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Published in Print: June 16, 2004, as Troubled High School Narrows Courses

Troubled High School Narrows Courses

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Biology and art class, and nearly every other subject, could be left behind for now for hundreds of 9th and 10th graders at one California high school.

Educators there are readying a heavy dose of English and mathematics classes for the struggling students in a last-ditch bid to help the school meet state and federal accountability standards.

Under a state plan to turn around James Lick High School, a persistently failing school in San Jose, low-performing students in those grades will be put in intensive skills classes, leaving some of them little time to pursue science, social studies, physical education, and other core subjects. Still, students will have to take required state tests in science and social studies, even if they didn’t take any classes in those subjects.

The math and English strategy, prescribed by a state intervention team, is similar to that being implemented in about two dozen California high schools that have failed to meet achievement goals for several consecutive years.

While elementary schools around the country have begun devoting much of the school day to the two critical subjects in response to requirements under state accountability programs and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, some observers believe the trend is spreading into the upper grades. As high schools try to overcome students’ basic-skills deficiencies and language difficulties, and help the least prepared pass state achievement and graduation tests, some are focusing more intensively on reading and math.

"While it might seem Draconian in terms of [students’] access to other parts of the curriculum, they need these interventions to get up to grade level sufficiently enough to pass the high school exit exam and receive a diploma," said Wendy Harris, an assistant superintendent in the California education department.

Will It Work?

At the 1,100-student James Lick High School, officials estimate that more than half of 9th and 10th graders next year will be unable to tackle grade-level work in math and English, based on state test results. Those students—about a third of whom are considered English-language learners and a majority of whom are from minority groups—will be required to take two to three courses in the subjects they are failing. For the students struggling in both subjects, that could add up to six classes a day, focusing primarily on basic skills. The school expects to add a 7th period for those students to allow them to choose a physical education class or an elective in another subject.

Local and state officials say drastic measures are needed to accelerate achievement for those students. In addition to the curriculum changes, the district will require some teachers to take 80 hours of additional professional development in the subjects, and math and literacy coaches will provide instructional support throughout the school year.

"If we don’t get them to read and write and be able to do math, what kind of options do they really have?" said Linda Aceves, the director of school assistance services for the Santa Clara County, Calif., office of education, which is overseeing the intervention plan at James Lick.

Experts disagree over the potential benefits of such intervention efforts.

"I don’t know of any studies that demonstrate that this is an effective approach," said Cynthia L. Greenleaf, the associate director for the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd, a federally financed research center in San Francisco. Ms. Greenleaf argues that research suggests that even low-performing students benefit from a full, rigorous curriculum.

"What I worry about," she said, "is that these intervention strategies will preclude students from building the knowledge they need and from having access to the rich critical-thinking-oriented curriculum they need to advance."

Graduation Requirements

For James Lick administrators and teachers, however, the measure is seen as necessary to move large numbers of students closer to grade level.

"Yes, this is going to be a bitter pill to swallow," said Barry Goldsmith, who has taught history and social studies at the school for 27 years. "But these kids can’t get to the content until we can get the literacy problems under control."

William J. Rice, part of a team of three principals assigned to the school this past January, questions whether students reading one or two levels below the norm for their grade need such remedial instruction, but he supports the plan overall.

"After three years of accepting money from the state to improve students’ underperformance on the [state] test, this high school did not improve," said Mr. Rice. "The last four years have been horrific at this school [in student achievement], but now we can see some hope."

The school’s very survival could depend on its progress. Some 400 students have left over the past year or so under the provision in the No Child Left Behind Act that allows those at underperforming schools to transfer. Officials hope the school’s reputation as a magnet for broadcasting and journalism, and its Advanced Placement and honors programs, will help hold enrollment steady while they try to quickly bring low-performing students up to grade level.

Students identified for the intervention program can also attend summer school for another chance to prove they can manage a more traditional course load, Mr. Rice said.

How fast they get up to speed with their peers could determine when and whether they graduate. To qualify for a diploma, the state requires students to take three years of English and two years of math, including Algebra 1, but also three years of social science, two years of science, two years of physical education, and one year of foreign language or the arts.

Some of those classes can motivate students struggling with more complex coursework. Keeping students engaged in school, particularly those teenagers spending most of their time in English and math, will be a challenge, Mr. Rice acknowledged.

"The onus is going to be on the teachers to motivate students, engage them with good courses," he said. "But the kids are going to have to understand they have a new sense of purpose with school."

Vol. 23, Issue 40, Pages 1,24

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