the problem before applying sanctions.

Rucker also reminded the audience that in spite of the district’s support for a charter, the state effectively had inherited that decision when the school failed to succeed after two years of II/USP. Any charter petition would have to be approved by O’Connell, the new state superintendent.

When an audience member told Rucker that the board hoped to receive a waiver from sanctions so that it could implement its own plan, Rucker’s response was firm. “They’re not going to get it,” she said.

The audience assumed that the local school board wanted to avoid state control. But Rucker was a thinking person, she said in her Southern drawl, so she looked to the new federal reform, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Sac High students are attending a school slated for closure, and many don’t know if they’ll return in the fall.

Photo by Larry Dalton

That act, Rucker said, moved some of the responsibility for failure from the individual school to the districts and the states. It was possible that the district was trying to avoid sanctions for itself, Rucker suggested. The district might not want Sacramento High School showing up on report cards as a failure.

“Sounds to me,” Rucker told the crowd, “like the district wants to use this as a model for other independent charters.”

Rucker’s ideas were interesting, and they may have added weight to the idea that the school’s closure had been a done deal from the beginning, but the community was out of time, and proving motive wasn’t easy.

The board reconvened at the auditorium at Sac High on Tuesday, January 21. Unwilling to suffer through another ferocious attack, the board chose to limit public comment to 30 minutes for each side, and then board members would discuss the issue amongst themselves and vote.

The crowd seemed made up of almost exactly the same people who attended previous meetings. The teachers sat in a clump at the back of the lower tier of seats. Labor supporters waved purple Sac High flags from a spot to the right. Down in front, St. Hope supporters convened, wearing new black T-shirts to go with the lavender stickers they’d worn last time. “Our kids need hope at Sac High,” they read.

The only T-shirts especially prepared for those opposing closure were ironic and sad. “I’m a teacher for Sac High,” said one. “Just sell me on eBay.”

Zinn had organized a dozen or so speakers. Each asked the board to keep the school open. Each added a new argument to the growing list of reasons.

The president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People urged the board not to give up on education for Oak Park kids. If the board voted for closure, he said, he had two recommendations for it: Pass the charter for St. Hope as quickly as possible and then resign as Sac City Unified’s board of directors.

Fong immediately had to begin banging his gavel for silence.

Another speaker told the board that though Johnson had good intentions, his plan did not have the support of the public, and only a common goal could pull the community back together.

Ruth Holbrook, a known labor leader, asked that member Richard Jennings excuse himself from the vote because he had been a founding member of St. Hope Corp.

David Smart, representing the Parent-Teacher Association, reminded the board that a school site council had not existed since before 1996. The board hadn’t been following the laws when it came to implementing II/USP, he said. It was time to start. “Bring on the state,” he said.

Zinn, who followed them all, was unusually subdued.

Margaret Fortune of St. Hope led the fight to close Sac High by claiming that the school was “broken” and needed to be completely reinvented.

Photo by Larry Dalton

This battle to save the school reminded him of “an acrimonious divorce during Christmas.” Suggesting that the students would be traumatized forever by this closure, Zinn finished his appeal: “Let’s stay together,” he said, “for the children.”

Margaret Fortune, the spokeswoman for St. Hope’s “Reinvent Sac High” campaign, made her point through a more dramatic gesture.

“I don’t believe the whole community has spoken,” said Fortune, her voice wavering. “If you feel your voice has not been heard,” she said to the audience, “please stand.”

A loud shift occurred while hundreds of audience members stood and silently gave their support to Fortune and St. Hope. Though numbers were hard to gauge, those standing appeared to make up slightly more than half the audience. The voices on the other side had been so loud, so angry, so full of suspicion and accusation. Here were those who wanted a change but didn’t want to shout about it. If they were a true representation of the community, then St. Hope and school closure really did have the appropriate community support.

“We speak with one voice,” she said, before yielding the remainder of her time to the board for its deliberation.

The silence around Fortune was powerful. The loudest and angriest were quiet. Slowly, the audience members sat down.

But the board was not allowed to begin to deliberate. Two unscheduled speakers rose to finish out the public comment.

Lauren Hammond, a City Council member for the district surrounding Sac High, urged the board to vote against closure, in spite of how surprised people might have been by her suggestion. Hammond regularly had partnered with St. Hope to revitalize Oak Park.

“This issue,” she told the board simply, “is tearing us apart.”

Johnson spoke last. He put his hands on either side of the podium and told the board, “Regardless of how you vote, we’ll be part of the community, part of Sac High, part of Oak Park.”

Johnson already had received a commitment of millions of dollars to open charter schools in Sacramento, even if he didn’t open one at Sac High.

The board’s Hernandez, after hearing from Sweeney that as a charter school, Sac High could still be accredited, began immediately to defend the school’s performance scores. Students had admitted that they’d intentionally bombed the tests to spite the principal, he said. The school had gone from having 94 percent credentialed teachers to having 85 percent in the previous couple of years. A greater number of lower-performing students were taking the test now.

Those issues might have pushed Sac High’s scores down, but a majority of the board appeared to agree with Sweeney. The environment of Sac High needed a complete overhaul, and in spite of the good things Sac High had done for some of its students, the district needed to do better with those 7.5 students out of every 10 who couldn’t read at grade level.

Board member Roy Grimes argued that Sac High deserved an academic audit. If nothing else, whatever the audit discovered could be applied to other schools struggling in Sacramento.

“These kids don’t have time to wait,” said board member Karen Young.

Board members Young, Fong, Jennings and Jay Schenirer voted for closure. Hernandez and the two newest board members, Grimes and Dawn McCoy, voted to keep the school open. Student representative Lisa Nguyen cast a vote that would have tied the district at 4-4. But, as a student member, her vote was only for the record.

The fight to save Sac High was over, but the fight to save its students was just entering a new phase.