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Five Douglas schools on watch list

by Scott Neuffer
sneuffer@recordcourier.com

For the second year in a row, a handful of Douglas County schools has been tagged by the federal government’s annual warning system known as No Child Left Behind.

Five schools did not make adequate yearly progress in the 2009-10 school year and consequently have been placed on a federal watch list, including Jacks Valley, Meneley, Minden and Zephyr Cove elementary schools, and Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School, which was lauded last year for getting off the list.

“Basically, it’s a heads-up,” said Brian Frazier, the district’s director of assessments, grants and special programs. “If they don’t make it next year, then they go into the ‘in need of improvement’ category.”

Out of 13 schools in the district, eight were deemed adequate in their progress. The district’s two high schools, Douglas and Whittell, were designated as high-achieving.

Four schools placed on the watch list last year worked their way off this time to make adequate yearly progress, including Carson Valley Middle School, Scarselli Elementary, Douglas High School, and the alternative education ASPIRE program.

Last year, nine out of 14 schools were deemed adequate, with Whittell High and Zephyr Cove Elementary designated as high-achieving. The only other school on the watch list last year was Sierra Crest Academy, which closed this summer.

This year, the five schools on the list were cited for nonproficiency in various subpopulations.

Hispanics at Minden, Jacks Valley and Zephyr Cove elementary schools had trouble in English language arts achievement, and the same subpopulation at Minden and Jacks Valley were also not proficient in math.

Special education students at Jacks Valley struggled with both English and math, while special education students at Pau-Wa-Lu and Meneley struggled with math alone.

Students falling into the “limited English proficient” subpopulation at Minden Elementary underperformed in both subject areas. At Jacks Valley, it was math.

Lastly, those who qualified for free or reduced lunches last year at Minden Elementary were not proficient in math and English, and the same subpopulation at Jacks Valley and Meneley faltered in math.

So what does all this mean?

Frazier said if a school doesn’t make adequate yearly progress for a given year, then it’s placed on the watch list. If the same school doesn’t make progress in the following years, then it falls into the “in need of improvement” category.

“Douglas County has not had a school designated as ‘in need of improvement’ in recent years,” Frazier said. “As has been shown in past years, schools who have been designated on the watch list have continued to use the student achievement data and resources readily available to them to assist with planning for instruction and identifying holes in a student’s learning and providing targeted instruction.”

Adequate yearly progress is based on results from state standardized tests, including the high school proficiency exams and the criterion reference tests.

One major factor in this year’s results was the mandated increase in proficiency rates. For example, the “percent above cut” rate to make adequate yearly progress in elementary English language arts jumped from 51.7 percent in the previous year to 63.8 percent this time around. The rate for high school math proficiency jumped from 61.8 percent to 71.3 percent.

Next year, the rates for the annual evaluation will remain the same, but then will increase every subsequent year until 2013-14, when all students are expected to be 100 percent proficient in all subjects.

That means the climb for Douglas County schools will only get steeper in the coming years.

“The goal is always to make our students proficient, and that is what we strive for: every kid should be proficient at every level,” Frazier said. “It’s always a work in progress.”

Three tools to boost performance, Frazier said, are the district’s MAP testing (measure of academic progress), administered periodically, district common assessments, standardized “formative” tests administered frequently, and intervention funds for targeted tutoring and other modes of support.

Regarding the latter, the school board recently approved a $40,000 allocation for intervention programs.

“In my mind, AYP is just the starting point,” said Superintendent Lisa Noonan. “It’s organized and designated for us at the state level, and the state level can change as the years go by in how they judge success of schools.”

At the local level, Noonan said, the district has an obligation to dig deeper. For example, she said overall third-grade math proficiency in the district has steadily increased since 2007, yet problems in one subpopulation may paint an entire school red. That stigma, she said, can be misleading and discourage staff from continuing methods otherwise effective.

“We need to be careful not to overreact to AYP, but to study more deeply where we need help,” she said. “The water level keeps rising.”

Noonan said federal funding is not affected by the annual results unless a school falls into the “in need of improvement” category.