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Schools Like Porter Elementary Are Struggling Badly and There’s No Clear Plan to Fix Them

Parents and a school counselor say they must fight tirelessly to get students at Porter Elementary the services they’re legally entitled to. The NAACP has filed a complaint against the school. It’s one of nine traditional public schools in San Diego Unified to make the state’s list of most under-performing schools. If there is a plan to fix Porter, the parents haven’t heard it.

Keashonna Christopher, a counselor at Porter Elementary School, shows the school’s mission for each student. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Lee este artículo en español aquí.

Monique Hayes’ fourth-grade son doesn’t like going to school anymore. It started this year when the family transferred to Porter Elementary, recently identified as one of the state’s lowest-performing schools, and has led to a cascade of problems for Hayes’ family.

Her son had run-ins with one particular boy, who was much bigger, for weeks. But Hayes only found out about the ongoing problems after her son had been kicked in the head and sent to the school nurse, she said.

“My kids don’t feel safe at school,” said Hayes, who has three children at Porter. “The people up there aren’t watching ‘em. I’m telling you, I walk around the school and I’ve never heard so many young kids sayin’ so many curse words in my life.”

Hayes has broken up three different fights on the school field herself, she said. But her problems go beyond school safety.

When she asked for her younger son to be tested for reading problems, at his teacher’s request, school administrators tried to delay and deny her those assessments, which could have helped him get services he needed, she said.

Porter’s problems aren’t just affecting Hayes.

The school environment is persistently unsafe and unwelcoming, said Hayes, other parents and the school’s counselor. Parents – many of whom live in poverty – must fight tirelessly to get services they are legally entitled to or that the school should provide freely, they also say. The local NAACP has filed a complaint against the school, asking administrators to improve its safety and special education department.

Porter is one of nine traditional public schools in San Diego Unified School District to make the state’s list of most under-performing schools – and not just for its test scores, although the school did receive the state’s lowest rating in both reading and math. Porter also struggles to keep kids in school. Last year, 22.5 percent of students were chronically absent – more than twice the average for K-8 schools. Nearly 10 percent of black students were suspended at least once.

If there is a plan to fix Porter, the parents haven’t heard it. In an era of increased accountability for charter schools and even state community colleges district and state leaders have had little to no public discussion about how they plan to fix the state’s poorest-performing traditional schools. Previous triggers that allowed parents to opt out of these schools or even reconstitute them as charters have fallen away. Behind the scenes, officials say, plans are in the works to help schools like Porter. But many at Porter worry those plans will be too late or too modest to make a difference for their children.

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Porter is split into two campuses, located about two football fields distance from each other in Lincoln Park. Every morning, Hayes walks her older son – who receives special education services – to the North campus, then drops off her younger son and daughter at the South campus.

But since her older son is so reluctant to go to school, Hayes now has problems getting everyone to their campuses on time – and that, in turn, is the reason school officials have used to delay special education assessments, she said.  

When her younger son’s teacher asked if she was game to get him tested to receive special services in reading, she said yes. She went to a meeting with several school workers, expecting to come out with a plan to get her son assessed. Instead, school officials stonewalled. They suggested the son might be having problems because he was often late and missed school.

The boy’s teacher, said Hayes, told administrators that wasn’t the case. Still, they told her they wanted to see him show up on time and they’d revisit assessing him in the next 30 to 60 days.

The state’s education code mandates that any parent who asks for a special education assessment receives a testing plan within 15 days. In Hayes’ case, and for many other parents at Porter, that did not happen, said the school’s counselor Keashonna Christopher, who confirmed Hayes’ story.

“This is commonplace for the parents at Porter. They get bullied,” said Christopher. Administrators “bring up attendance as a way to weed students out of the IEP process, and that’s illegal.” (Students who receive special education services must have an IEP, or Individualized Education Program.) “The ed code doesn’t say if the student has a certain amount of tardies or absences they don’t receive an evaluation or plan. That’s not the ed code at all,” she said.

Because of Porter’s stalling, it can take more than a year for families to receive services, if they receive them at all, said Christopher. During this time, children who need special services fall even further behind. Education interventions work better when a child is younger. The longer services are delayed, the more intractable their problems become.

To get her child tested, Hayes had to write letters and start making calls. After enough pushing, a plan came together. But she knows that many – if not most – parents do not have the spare tenacity to penetrate a stalling bureaucracy.

“So many just give up or feel deflated by the school process,” said Christopher.

The school’s principal, Graciela Chavez, declined to comment for this story.

Delphine Duckett is a grandparent of two children at Porter. Because of persistent behavioral problems with one of her granddaughters, Duckett wanted a mental health evaluation and for administrators to consider sending her to a more specialized school. School officials told her they didn’t think those things were necessary.

Christopher hadn’t been informed of the meeting and only found out about it at the last minute. From talking to colleagues, she believes administrators were trying to keep her out, because they knew she would advocate for Duckett’s wishes. At first, they tried to tell Duckett and Christopher the granddaughter didn’t need a mental health evaluation. Christopher told them they legally had to and they relented, her and Duckett said.

“I’m so thankful for Ms. Christopher,” said Duckett. “Me and her’s on the same page. She felt there was more to be done too.”

♦♦♦

Porter’s problems create a rotten synergy. When school feels unsafe, children don’t want to go. If children aren’t at school – or aren’t comfortable while they’re in school – they have trouble learning. Grades go down. When children with special needs are denied services, grades also go down. Many believe Porter does not have the resources it needs to succeed.

“Half of those teachers, I don’t want to say they’re rude, but they don’t talk, they don’t say, ‘Hi,’” said Hayes. “I don’t know why they’re mad, but they’re mad. Well, maybe I do know: So many kids have behavior problems. They [the teachers] need some extra help. And no one’s giving it to them.”

“I sympathize with the principal, I really do,” said Rhonda McCord, who has three children at Porter. But McCord has also had trouble getting administrators to respond to her son being bullied. Over a period of months, the bully taunted her son in class, slammed him on the ground, punched him in the jaw and hit him in the genitals, McCord said.

After four meetings, between November and this month, school officials finally agreed to put in place a plan to try to keep the children separated.

“They just kept saying, ‘We want the bullying to stop, too.’ No one was telling us what they planned to do about it,” McCord wrote in a text. “There’s no consequences being given and no order at the school.”

Of the more than 900 students at Porter, many have experiences with poverty and trauma. More than 94 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to the California School Dashboard. Roughly 8 percent are homeless. More than 56 percent of students have a first language other than English and need extra language support.

Because of the student population, Porter qualifies for state and federal intervention funds meant to help high-poverty schools. Porter has used the funds for extra school supplies, extra counseling and nursing services and extra teacher planning time, according to its Single Plan for Student Achievement.

But the number of counselors has gone down drastically since last year, said Christopher. The counseling team included herself, a part-time counselor and a guidance assistant, who could also help with discipline issues. This year, she has been the only guidance worker. Administrators have told her they plan to replace the part-time counselor for the last 10 weeks of the year, but have yet to do so, said Christopher.

Next year, Christopher has been told her position will likely become a part-time role and that she will have to divide her time between Porter and another school. Christopher plans to stay on, nonetheless. She attended Porter, back when it was called Kennedy Elementary.

Others don’t plan to stick around. All three parents I spoke to are looking for ways to get out of Porter. And, said McCord and Hayes, many teachers are planning to look for new jobs too.

♦♦♦

After a recent cluster meeting for Lincoln High School and all of its feeder schools, including Porter, I asked San Diego Unified School District board president Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who represents the area, if there is a plan for Porter.

She told me she knew of the state’s list of under-performing schools, which include two other schools in the Lincoln cluster. But she said she’d have to check in with the area superintendent to find out about the status of any plans.

“We have to do something,” she told me emphatically as we walked off of Lincoln’s campus.  

When I emailed her the next day for a wider-ranging interview, she never responded.

Board Trustee John Lee Evans told me he expects to hear more about the under-performing schools toward the end of the year, as the district is reviewing its Local Control and Accountability Plan.

“If a neighborhood school is not performing, we very definitely need to take a serious look at what needs to change for it to improve,” he said. “Closing the school does not accomplish that.”

The state of California has not released its list of lowest-performing schools since 2013, when stronger accountability measures were in place under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Evans told me we are in a better place now, where schools don’t have to fear being shamed, or closed down or having their entire staff replaced. He said those measures were often haphazard and didn’t really help student achievement.

Going forward, Evans hopes the district will look to schools that have done well despite high percentages of poverty or homelessness for solutions. He pointed out Fay, Central and Edison elementary schools.

Schools like Porter will qualify for more money from the federal and state government, to help give them the support they need to improve. Steve Green, a senior director with the San Diego County Office of Education, told me the county office will receive about $700,000 to help all 58 under-performing schools in San Diego County.

But the money won’t go directly toward reforming the school or hiring more staff, Green said. Instead it will go mainly toward trying to figure out the root problems that are causing the school to struggle.

“Before, we moved toward action without really understanding the problems,” said Green. “To get traction we need to slow the train down and figure out who the system is working for and why and who it is not working for and why.”

If the old accountability system didn’t spend enough time understanding problems, it also had more teeth. When schools showed up on the list of lowest-performing schools before 2013, parents had a range of options. School districts were required to notify parents that their school was on the list and provide transportation to a new school, if the parents wanted it. In extreme cases, parents could even vote to turn the school into a charter.

While those law are still on the books, they no longer apply to the state’s new accountability system, which it calls the California School Dashboard.

For now, if a school stays on the list for four years, then the state Superintendent of Public Instruction can get involved or the school has to hire an outside firm to perform audits. Beyond that it’s unclear what changes a district would be required to make.

“I just gotta get my son out of this school,” Hayes, one of the parents, told me. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I know they don’t have enough staff. Something’s gotta change.”

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