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Galt High School faces threat of state takeover

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Posted: Tuesday, February 10, 2004 10:00 pm

Galt High School is at a critical academic crossroads.

The school faces a state takeover if students fail to improve on a series of required standardized tests over the next three years. It's one of only 11 high schools in the state to face such sanctions.

Such a takeover could mean the suspension of the Galt Joint Union High School District Board of Trustees' powers - in effect, relegating that elected body to an advisory panel. A state takeover could also mean the replacement of the current administration by state officials.

But Galt High has new leadership in the form of Superintendent Christine Hoffman, who took the district's helm in July. She is adamant that the school's academic woes will turn around quickly. The school board, teachers and community leaders are enthusiastic with Hoffman's leadership and are confident in Hoffman's ability to improve the curriculum.

"I'm not afraid of the state process in terms of the recommendations," Hoffman said, brimming with confidence.

Strategies to improve student test scores include:

• Special training of material on the California Standards Test for administrators and teachers of freshman and sophomore English and math.

• Special training for teachers and administrators on instructing students learning the English language.

• Ensuring that all students have textbooks that cover what is on the state tests.

• Changing the math curriculum so that students take geometry in their freshman year rather than as a sophomore.

• Attempting to pass a $16 million bond measure on the March 2 ballot to build a second high school east of Highway 99 to alleviate overcrowding on the present Galt High campus.

Galt High has been required by the state to give teachers and administrators special training to teach what is covered in the California Standards Test, which determines each school's Academic Performance Index - the tool the state uses to determine whether to put schools on academic probation.

Students must also have textbooks that teach the materials covered on the state test, said Bill Palmer, an administrator for the Sacramento County Office of Education who leads a four-member team overseeing Galt High on behalf of the state.

Changes already made

Changes have come quickly for Galt High under Hoffman's tenure. Principal Larry Tosta was moved in January from the Galt High campus to the Sacramento County Office of Education, where he is researching computer technology for the Galt district.

Although Tosta still officially retains the title of principal, he said Hoffman ordered him to turn over the keys to his office. Hoffman would neither confirm or deny the allegation, saying only that she has added to Tosta's duties. Now Tosta plans to sue the district over the matter.

Meanwhile, Mari Martinez has taken over as lead administrator. Hoffman also has expanded Martinez's role from director of the high school's English language learner program to district director of categorical programs in September to lead administrator at Galt High.

Hoffman has emerged as a no-nonsense superintendent who many teachers say is exactly what the district needs. Government teacher Mike Millet is one of them.

"She's been very proactive and very demanding. As she should be," Millet said, in an interview in the computer room at Galt High's brick library.

A few weeks before the Christmas break last year, Hoffman made her self available to every teacher that had complaints about the school and also took suggestions, Millet said. Hoffman did this in the teachers' staff room.

"I don't remember to many past superintendents doing that," Millet said, in another recent interview. She also contacts any staff member she feels might not be doing well, Millet said.

Martinez presence on campus has also been very proactive on campus, Millet said. He calls Martinez the new "principal."

'Not a bad school'

Galt High is not a bad school, administrators and teachers say.

Galt High School faces the challenge of improving standardized test scores to avoid a state takeover. (Casey Freeman/News-Sentinel)

For example, in Debra Crane's "Lead the Way," pre-engineering class, students get a head start on careers designing elevators, buildings and planes. Crane was the school's teacher of the year this year.

Craig Anderson - a science teacher at Galt since 1995 - began a special forensic science course this year. He doesn't expect all of his students to become forensic scientists, but hopes one part of the science in his courses will catch his students' interests.

Also notable is that every educator interviewed for this article is optimistic about future performance on test scores.

Last week, sophomores at Galt High took the California High School Exit Exam, the test they must pass in order to graduate. Teachers and students say they have noticed a change in attitude.

Amy Haren, 16, is president of the sophomore class and believes that Galt High is a good school.

"Lately I've noticed a lot of changes," in student attitude, particularly in regards to the exit exam, Haren said. "If we don't pass, we don't graduate."

Hoffman thinks she has the solution to yet another problem - getting students to take the test seriously.

"If (students) score below grade levels, they could face taking intervention classes in English and math," Hoffman said. "Now there will be buy-in."

Students may be faced with taking extra classes during the school day, coming to school early or taking extra classes after school or summer school, Hoffman said.

As former district trustee Ann Ullrich said, the California Standards Test doesn't affect students' grades, chances to graduate or their chances for admission to universities.

"I wish it (test scores) could be on their transcript so it's important to them," Ullrich said. "There ought to be a way to motivate them, but I don't know what it is."

Several teachers, administrators, parents and business people in Galt maintain that building a second high school to alleviate overcrowding will go a long way to improve Galt High's academic prowess.

The school district has placed a $16 million bond measure on the March 2 ballot to build the city's second high school. It would be at the southeast corner of Marengo and Twin Cities roads. Bond money would be supplemented by developer fees and matching state funds, Hoffman said.

The Galt High campus on North Lincoln Way is filled with portable classrooms to accommodate enrollment, which is pushing 1,900. Hoffman projects that enrollment will reach 2,138 during the next school year and 2,358 in the 2007-08 school year.

Why the state intervened

Galt High was designated one of seven "state-monitored high schools" by the California Board of Education on Nov. 12. Four more were added in January.

What this means is that a team of educational experts has audited the school and assigned corrective actions that the school must comply with - each action to be met by a certain deadline.

Those deadlines were announced by Palmer, a curriculum administrator for Sacramento County Office of Education, at Tuesday's Galt High board meeting.

Only one high school besides Galt in either Sacramento or San Joaquin counties - Sacramento's Hiram Johnson - has been classified as a "state-monitored" school. The next-closest high schools are in Emeryville, San Francisco, Hayward and San Jose.

But Galt High isn't among the worst schools in regards to the Academic Performance Index. In fact, schools with lower APIs don't face state intervention. At least three high schools in San Joaquin County and four in Sacramento County have lower API scores for 2003, yet they don't face intervention.

Compared to Galt High's 2003 API ranking of 621, East Union High in Manteca had a score of 605, Franklin High in Stockton came in at 532 and Edison High, also in Stockton, had a score of 532. The most recent API scores from the Lodi Unified School District's high schools are still not available due to a data correction that affected many schools in the district.

"Galt is pretty much an average school," said Rick Salas, who taught math at Galt High for 17 years before leaving in 2000 for a teaching position in the Manteca Unified School District. "Regardless of what the API says, it's not a bad school."

Some schools with lower API scores than Galt High aren't subject to state intervention because they didn't accept the state's offer four years ago under a previous program called the Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program.

Galt accepted about $800,000 in state funding over a three-year period to improve its test scores under the underperforming schools program. Had the school not accepted the state money, Galt would not be a state-monitored school today, said Hoffman and Mark Colonico, a member of Palmer's oversight team from the Sacramento County Office of Education.

The API itself is a bit complicated to understand. But understanding Galt High's plight comes from a careful understanding of how the API works.

Simply put, it is the state's way of measuring school performance on standardized tests. Every public school in California is assigned an API base number in the spring based on how important the state weighs certain tests over other ones.

That API base is compared with a growth report released in the fall of the next school year. This way, student achievement is measured incrementally, year by year.

All California public schools must meet or exceed a growth target assigned by the California Department of Education. If the school does not meet that growth target, it can face various sanctions, including state takeover of the administration and school board.

In 1999, the school board elected to participate in a program called the after it qualified as an "underperforming school."

Galt High was designated an underperforming school by the state in September 1999, when the school ranked in the bottom half of the state's Stanford Achievement Test, Edition 9, a test that is no longer even given to California students.

Galt High was awarded almost $800,000 over a three-year period to show growth on the API reports. The school was required to improve its API by at least one point for two consecutive years to keep from further sanctions. But Galt High only improved one year. The last two years, API scores have declined - prompting the current state monitoring process.

Galt High's scores have declined from 650 in the 2001 school year to 631 in 2002 and to 621 this year.

How did Galt High fail the API?

The API was created by the California Public Schools Act of 1999. Since then, Galt High has only grown one year on this academic indicator.

In October 2000, after the first year the school had participated in the state underperforming schools plan, the school dropped six points from its 1999 base API report. After that initial drop there was a heightened awareness surrounding test scores, Tosta said.

"We really made a concerted effort with our students and staff," that year, Tosta said.

The next year, the hard work paid off. The school surged by 36 points on the API growth report, hitting the 650 mark, and both teachers and administrators joined in a collective sigh of relief.

But then followed two years of API declines which led to the current state scrutiny.

There are many explanations for what occurred and some of them are almost contradictory in their conclusions.

Trustee Sue Roberts and Martinez, the new lead administrator at Galt High, contend that not having special software to break down and interpret test score data has made a big difference. The school district has just begun to use that software.

Vice Principal Jennifer Porter says that the school administration was preoccupied with an overpopulation problem and the prospect of having to move to a year-round or double-day calendar.

Several teachers and administrators say the way the tests were administered the past two years were flawed, such as penalizing the school for its freshmen not taking the geometry portion of the test.

But Tosta admits that after the initial surge, the emphasis on test scores just wasn't there anymore.

"With that gain we saw, we felt we were on our way," Tosta said, in a recent interview. "We probably didn't emphasize the importance of students' test scores"

Students also agree that there was no sense of urgency or importance attributed to improving the scores.

Senior Kimberly Lagge, 17, is editor-in-chief of The Stand, Galt High's news magazine.

"It's not really surprising (that test scores dropped)," Lagge said, in an interview outside Room 121, where her journalism class meets during first period. "A lot of people are apathetic about these tests. They'd rather sleep in."

Lagge laid part of the blame for the student apathy squarely on teachers and administrators.

"They never told us what could happen," Lagge said. "That's part of the problem: That there was never any consequence, good or bad."

Indeed, that lack of consequence led to students filling out random bubbles on their answer sheets - one particularly creative student even reportedly used bubbles to spell the "F" word.

High-achieving students ended up scoring poorly on subjects they normally did well in, and some students didn't even showing up on exam days.

Why scores went down

Administrators and parents offer a variety of different reasons for the lower test scores.

Hoffman said one problem during last year's test was that many freshmen weren't able to take the geometry portion of the test, even though the state now requires geometry for freshmen.

Many freshmen couldn't take geometry last year because they hadn't taken Algebra I in the eighth grade, Hoffman said.

"In some cases we pushed kids (in eighth grade) a little faster than they should be pushed," said Jeff Jennings, superintendent of the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District. "Some of those kids just weren't ready for algebra."

This year, algebra is offered at McCaffrey and Greer middle schools, Jennings said.

Another significant factor, Hoffman said, is that about 20 percent of the students are classified as English language learners, which means they are just learning to speak, read and write English.

Several people interviewed say that Galt High is a fine school, especially for students who take advantage of what the school has to offer.

"My daughter has gotten a very good education," said Mary Robertson, who has a son who is a freshman and a daughter who is a senior. "She starting to qualify for scholarships. If you communicate with your educators and take the effort, I think the education is there for them."

Megan Fleischl, a Galt Realtor for 26 years, said the state's academic intervention hasn't hurt her ability to sell homes in the community. In fact, getting the state's attention may be a good thing, she added.

"It's a spotlight on a bad situation," Fleischl said. "The situation shouldn't have gotten here, but it has. It's an indication that the time for complacency is over."

Other problems

Salas, who now teaches at Weston Ranch High School in southwest Stockton, taught under five different principals during his 17 years at Galt. With each new principal came one year of fresh enthusiasm after getting the new job, Salas said. Then, each principal's enthusiasm would wane, Salas said.

Now that Hoffman is more than half-way through her first year as superintendent, Salas said he wonders whether her obvious enthusiasm will continue in her second year.

Before Hoffman's arrival, several math teachers left the school.

School board President Pat Maple said Galt High has many young teachers and few real mentor teachers, but Tosta, who has been principal for the past five years, said teacher turnover isn't significantly high.

"Since my tenure as principal at GHS, we have had a total of nine experienced teachers leave," Tosta wrote in an e-mail to the News-Sentinel, responding to Maple claiming the school district hired about 60 teachers over a three-year period.

"Six of these teachers retired, and three took positions in other districts," Tosta said. "With an average of 88 teachers during the past five years, the number of experienced credentialed staff leaving Galt High School per year is less than two percent."

Hoffman admits that attracting highly qualified teachers has been an issue for the district. Teachers salaries typically increase incrementally, depending on how many years of experience they have. But the highest that the district will start a new teacher on its pay scale is at five years, Hoffman said. Teachers with many years of experience might be more inclined to look elsewhere, she added.

But the state has "It's an issue we're going to have to deal with," Hoffman said.

Contact reporters Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com and Alejandro Lazo at alexl@lodinews.com.

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