Unwarranted Demise of Mar Vista Middle School

27 Mar

In February, while attending a science teacher’s professional development at Mar Vista High School, I first heard the rumor that Mar Vista Middle School (MVM) was going to be closed, all of its staff dismissed and the school reopened as a charter school. Since 1961, this venerable institution has been a treasure in the poverty stricken neighborhood situated one mile north of the world’s busiest border crossing (San Diego-Tijuana). At the March 11, 2013 board meeting (Sweetwater Union High School District) the rumor was confirmed, a restructuring plan for MVM was approved. Or as one person observed, “they legally stole an asset belonging to a poor community for their own purposes.”

This is modern American school reform and truthfully speaking, no one knows what is really motivating the Sweetwater School Board. Oddly, Thomas J. Winters, the current principal of MVM, a man with only one year of experience as a principle was tasked with making the decision about which restructuring plan to select. He chose from available alternatives specified in education law “close the school and reopen it as a focus or theme schools [sic] with new staff or staff skilled in the focus area.” (1) So, a high quality staff, which in most cases had spent more than a decade providing heroic service to one of San Diego counties poorest neighborhoods, was to be relieved of their positions. They were guilty of working in a poor neighborhood! The enormity of cynical school reform for profit and self-promotion is beyond injustice.

The Elementary and Secondary Education ACT of 1965 as amended in 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) specifies that schools which fail to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for five years shall be punished and mandates a menu of remedies. MVM had failed to reach AYP from the very inception of this law bringing it the dubious record of being labeled a failure by the federal government for ten straight years. Many local residents, especially those with no direct involvement with the school, believed what they were repeatedly hearing about this “failing school” – “the problem is bad teachers unwilling to change.” Even teachers from across town who do not work with students of poverty or significant numbers of language learners suspected there must be something wrong with the MVM staff.

I worked at MVM in school year 2004-2005. It was clear to me that as motivated and competent as the staff was they were going fail unless this obviously flawed law (NCLB) was modified. Schools in communities with high poverty rates were set up for failure by this ill-conceived federal takeover of education. How is it possible to convince people that MVM is a wonderful highly effective educational institution, when a federal law is written that makes even significant growth in performance look like failure? Was disaggregation an evil plot or just bad law with unintended consequences? I don’t know, but I do know that MVM is actually a very successful school and is a significant community asset. In a just world the staff and school would have been lauded for both their efforts and achievements. These valiant educators should have been lionized as an example of what can be accomplished when selfless teachers work to fructify the weal. Instead they have been vitiated!

My personal reasoned conclusion solidified by practical experience is that standardized testing is odious. It clearly narrows curriculum and promotes soporific lessons that develop mimesis not creativity or the ability to think. That said: these same horrible tests show that the staff at MVM got the message. The teachers saw that the school’s survival depended on effectively teaching to the tests. The baseline year for NCLB testing was 2002 in which math and English are the only two categories that matter. The arbitrary level for passing was set at 16% of math students scoring proficient or better and 13.6% of English students scoring proficient or better. In 2012, AYP pass rates entered the hockey stick portion of the law (the period when pass rates go up precipitously to reach a whimsical 100% proficient or advanced by 2014). The 2012 AYP pass rates were set at 79% proficient or better for math and 78.4% proficient or better for English. The 2012 targets are so unrealistic that even Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was predicting an 82% failure rate. (2) Nevertheless, they are still being effectively utilized by questionable actors to declare schools like MVM failures and take control of them away from the local community.

From 2002 thru 2011, the overall school scores at MVM always exceeded the AYP targets. In 2011, 51% of the eight graders at MVM took Algebra with 40% scoring proficient and 44% scoring advanced on the California Star Tests (CST). The 44% advanced was the highest percentage of advanced algebra scores in the district. That year the algebra students at MVM outscored even the schools whose students were from the wealthiest families in the district. The MVM scores were amongst the top Algebra scores posted in California that year (2011). Plus, almost 50% of English language students scored advanced or proficient. This great achievement was not acknowledged! Two sub-groups did not meet AYP so MVM continued being labeled a failing school. The scores of English language learners and students with disabilities, kept MVM from achieving AYP success. Amongst English language learners only 31.8% achieved scores of proficient or advanced in English and amongst disabled students only 31.6% scored proficient or advanced in math. Both failing categories showed a huge improvement from the 2002 levels of 0% proficient or advanced in either category, but that was not good enough.

In an open letter from “Concerned and Offended Staff” to Principal Winters it stated, “Please remember that it was not the teachers at this school who have dismantled the great programs that our parents are missing. It was not the teachers who have dismantled the award winning ASAP program and raided its grant money for general use, this was done by school and district administrators.  It was not the teachers who dismantled the NOVA team of which parents spoke so highly, this was done by school site administrators. It was not teachers who ended the award winning music program that Fred Lee built and is remembered so fondly by parents and students.”(3) The music program was truly magnificent. The jazz band was consistently judged as best middle school jazz band in California. The ASAP program was a daily 3:30 PM until 6:30 PM after school program that provided tutoring and club activities. Maria Catalina, who is a NASA affiliated science teacher, had an astronomy club. Guadalupe Trejo a motivated and talented bilingual science teacher had a robotics club and Justin Ezell sponsored the Huck Fin club. The highly talented Gugenia Gurrola was working with language learners on mathematics and of course Cathy Stutzman had the most amazing tutoring sessions I have ever seen going on in her math classroom. The NOVA team was an honors program that offered enrichment for higher performing students. Unfortunately, the economic downturn of 2008 and administrative decisions led to defunding these popular and successful MVM initiatives. When the state loosened restrictions on where money could be spent, the district defunded these programs and shifted the funds to other schools to help them achieve AYP success.

Today, music teacher Fred Lee, who was pressured into leaving MVM if he wanted to continue teaching music, still works for the district in an upper-class neighborhood weaving his magic at Rancho Del Rey Middle School. In 2006-2007, MVM received a Golden Bell for its outstanding reading program which promoted recreational reading at home by providing reading strategies to both students and their parents. (4) The San Diego Union reports, “The Golden Bell Awards, now in their 33rd year, promote excellence in education in 18 categories. The awards single out programs — developed by California teachers and administrators — for innovation, sustainability, making a difference for all students, and a commitment to meeting the needs of all students.” (5) At one time, programs like this along with Mr. Lee’s music program and the NOVA team enticed many parents to send their students to MVM even though the school was labeled a failure by first the Bush administration and then the Obama administration.

In general, schools in poor neighborhoods are set up for failure under NCLB. Schools in poor neighborhoods with large percentages of language learners and disabled students have no chance to succeed. MVM was facing a demographic impossibility.

Year      Percent Disabled       Percent ELL (a)   Percent SE (b)    Percent Hispanic

2002-2003          11%                        28%                    64%                       62%

2006-2007          12%                        30%                    64%                       69%

2011-2012            13%                        44%                    76%                       75%

a-English language learners     b- Social and economically deprived (6)

It is important to note that about two-thirds of the disabled student and language learners are also socio-economically deprived. AYP accountability rules mandate that a student is not just in one category but their scores normally count in multiple categories. A failure in any one category means failing AYP. At MVM, Socio-economically deprived students are about three-fourths of both the disabled and language learners’ categories. In all, MVM had to pass 25 AYP specified categories but just two categories were the root of the failing scores for 10 years. The NCLB rules of disaggregation were originally written to protect minority students from being hidden within the statistics, but ironically those rules became a major vehicle by which poor communities have their schools closed or appropriated by private entities.

The category of language learners is particularly insidious for MVM. In neighboring Tijuana, it is common for students who have been kicked out of school to move in with a relative in San Diego to attend school. Often, these are particularly difficult children who do not perform well. Schools are also punished for doing their job too well. If a student develops strong language skills, they are reclassified and no longer counted amongst the language learners’ category. It is a genuine “Catch-22.” MVM was facing a triple whammy, high poverty rates, a high percentage of disabled students and almost half of the students were language learners. Still this school was producing high levels of achievement. Three students from MVM’s era of “failure” have won Gates Millennium scholarships; several have gone on to The US Naval Academy and many others are attending top ranked schools throughout the US including the Ivy League. Only hubris and pecuniary desire explains not protecting and cultivating this venerable institution.

In the year I was at MVM, I got to know Cathy Stutzman among others. I remember being stunned when I walked into her classroom and saw two overhead projectors going and Cathy moving between them continuing to push the tempo and teach Algebra. Moreover, every student in the room was totally engaged trying to keep up with this high energy educator. I asked Cathy, how MVM was able to achieve such amazing test results in the 2011 Algebra CST testing. Two years prior to that, I had asked another math teacher at MVM, Randolph Arciniega, who I admired and looked to as a teacher mentor, “what is new at MVM?” He briefly described how they were following Cathy’s lead because she was showing some amazing results. Cathy said she perceived that students at MVM were behind when they came to the school and also needed more introductions with Algebra concepts in seventh grade to succeed in Algebra testing the following year. She felt the lessons needed some spiraling. Cathy convinced the administration to let her loop classes and teach all seventh grade classes one year and then move with them to eighth grade in the subsequent year. She also persuaded the principal to let her add several algebra concepts to the seventh grade curriculum. By 2009, all of the math teachers at MVM were looping and teaching Cathy’s modified curriculum in seventh grade.

The amazing 2011 results occurred in the last year that MVM looped math classes. The new principal, Thomas J. Winters, who was a brand new principal as were his predecessors at MVM, stopped the looping curriculum. That decision led to a significant drop in test scores. Maybe this is some of what the “Concerned and Offended Staff” were alluding to when they wrote, “You have stated in the past that there is “no bad data” but you have proved yourself wrong by providing the DSLT [District Site Leadership Team] with only partial and biased data regarding the efforts and accomplishments of the staff of Mar Vista Middle School. We have heard from teachers who were part of the DSLT who have stated that you purposely guided the DSLT to the conclusion that it is the teachers that are keeping Mar Vista Middle School from succeeding while ignoring other important factors.” (7)

Bush’s NCLB and Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) both stress test based accountability which has lead to jejune pedagogy. The best charter schools practice problem and project based education principles which were widely spread in public schools before these two pernicious laws were enacted. The federal government has taken more and more control of schools away from local communities and instituted rules that undermine public education. In our discussion, Cathy told me, “I felt we were fighting for survival and that testing was all that mattered. I could no longer employ project based methods. I had to focus on scoring well on tests.” Near the turn of the millennium, Cathy was able through a grant to purchase a class set of graphing calculators which besides the typical uses she also employed in a mathematics art project. The students had to create a piece of art by transferring graphs of ten different functions onto paper. When the art pieces were completed they were mounted and displayed in the school’s cafeteria. She relates the story of how one of her poorer students – almost all D’s and F’s – made a really colorful and beautiful graphing creation. When Cathy looked at it she praised the student but told her that “unfortunately it is not complete because you did not list the functions on the back.” The girl said, “That’s alright – I remember them.” The girl immediately sat down and listed all ten functions perfectly from memory. Federal accountability rules now effectively ban public schools from offering this kind of engaging pedagogy.

I believe Principal Winters came to MVM intending to succeed at his first assignment as a principal. Still, it does seem eerie how perfectly the demise of MVM fits the profile of schools being closed or taken over across the nation. It is in a poor community with a large minority population and the level of professionalism amongst the teaching staff is high. In fact, under the reporting mandates of NCLB, Principal Winters reported that 100% of the teaching staff at MVM is rated as highly qualified – meaning they all have a college degree in the field that they teach, plus they each have more than a year of teacher education training. As recently as January 24, 2013 Principal Winters officially reported, “Students at Mar Vista Middle School and in the Sweetwater Union High School District are expected to master state and district standards which will prepare them to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Mar Vista Middle School provides a safe and secure learning environment that contributes to students’ academic success.” (8) Either the latest school accountability report card is misleading or the reasons for closing MVM are fabrications. MVM is a great school with a great staff, but like schools in poor and minority neighborhoods across the country the parents have modest political capital. Schools like MVM are vulnerable to modern “Carpetbaggers.” I believe that is the true reason underlying the unwarranted demise of MVM and hundreds or possibly thousands of MVM’s across this country.

(1) http://boarddocs.suhsd.k12.ca.us/Board.nsf/Public – 3/11/2012 – Superintendents Agenda Item 6.

(2) http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/story/2011-12-15/schools-federal-standards/51949126/1

(3) Unpublished letter to Principal Winters, February 2013

(4) MVM School Accountability Report Card 2009 http://research-evaluation.sweetwaterschools.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/84/files/2012/10/SARC2009_MVM_Short.pdf

(5) http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/dec/03/seven-local-districts-among-golden-bell-award/

(6) MVM School Accountability Report Card 2009 http://research-evaluation.sweetwaterschools.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/84/files/2012/10/SARC2009_MVM_Short.pdf

(7) Unpublished letter to Principal Winters, February 2013

(8) http://research-evaluation.sweetwaterschools.org/sarcs/ – 2012-2013 SARC Mar Vista Middle School.

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