By Gary Thomas
San Bernardino County Superintendent
The challenges facing public education today are unprecedented for generations of students and their families. With state employment stagnated in double digits and effects of the housing crisis still crippling financial outlooks, the economic future and budget situation for California remains uncertain. Underlying those concerns for public education, there still remains troubling access and achievement gaps, and far too many of our students drop out of school before graduation. Under these conditions, the resolve to make sure that students are successful in school and carry with them the tools that will allow them to be successful in college and their careers must be stronger now more than ever.
Every one of us is feeling the impact of the current economic climate and statewide budget cuts; however, we cannot let that distract us from our mission of educating students. Every one of the 420,000 students in San Bernardino County deserves to have the best opportunity to succeed in school and every one of us has a moral responsibility to do all we can to see that they do.
Improving Student Performance
Remarkably, despite our current challenges, this year’s Accountability Progress Report shows that for the first time since state testing began, schools in San Bernardino County exceeded state averages with 61 percent of all schools meeting all of their Academic Performance Index (API) growth targets. High schools in the county made the biggest improvement, increasing 16 points. Also for the first time, county schools bettered statewide averages for those that showed overall API growth with 80 percent of schools increasing their API scores. That compares with 76 percent of schools statewide showing growth. A record 40 additional schools reached the state standard of 800 this year, including 12 in the High Desert. We also doubled the number of 900 schools in the county to 20, including three in the Victor Elementary School District and a fourth in Snowline Joint Unified. The county’s API growth of 17 points was the second largest in 11 years the state has done testing. These are truly remarkable results, and I am pleased to see the growth taking place, particularly with our high schools. These results are due to the hard work of teachers, principals, district administrators, board members, support staff, and parents to help students achieve academically. As we celebrate these accomplishments, we recognize that in our ever-changing diverse student population, there is an achievement gap that remains between subgroups of students that still requires a determined course of action.
Model Programs to Address the Access and Achievement Gap
One program that successfully addresses the access and achievement gap is AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination. It’s hard not to be impressed with the work that AVID is doing in preparing our students for college. While AVID serves all students in secondary schools, its first focus is on the least-served students in the academic middle. I was so proud this past year when I attended the AVID Senior Recognition Ceremony to find out that 88 percent of more than 2,500 AVID seniors representing 77 high schools were recognized for having a letter of acceptance to a four-year college or university. That compares with only 47 percent statewide who enrolled in a California public college or university, according to the California Post-Secondary Education Commission. When looking at the percentage of AVID seniors meeting A-G course requirements in comparison to state and county totals, it is clear-AVID closes the achievement gap.
This year, it’s anticipated that more than 34,000 students in about 200 middle schools and high schools in San Bernardino and Riverside counties will be enrolled in AVID classes. In the High Desert, seven high schools from Barstow to Sultana accounted for nearly 200 high school seniors who graduated last year, with Granite Hills High School being one of the top producers of AVID graduates countywide with 53 seniors. As the county superintendent, I will continue to fight for funding for this outstanding program, which is desperately needed in our region as we prepare students for a highly competitive global economy.
High School Dropouts and Low College-Going Rates
As was shared, we have made great strides on academic performance indicators. When we received the most recently reported dropout data for 2008, we also showed improvement in terms of a decrease in the number of dropouts for Grades 9-12 in comparison to data released the prior year. Yet our county’s adjusted four-year derived dropout rate of 22.5 percent is above the statewide rate of 18.9 percent. Conversely, our county graduation rate is on the low side, 74.3 percent for 2007-08. Again, we trail state grad averages, which are 80.2 percent.
While our county dropout rate improved 3.8 percent from 2007, our schools and districts face the challenge of keeping more of their students engaged in the classroom and following a path that will lead to graduation. This is not an area of concern for our county alone. Forty years ago, our country was a leader in high school graduation rates. Today, it ranks 18th out of 24 industrialized nations. As recently as 1995, America was tied for first in college graduation rates; by 2006, this ranking had dropped to 14th.
Call to Action for Dropouts/Grad Rates
Last summer, I issued a “Call to Action” in response to our county’s high dropout and low graduation rates and called together key members of my staff to look at research and proven practices to attack this head on. These two issues-that go hand-and-hand-are the most pressing educational concerns for our region. They have severe ramifications that extend well beyond public education.
According to a recently released report, “The Economic Achievement Gap in America’s Schools” by McKinsey and Co., if America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, the gross domestic product of the United States in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher. That’s sufficient enough to close the federal deficit. That’s why, every one has a stake in reversing the dropout rate. It’s necessary to fuel our local economy.
We need a more highly skilled and educated workforce to meet the demands of employers and sustain the economic viability of our region. In November, we issued the “Call to Action” to educators in the field and our broad base of community partners-business leaders, as well as those in labor, government, education, community, and faith-based groups, and most importantly parents and students. We held the first meeting of a stakeholder’s group that is focused on developing strategies and resources to help lower countywide dropout rates and increase graduation rates. We need our community’s expertise, insights, and experiences to tackle these challenges.
Barstow Unified has begun its own “Call to Action,” as Superintendent Susan Levine has organized the community to become involved in coordinating its own resources to tackle high dropout rates and low graduation rates in its own district.
At County Schools, we know how powerful collaboration can be with the growth of programs like AVID, Regional Occupational Programs, Smaller Learning Communities, the P-16 Councils, and the Alliance for Education. These programs have been very successful in engaging our students in learning and preparing them for post-secondary education. We are building on these successes and the key recommendations from more than 40 research studies to tackle troubling graduation and dropout rates.
Our growing population provides an ample landscape to mine fertile minds. Even with the tough economic circumstances of the last several years, our county is still home to more than 420,000 students, which could be a tremendous economic engine of growth if we can bring about stronger graduation and college-going rates. We must implement more and more ways to ensure that more of our young people get the kind of education that will increase their chance of success.
Soon, our office will be launching a new Web site aimed at this issue. The Every One Counts Web site pulls together key research and resources on dropouts, and will serve as a toolbox for educators, parents, community members, and students as we work to keep youth on track for high school graduation and post-secondary options.
Alliance for Education
The Alliance for Education is based on the new three R’s-Rigor, Relevance and Relationships-and it continues to make significant headway throughout the county, changing lives for thousands of students who:
- Experience rigor in their academics and career technical preparation at Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math (or STEM) academies that prepares them for both college and careers.
- Find relevance through classroom demonstrations and field studies in Algebra with business, labor, fire, and safety partners.
- Form relationships at literacy and homework centers with faith-based and community partners.
Thanks to a $550,000 contribution to the Alliance from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, more of our students will benefit from STEM programs. This allowed the Alliance to increase STEM programs to 10 districts and 19 schools sites with more than 840 students participating. The High Desert has been at the forefront in recognizing the need for STEM programs with Barstow, Silverado and Victor Valley high schools offering STEM programs. During the past year, other funds have been secured from: Arrowhead Credit Union, Lewis Group of Companies, the James Irvine/Community Foundation, SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, the San Bernardino County Workforce Investment Board, Chaffey and San Bernardino Community College Districts, and federal funding for the STEM initiative. These programs total more than $1.4 million.
Regional Occupational Programs
The County Schools’ ROP program received a six-year accreditation – the highest available – in February from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. With 11 districts in the High Desert as part of the program, the ROP has been recognized statewide as a model program. ROP districts in the High Desert are Apple Valley, Baker Valley, Barstow, Hesperia, Lucerne Valley, Morongo, Needles, Silver Valley, Snowline, Trona, and Victor Valley. Offering some 125 classes from automotive repair to video production, more than 21,000 students countywide are enrolled in County Schools’ ROP programs. ROP instructors are specialists from business and industry chosen for their expertise and experience in their particular subject field. Each instructor is credentialed by the California Teaching Commission. Employers support the ROP in a variety of ways. Through their participation on advisory committees, business leaders assist in verifying local labor market demand, determining curriculum content, providing expert consultants, and recommending qualified instructors. In addition, employers provide facilities, equipment, and promote student job placement.
Because high school dropouts are more likely to commit crimes than their peers with a high school diploma, addressing the reasons our young people drop out of school also helps to eradicate truancy, juvenile crime, and unsafe school environments. The Gangs & Drugs regional task forces have been meeting for a year now and have developed specific short and long term goals. As a result, there is a new juvenile court in the West End, which held its first hearing last month. In the High Desert, strong partnerships have been developed with the Sheriff’s Department, to support the rural areas that do not have their own police departments.
The Let’s End Truancy (LET) Program has received state and national recognition. As a result of LET and countywide School Accountability Review Board (SARB) trainings, reporting of truancies has improved and all but three small districts have SARB. Last year, five school districts in the county – including Victor Valley and Hesperia in the High Desert – were named SARB model statewide programs. That distinction was given to only eight districts statewide.
Our services in programs such as Coordinated Health, Foster Youth and Homeless Education have increased 10-fold. Working with our interagency partners in law enforcement, juvenile justice and social service, we’re targeting student and family needs to grow healthy schools and communities. With a grant from the Center for Disease Control, our office is pleased to be one of only three counties in the state to be awarded funds to implement a Coordinated School Health Model program with pilot districts and social service agencies to bring services to the schoolhouse door for students and families. If we can help by taking the social issues off the table for students, they can better focus on their schoolwork.
State Budget Outlook
There will be no relief from the poor economic conditions that have plagued much of the nation and especially California in recent years. That was evident following Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal for the 2010-11 fiscal year. For public education, the outlook remains bleak. Public schools are proposed to take a $1.7-billion hit, the majority of which is proposed to come from revenue limit funding. This equates to roughly a $200 per student reduction for the next fiscal year. This is on top of a current year per pupil reduction, equaling about $900 per student. These budget cuts threaten efforts to sustain improvement and reform, and erode the conditions that support teaching and learning. The current budget proposal also relies on nearly $7 billion of aid from federal government-assistance that already is proving to be unrealistic.
After suffering some $17 billion in cuts during the past two years, this may be the most difficult budget year yet for K-12 education. Already, we’re seeing districts proposing cuts they feel they will have to make to balance their future budgets. Our commitment at County Schools is ongoing support to our districts during these uncertain financial times. The 420,000 students in the county face the prospects of having more crowded classrooms, reduced programs in the arts and athletics, and fewer services offered.
Several research studies conducted in this state on school finance point to the need for a new approach, a stable approach-to funding California’s public schools. It’s time. We are jeopardizing the future of California’s workforce and economy.
Making Every One Count
What educators contribute daily to the life of a child matters deeply. What each of us does to support them and our students matters greatly. Every one counts in the life of a child:
- Every educator;
- Every business partner;
- Every labor leader;
- Every community member;
- Every clergyman;
- Every parent, brother and sister; every family member.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” As an educator, these words have profound meaning to me, especially in these challenging times for public education. I am a firm believer in the opportunities we can provide through public education, and I will continue to be a voice that is heard in support of all students in our county and making sure they have every opportunity to achieve academically.