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Trustees want major revisions to plans for improving Fairmont, seven other schools

School board members got a look at plans for major reforms at Fairmont Elementary and seven other district schools, and weren't happy with what they saw. The campuses are part of a program to give low-performing schools a chance to improve themselves or face the risk of the state stepping in and taking over. Trustees said the drafts brought to them just aren't good enough considering how high the stakes are and the amount of money being spent on the plans.

The action plans are part of the Public Schools Accountability Act. Under the act, control of low performing schools could eventually be taken over by the state if they don't meet goals for improvement. Districts are first being given a chance to improve selected schools themselves, with the help of state grants.

West Contra Costa has been given $50,000 planning grants to develop two-year action plans for each of eight schools -- Fairmont, Helms, Grant, Wilson, Coronado, King, Tara Hills, and Murphy.

Consultants from a state-approved list have been working with a team of school staff, parents and community members on the plans.

On March 15 the consultants presented their preliminary findings and action plans to the board. But the board told them the plans will need major revision to gain board approval.

Ralph Baker of West Ed, the consultant handling Fairmont, said the school staff needs to better serve non-white students and work together to plan and address district standards. He said the drop in scores at the El Cerrito elementary school dates back to an influx of students from out of the neighborhood a couple of years ago through the district's open enrollment policy. Baker said the students' scores are lower than other Fairmont students and the school needs to find a way to raise those scores.

"The Fairmont staff have worked together, but they have not worked together on grade level and on aligning the curriculum to the district staff. They also have not planned or taught or assessed together and that's a very important part of the school reform change that's important."

He did commend a group of Fairmont teachers who worked during the December break on developing intervention strategies (additional support for struggling students).

"The school has very good parent involvement activities but again the African-American parents are not well represented," said Baker. One of the challenges, he said, is that many events are held in the evening, making it more difficult to get children who live outside the immediate neighborhood to attend.

Issues outlined in the action plan are:

* All teachers at all grades will implement a school-wide literacy program aligned with the standards. The purpose is to establish a consistent approach to literacy instruction and a shared philosophy of teaching reading.

* All teachers will implement effective skill building intervention in reading and mathematics for low-performing students.

* All teachers will participate in the implementation of the local district assessments to align curriculum and standards.

* All teachers will particate in the development of a culture and climate which welcomes, respects and integrates the cultures of all students.

* All teachers will participate in the development of effective outreach strategies for engaging hard-to-reach parents.

"This is an incredibly important project," said school board president Glen Price, noting that schools that don't meet improvement targets could be taken over by the state.

The grants for the eight schools total $400,000, he noted. "These are really incredibly impressive dollars that I think we as a board have a responsibility to ensure are invested as wisely as possible. The credibility in Sacramento of this district is under a microscope."

"I'm disappointed in this effort," he said of the plans. "I don't think it reflects a $400,000 investment."

Price said the plans included factual errors that anyone familiar with the district would spot easily, typographical errors and, most importantly, do not show clearly what changes should be made, what results are expected, and how progress will be measured. He called the analysis superficial.

Price singled out the plan drawn up for Tara Hills as being closest to what he expected the documents to look like.

Other board members expressed dissatisfaction with the plans as well.

"This is the last chance we have," said Charles Ramsey. "We're on the bottom, we're on the absolute bottom (of rankings based on standardized tests). We're worse than every school district in the Bay Area. We can't do that."

"This board is going to challenge the superintendent and the superintendent is going to challenge the staff, to challenge you (the consultants) to produce a simple document that's going to turn around educational performance."

Patricia Player said she looked at the plans to see what they would do to improve reading instruction, and was disappointed with how little she found.

* State web site on Immediate Intervention Underperforming Schools Program

The meeting started off on a more positive note, with board members praising Dr. Gloria Johnston, who has been on the job just over a year, as they ratified changes to her contract. The board has extended her contract through 2003-04. With the renewal, Johnston's benefit package has been augmented by a $1,000 a month housing allowance and a deferred annuity life-insurance policy.

The board also adopted a mission statement, a set of core values, and strategic priorities. Johnston said a planning team of 22 people has been meeting since September to draw up the plan. She pledged there will be follow up on the plan's promise to provide a high quality education to all students, driving efforts in the district for the next several years.

Player called the plan a beginning. Price said, "When we brought Dr. Johnston on board, this is exactly the kind of effort we wanted to see." He said involving the community in the plan as it progresses is critical because its success will depend on "the level of buy-in."


Run dates: 2000-03-15 - 2000-03-30

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