What to Watch for as the School Year Kicks Off

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What to Watch for as the School Year Kicks Off

The new year presents a test for the district to respond to the needs of English learners, a new approach to school discipline, Common Core and more.

The school year is upon us, and we’ve got lots to talk about.

Here’s a refresher on a few issues facing the district, as well as a kind of syllabus for what I’ll be watching this year. I’ll need your help to grow this as the year progresses. So let’s get started.

English Learners

Just before the end of last school year, Superintendent Cindy Marten called a last-minute audible and took about half the teachers whose primary job it was to support English learners, and made full-time teachers out of them.

This allowed the district to avoid hiring additional teachers to replace those who left, and balanced the budget without selling off additional real estate.

But it begged an important question: Who’s going to do the job English-language support teachers (ELSTs) used to do?

The answer from the district: We’ve got it under control. In short, a team from the district’s central office will take on more responsibilities. They’ll do some of the work ELSTs used to do, like administering tests and making sure schools are complying with state and federal laws.

Members of the district’s English learner advisory committee, who monitor how well these students are being served, are worried this plan won’t go far enough. To them, making sure schools are legally compliant sounds a lot like an excuse to meet the bare minimum.

But Marten recently told me that the approach the district has taken until now isn’t exactly a smashing success. There are roughly 6,400 long-term English learners in the district, meaning they could have been in San Diego Unified for six or more years and still aren’t fluent.

The district will rely more on teachers to support English learners in their classes. And that’s asking a lot, considering that teachers could have advanced students, students with special needs and English learners all in one class.

Teachers will be trained in strategies for helping English Learners, but we’ll have to wait to see how well schools and teachers respond to the challenge.

A-G Requirements

A few years ago, San Diego Unified decided to ratchet up its graduation requirements for the class of 2016.

That means in less than two years, all students will have to pass a series of college-prep classes, known as A-G courses, which are aligned with admission requirements for University of California and California State University schools.

The problem is fewer than half of all students who graduated from San Diego Unified in 2013 – the most recent year that data was made available – earned a C or better in those courses.

And according to the district’s own numbers, those rates aren’t expected to improve much – only by about 10 percent in the next two years. And even though students will only need to get Ds in A-G courses in order to graduate, that’s not exactly a high bar.

To meet the coming crunch, the district has hired a new high school support officer, Cheryl Hibbeln. She’ll lead the district’s effort to monitor which students are on track to graduate, push schools to help students plan earlier for graduation and offer seats in summer school for students who need to recover credits to graduate.

Implementing an Early Warning System

This one’s a key piece of making sure students are on track to graduate. The district has pledged to implement a better system for monitoring students who are falling behind on credits, or are at risk of dropping out.

In late July, the district included this as one of its strategies to improve the achievement gap between students who are making it and those who are not.

Some of this is already under way, thanks to grant-funded support from the San Diego Education Research Alliance at UCSD, so getting the system up and running shouldn’t be too costly for the district. Of course, it will take work to implement the system, monitor the data and respond to students.

School Discipline

The research is in: The district’s past discipline policies had a disparate impact on black and Latino students, as well as those diagnosed with learning disabilities. The district is in the midst of a paradigm shift for how it responds to discipline problems in school.

San Diego Unified announced in July that it would be narrowing the kinds of student behavior that used to mean mandatory expulsion. For the changes to be meaningful, however, it needs to be more than a formal policy change.

That’s why the district is spending more time training teachers to be culturally competent, so they’re better equipped to communicate with students and stem behavioral problems before they erupt.

That might sound a little touchy-feely, so let’s get more concrete.

The district can’t just remove punishment and hope the problematic behavior goes away. It needs to do things on the front end, like add more therapists and social workers who can work with students on underlying issues. But those measures are expensive.

That’s why the district wants to build relationships with community partners, like nonprofits and universities, that can offer services for free or on the cheap. I’ll be watching to see how well this is coming together, as well as how schools and teachers are responding to the new approach.

Common Core

Because the district has already shifted to Common Core and started implementing these new state standards for math and English, this is really less of a one-time roll out and more of a change that happens over time.

For some teachers, Common Core represents a big shift from past years. This could mean changing or ditching old lesson plans, and creating new ones.

Common Core also calls for more technology in the classroom. Making sure every classroom is fitted with those tools is one thing, making sure teachers know how to use them is another.

It will undoubtedly take more training, but that could take place during the school day, and substitutes will have to lead classes.

Transparency

The district’s new office of quality assurance just celebrated its opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. That will be a place where parents can make complaints and, hopefully, have them dealt with.

It’s a gesture of the district’s commitment to accountability and its service to the public. But of course, all that matters is results. For this office to rise above symbolism, it needs to be transparent with the public about what it finds.

The district appointed Ursula Kroemer as the new chief public information officer. Transparency is a big word that goes deeper than how the district communicates with the press.

It also means putting out information the public can understand – something it hasn’t always been able to do.

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