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Report shows CUSD is acing key indicators of success

A number of guests at a well-attended reception for new Claremont Unified School District Superintendent Jim Elsasser, held Thursday, September 13, stayed on for the following school board meeting.

Heavy-hitting items on the agenda included the district’s Annual Report on Assessment and Accountability, a preliminary roundup of how CUSD students did on testing last year, set against the context of how the district has performed in the last few years. The agenda additionally featured the also-preliminary Unaudited Actuals Reports for the Fiscal Year ending June 30, 2012, which indicates how the district is doing financially.

News was good on both fronts.

The majority of students have made significant strides in math and language arts, according to Bonnie Bell, assistant superintendent of educational services.

She emphasized that 2012 data indicating progress on the Academic Performance Index (API) is still just an estimate, with official data expected to be released in October. The lag is the result of a “huge delay” in the release of STAR test scores because 146 schools reported cheating due to cell phone use. Subsequently, a committee was called into audit the state’s standardized testing to ensure results were still valid.

CUSD’s test scores, from the California Standards Test to the California High School Exit Exam to the SAT—in which Claremont students have performed above both state and national levels for the last 5 years—are looking strong.

With the assistance of a PowerPoint presentation and a handout, Ms. Bell discussed the aggregated outcome of district assessments, which also include the Early Acceptance Program, the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement exams and the Act.

“We’ve had tremendous growth over the last 2 years. That puts us among the top school districts in the state,” she said.

In the area of English language arts (ELA), there were increases among students in the 3rd through 10th grades. El Roble’s 7th and 8th graders, in particular, made dramatic gains after demonstrating a 3-year decline in the ELA portion of testing. Oakmont and Vista schools also made particular progress last year towards meeting their academic goals, according to Ms. Bell. 

CUSD students in the 2nd through 7th grades and 9th graders enrolled in general math also made gains in math testing, Ms. Bell noted, as did El Roble students taking Algebra I and Claremont High School students assessed in Algebra II.

The results of history and science assessments were mixed. While there was growth in 8th grade history scores as well as in science at multiple levels, there has been a decline in scores for students tested in US and world history. The next step in any area where the district made gains or saw a decline is to look at the antecedents, trying to discover what action or inaction on the part of CUSD may have spurred the change, Ms. Bell said.

The district will certainly be looking closely beginning this year at how best to close the achievement gap that finds some African American students struggling, she noted.

Between 2008 to 2012, the gap between the general CUSD population and subgroups such as English language learners, socio-economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and Hispanic students has narrowed considerably. Most notably, the gap faced by English learners with regards to success in English language arts has narrowed by 16.6 percent.

By contrast, the gap faced by African American students, who now comprise about 8 percent of the CUSD population, has widened. Relative success declined by 5.7 percent in English language arts and by 4.1 percent in the area of mathematics, according to Ms. Bell’s report.

Again, the first step in addressing the problem is to take a look at the antecedents—at what the district did, or did not do—that precipitated the widening gap, Ms. Bell said.

Another challenge facing CUSD reflects the nature of No Child Left Behind and represents one of the largest criticisms of the education act signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002.

The annual target for district achievement in both math and English language arts grows by 10 percent each year, Ms. Bell noted. “As the annual state target increases, fewer grade levels are meeting the goal,” she wrote in her report.

“This is not unique to Claremont,” Ms. Bell added during her presentation. “It’s happening across the state.”

In 2007, 23 percent of CUSD students were expected to be proficient or better in both subjects. By the time 2012 assessments rolled around, that expectation had grown to 78 percent. If assessments continue unchanged, following the same trend, 100 percent of students will be expected to demonstrate proficiency or a higher-than-proficient grasp of the subject matter by 2014.

In the past several years, schools who demonstrate low achievement have faced significant penalties, the most extreme of these being a takeover by the state. Whether CUSD administrators personally agree with this philosophy of setting the bar ever higher, Ms. Bell said, “Besides learning more curriculum each year, [students] are expected to become more proficient.”

New assessments are currently being devised to test students in California—and in most states—in a new set of standards being phased into schools called the Common Core.  

Next up on the agenda was Lisa Shoemaker, assistant superintendent of business services, reporting on the status of the budget in the district, which in the 2011-2012 school year spent some $68 million, nearly $58 million of which came from the general fund.

An official auditing committee will inspect CUSD finances later this fall and issue a report in December, Ms. Shoemaker noted. Typically, though, there is little change between the district’s calculations and the numbers the auditing committee sends to the California Department of Education. 

For 2 years in a row, the threat of drastic mid-year cuts in the state’s per-pupil budget has prompted the CUSD to put aside a significant amount of money. “We’ve been preparing for the worst while hoping for the best,” Ms. Shoemaker said.

For the second year in a row, the reality has been better than expected. Governor Brown’s initial budget proposal released in January 2011 called for a mid-year per-pupil funding cut of $349 per student. While mid-year cuts were ultimately implemented, they only ended up amounting to $13 per student.

Thanks to the district’s anticipatory belt-tightening and the state’s attempts to protect schools, already ravaged by recession-era austerities, CUSD’s general fund has actually grown over the last 2 years.

Ms. Shoemaker cautioned that the district’s healthier reserves should not signal an end to CUSD frugality. Some of these funds ended up being allocated toward a one-time bonus of $1800 the district awarded to all full-time CUSD employees this August; part-time employees received a fraction of that amount commensurate with the number of hours they work. The district is also contributing more toward employee’s health insurance premiums this year, also a one-time boon for staffers.

Adding further perspective to the seemingly flush condition of CUSD, the district would like to hold onto as much of the additional reserves as possible in case the Governor’s tax initiative doesn’t pass, necessitating drastic mid-year cuts.

Mr. Stark congratulated Ms. Shoemaker, her staff and the district at large for keeping CUSD in the black.

“It’s interesting, if you look at other surrounding districts, almost weekly—in one paper or the other—there’s a story about a school district failing financially,” he said.

Between the district’s economic foresight and the various employee groups “getting it” and agreeing to feel the pain via long-deferred pay increases and high insurance premiums, CUSD has found itself in “this enviable position which, by the way, isn’t very enviable.”

Mr. Stark added a note of caution, which he likely hopes Claremonters will keep in mind as they head to the polls: “If the tax initiative doesn’t pass, it will be scary for us, and devastating for many surrounding districts.”

Earlier in the meeting, during the public comment session, Oakmont School Office Manager Rosie Bister, who is president of the local chapter of the California School Employees Association (CSEA), acknowledged the district’s generosity after what she called “a dry period.” At a recent gathering during which the CSEA ratified its new contract, countless people expressed their “thanks beyond words” to the district for making the funds available and for adding some permanent employee positions to CUSD’s ranks, Ms. Bister reported.

Ms. Shoemaker’s report was approved by the board, which welcomed another new face besides that of the increasingly familiar Mr. Elsasser. San Antonio High School senior Maggie Elizalde was sworn in as student board member. A Claremont High School student representative is expected to be sworn in at the next CUSD board meeting.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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