Visalia Unified enters 19-20 school year with an eye on seven of the state’s lowest performing schools
By Reggie Ellis
VISALIA – Six months after discovering that seven of its schools made the state’s first-ever lowest performing schools list, Visalia Unified School District enters the 2019-20 school year with a watchful eye on those sites.
The seven schools included every grade level from five elementary schools, one middle school and a continuation high school. Of the 800 California public schools on the list, 300 high schools with a two-year average graduation rate of 67% or lower were identified as low performing while 481 elementary and middle schools were defined by low state scores in five or more areas on the California School Dashboard, the California Department of Education’s school rating system. Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) had more schools on the list than larger districts such as Bakersfield City, Fresno Unified, and Los Angeles Unified.
Coincidentally, VUSD starts the school year on Thursday, Aug. 15 with seven new principals but only one is at a school on the lowest performing schools list. VUSD also has a new superintendent, Dr. Tamara Ravalin. Ravalin said VUSD will be implementing new strategies to address the shortcomings at each site, but they will be doing it differently from attempts to implement new programs in recent years.
“Instead of waiting for full implementation and outcomes before adjusting, now we will be adjusting along the way,” Ravalin said.
Administrator of Accountability Jim Sullivan began meeting with each school’s principal, assistant principal, teachers, and aides to determine what strategies were working and which ones were not, especially at the five elementary schools on the list: Pinkham, Goshen, Houston, Willow Glen and Royal Oaks.
Sullivan said every two weeks he will look at the implementation of the strategy and meet with site administrators and teachers about which strategies are the most effective, with a heavy emphasis on teacher input. Every eight weeks, Sullivan said the work group will review writing samples and reading scores and see what progress is being made in a student-by-student case study of academic growth.
“We want to know, and know quickly, if kids are talking and interacting with the lessons,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said one common thread they found throughout the five elementary schools on the lowest performing list was in language development, which includes verbal and written communication, vocabulary and reading comprehension. He said each of the schools is developing an interactive read aloud program where the teacher reads aloud, then asks students questions and a discussion about what they heard.
“They will use the academic language of the text to answer questions that help them connect themselves to the text, which should improve comprehension,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he will meet with each of the school’s teams in November to develop a comprehensive plan for their sites. Those plans will be presented to the school board at its Dec. 17 meeting.
“We were doing this but we weren’t as focused,” Ravalin said. “Twice a semester was the norm and now we are monitoring more closely, which is something new to us.”
VUSD does have a history of identifying student shortcomings and working to close the gap. In the first year of the new accountability system, the California School Dashboard identified that VUSD foster youth were struggling with English language arts and suspensions. Stringer said VUSD worked with the county’s Foster Focus program to develop plans for students that followed them as they moved between schools within the district. They also provided foster students with backpacks and improved the state indicators from red, the lowest performing, to yellow, which means meeting standards.