Oroville school doesn't belong on 'persistently low-achieving' list

I would like to clarify the information that was published in last week’s Gazette-Tribune about the Oroville schools as well as point out that we had a very productive board meeting last week that was not reported on, except for one item. I was more than a little disappointed that only one item from our meeting was given any attention. We actually honored our board members, as Tonasket did, and had some excellent reports given, yet our headline was very negative. For complete and accurate board meeting agendas and minutes please visit our district’s website at www.oroville.wednet.edu.

I would like to headline last week about our schools. Oroville Schools are actually persistently improving. The headline last week made our schools out to look quite dismal, which is truly not the case. Our community can be very proud of both schools as both are doing an excellent job educating our children. The Oroville Jr./Sr. High School was actually the only school in our district that garnered some attention from the state recently, although by the headline, one would have thought the whole district was falling apart. Let me assure everyone that not only is our district not a low achieving district, but is actually doing quite well. Let me explain.

On Jan. 13 the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) released a list of schools identified as persistently low achieving schools that qualified to apply for a competitive federal grant, and I was shocked to see that Oroville Jr./Sr. High School made the list given that we have made vast changes over the years and our student assessment scores have been better than many other schools in the valley and the state. Assessment scores have improved district wide and great strides have been made. We have more than doubled the number of students who take upper level math classes and have greatly increased college readiness for our graduates, but this is not something that is measured at the state level. Both students and staff have worked hard to raise both the expectations and results in recent years, but we are still not satisfied. I don’t write to the patrons of the district to make excuses or to tell you that we are satisfied with all of our assessment results, but I do think it is fair for people to understand that the formula used to target schools in this latest campaign to identify low performing schools is almost criminal in nature by not accurately presenting the facts. Most things can be presented in either a positive or negative light. In this case, the newspaper has presented this latest opportunity to receive a very large grant as a very negative item.

I would like to educate everyone about why we were put on this list and why I believe we don’t belong on it at all. To begin with here is a quote from OSPI’s Jan. 13 release of information.

“Schools were identified using both academic performance of all students and improvement trends over the past three years,” said Tonya Middling, Director of Project Management of District and School Improvement and Accountability at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

This is simply not true, and was confirmed when I spoke to Ms. Middling this week. If you look at the data, the main reason Oroville Jr./Sr. High School was put into the category of the bottom 5 percent is simply because we are a Title I eligible school, but we choose to use our Title I funds in the elementary school, where we hope to have more of an impact at an earlier age with those who struggle. We do receive state LAP funds in addition to our Title I funds, but we target these program dollars at our high school. It is more efficient for us to use LAP funds and other program funds in the high school. The problem in the data is that nowhere is it apparent why each of the targeted schools was chosen. It is a complete misnomer from all the information available to me today. Let me tell you though, neither of our schools is in the bottom 5 percent in the state of Washington. The Jr./Sr. High school was put into a cross section (Tier II) of secondary schools that are eligible for Title I funds, but don’t use them. From that small group of schools they calculated us to be in the bottom 5 percent through a very curious formula, but the bottom line is that we are not the bottom 50 or bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. The state has done us a great disfavor on their media release. I believe their goal was to identify schools that could use grant funds for student improvement, but their communication of the issue was poor.

Please let me elaborate on our scores, but before doing so I should point out that of the 603 schools listed, 91 of them that qualified to be in the bottom 5 percent received waivers because they had less than 30 students to compare in at least one of the last three years at a particular grade level. It looks to me that most, but not all of the schools, are alternative schools. I am more than confident that our school outperformed all 91 of these schools as well as many others that were not on the list. With these 91 schools removed 512 schools remained to be compared. Let the comparison begin.

Of the 512 schools listed, Oroville outperformed 349 (68%) of these schools in the last three years with our rate of Reading and Mathematics improvement. I should also add here that Oroville is above the state average and improved better than some neighboring school districts up and down the valley.

Of the 512 schools, Oroville also outperformed 92 of them in terms of our actual combined Reading and Math performances. Throw in there the 91 schools that received waivers and we’re looking at doing better than about 30 percent of them.

Another item I would love to throw out there Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by the federal government. Overall the legislation is very punitive, but in a nutshell if a school does not make progress by their standards, which are becoming more and more ridiculous each year, they move a school up in steps. Step one is a warning step, but when schools reach step 5, there are some serious ramifications for districts. Our school is in Step 2 of 5, just as Tonasket’s Elementary is in step 2 for example. Of the 603 schools listed, 301 of them are in step 3 or more, including Tonasket High School. I would like to point out that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been used as a tool to damage public school reputation and has been widely unfair from the beginning. The rules are designed so that all schools appear to be failing, which is not the case. In 2009, 1042 schools in the state of Washington were considered not to be making adequate yearly progress (AYP) and placed on at least step one. In 2010, 2124 schools made the list with most, if not all from 2009, moving up a step. In talking to OSPI this week, they anticipate most, if not all, schools in the State will be considered not be making AYP next year. Does that make sense to anybody? Washington has led the nation in school reform and our teachers and students throughout the state are working hard to continue our climb to excellence. How can our schools be failing when Washington schools as a whole score at the top on college entrance exams?

In a nutshell I highly challenge OSPI’s designation of our school as being persistently low. When we look at the numbers of improvement and achievement, we are definitely not at the bottom of the list, but doing quite well in most instances. Do we have room for improvement? Absolutely, but the press we have received at both the state and local level on this issue has simply not been fair to our students and schools who have made and continue to make excellent gains. When asked about appealing the decision, I have been told there is no means to do so.

I would like to point out that the rules behind NCLB legislation take a very narrow view when it comes to defining success. We measure our success not only in Reading and Math tests, but rather take a more comprehensive look at our children. We look at a host of other indicators like
graduation rates, daily assessments, college entrance exams, athletics, attendance, attitude, citizenship, etc. In a nutshell we offer our students a quality education that helps them become responsible, productive, and respectful citizens upon graduation. We have outstanding students and staff in the Oroville school district. I would invite any of our patrons to come visit our classrooms, walk the halls and meet our students and staff. I don’t think you’ll find better people anywhere. They are respectful and take pride in the work they accomplish.

Ultimately the main reason we were placed on this list was because we have chosen to use Title I funds at the elementary school. This has nothing to do with achievement or improvement. When I called OSPI to ask about this, Ms. Middling informed me that being Title I eligible, but not using the funds at the high school was a major factor in their determination, even though we may not be performing at the lowest levels. This is not mentioned in their press release at all and definitely was not told in a transparent fashion to schools. The fact is that we are performing above the state average, unlike about 75% of the schools on the list provided.

I invite all who want to view the data to visit our school website where I have posted the data, something OSPI has failed to do. It is no wonder the newspapers are printing stories that are misleading the public because the reporters are either not getting the information or not seeking it out and asking the right questions.

Finally, I would like the patrons of our district to know that we as a district are working hard everyday to set goals, make plans, and to carry out our duty to educate the children of Oroville. On our website you can find not only our goals, but our plans to carry them out in addition to other information about our schools.

We are committed to continuing to provide a quality education for your children, and we are constantly seeking ways of improving the education for our students. If you are interested in getting involved by volunteering, serving on a committee, or simply have some good ideas, please give me a call or drop by my office.

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