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Achievement gap large, looming

Ryan Salm/Sierra SunMary Lake, 6, and Kate Halverson-Kolkind, 5, practice an exercise called Matematicas con Frijoles at Kings Beach Elementary School on Monday.
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Students learning English are scoring 40 percent lower in math and English than English-speaking students in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, according to recent standardized test results.

Local educators say that closing the achievement gap between English language learners ” most of whom are Latino ” and native English speakers has been and will remain a top priority for the school district, and note that progress is being made as the gap has narrowed by 10 percent since 2002.

“I’m not going to say that is outstanding, but we are certainly moving in the right direction,” said Jessamy Lasher, the district’s director of curriculum. “We are not moving nearly as fast as we would like or as the federal government demands.”



This past spring, every child in second through 11th grades in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District was required to participate in standardized testing to assess their abilities in math and English/language arts as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

District-wide, students produced a 9 percent improvement in their test scores this year over last. But despite improvements, the district as a whole still fell short of the mark set forth by the state and federal governments.



As such, Truckee Tahoe Unified has been labeled as a “program improvement” district for the second year.

“I would like to think that we can [catch up], but it is going to become more and more difficult as the target for the level of proficiency continues to increase,” said Superintendent Dennis Williams.

In order to meet the No Child Left Behind requirements for program improvement, the district has created a revised Local Educational Agency Plan that outlines the district’s goals for future student proficiency and graduation rates.

“We need to fine-tune our abilities to be diagnostic in our assessment of students. We are hanging our hat on that to get out of program improvement,” Williams said. “But we are facing an uphill challenge because by 2014, every student is supposed to be proficient. That’s not realistic, but it does not deter our determination.”

To see that students district-wide scored only 20 points below the goal of 800 might make the situation appear as though success is near. However, when the points are broken down by English language skills, the disparity is eye-opening.

This year, English-speaking students in the district scored 843 points, but their Spanish-speaking classmates scored 559 points. From second through 11th grade, the gap was sustained for both math and English scores.

“Part of it has to do with what the families are going through,” said Eileen Fahrner, principal at Kings Beach Elementary. “A lot of our parents don’t have a high school education, so the academic language isn’t in the home and parents can’t help with homework. We need to try to pull the family in as well.”

Student test scores were further broken down by school and then by grade. Like the district, each school site is also expected to hit the 800-point benchmark in order to be considered “on track” by No Child Left Behind.

Those schools that do not meet the mark for three years running are considered to be in “program improvement” and are closely monitored by the state. Schools that don’t shape up can lose funding and control of their curriculum.

Kings Beach Elementary is entering program improvement for the third year, and North Tahoe Middle school is entering its fifth year. And as of 2006, Truckee Elementary has also been added to the list.

Those schools shouldn’t feel alone, though. More than 600 California schools were added to the expanding list of poor performers. Only 65 percent of California’s 9,553 schools achieved the prescribed performance level, according to information released this month by Jack O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction.

“The teachers are really feeling the pressure because they are working so hard and yet the gap persists,” Lasher said.

To enhance teachers’ abilities to impact their students, the district brought in intensive training and instruction programs for the teachers that focused on effectively conveying their curriculum, Lasher said.

The district hired community liaisons to visit Spanish-speaking parents and educate them on the school’s requirements and the needs of their children. The liaisons have been so effective that fewer students are returning to Mexico during the school year and more parents are focusing on keeping their children on track academically, Lasher said.

The district also established a summer school program this year for English learners and native speakers who struggle with their English test scores.

“Morale is pretty good because we saw some gains and we keep getting better,” Fahrner said. “We’re just wondering what is that magic thing that is going to pull us out of program improvement. We’re trying it all.”


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