Pasco, Kennewick schools won't seek federal grants

Neither Pasco nor Kennewick school officials will apply for the federal grant that would require them to drastically shake up their low-performing schools.

Both districts rejected the need for harsh reforms, albeit for different reasons.

Kennewick officials said their low-performing high school already is on track toward better graduation rates.

Pasco's superintendent said standardized tests don't consider the unique challenges facing many of her students and that the district is working on changes that are more promising than the federally mandated reforms.

Officials are reacting to a list published this month by the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The list named 50 Washington schools that qualified for federal School Improvement Grants, which will be paid out in the spring.

To get that money, districts have to follow one of three reform options for the listed schools.

Two of the options require firing the school's principal, among other drastic changes.

The third option is closing the school entirely and redistributing its students to higher-performing schools.

The list consisted of schools that either graduated too few students or scored low on standardized tests.

Pasco had seven schools on the list -- five elementary and two middle schools. Aside from low test scores, all shared two traits -- very high percentages of students living in poverty and of students learning English as a second language.

Poverty has been shown to greatly impact learning. And the state tests are in English.

"There is only one way schools are held accountable, and that's with standardized tests," said Pasco Superintendent Saundra Hill. "Those state tests are not normed for English language learners, but the state puts high stakes outcomes on them."

Hill said she has tried to argue the point with state education officials, but has gotten nowhere.

"Frankly, they don't give a rip," she said.

OSPI officials did not want to talk about the issue.

"We don't want to wade into these waters," spokesman Nathan Olson told the Herald.

Hill said she thinks English learners aren't a priority for the state because a lot of districts don't have very many of them.

State records show a third of all students in the Pasco School District are considered transitional bilingual, meaning at least some of their classes need to be held in their native, non-English language for them to understand the material.

The seven schools on the list -- Stevens Middle School, Ellen Ochoa Middle School, and Robert Frost, Longfellow, Emerson, Rowena Chess and Virgie Robinson elementary schools -- have even higher percentages. Fifty percent to 70 percent of their students are learning English.

Such numbers make Pasco unique not just in the state, but the entire Northwest, Hill said. And the numbers provided by the states bear that out.

No other large district in Washington, Oregon or Idaho has as high a proportion of English learners as Pasco does.

The only ones with significantly higher percentages are tiny rural districts where just a few dozen students can skew the statistics.

In Washington, Yakima has 26 percent of its students classified as English learners. In Idaho, Nampa School District has 11 percent and in Oregon a few districts in the Portland and Salem metro areas come up in the mid-20 percent range.

Being a large district with such demographics greatly handicaps Pasco schools' chances to stay off the low-performing list, Hill said. "The chances that these students pass the tests as they're learning English are very slim," she said.

She's called the U.S. Department of Education about the tests she deems unfair to her students and was told, "You're right, but we'll deal with that later," she said. "I got the sense they don't really care."

That's not to say that Pasco schools aren't expected to improve, Hill said. But it takes time to learn English, which is exactly what the teachers asked for when confronted with the low-performance issue.

Hill met with the principals of the seven schools last Tuesday. The seven said that teachers asked for more time with their kids to get off the list -- either longer school days or a longer school year.

"We're investigating options," Hill said.

Teachers at one school had discussed starting the year as early as Aug. 1. But those discussion are just preliminary talks among staff, Hill said. Nothing has been decided yet at the district level.

If teachers want extra time, they'll have to get paid extra. There's no money for that in the basic education budgets, but there are federal dollars that came with so many strings attached that they're practically unusable, Hill said. That money might be usable for extending the school year or day, however.

"I'm very optimistic the teachers come up with some good ideas," Hill said. "I'll go find the money."

Aside from criticizing the tests she deems unfair to her youngest students, Hill also asked that the district be considered as a whole system and to look at how Pasco students fare in the higher grades, once they've learned English.

"Our students are passing their tests in the 10th grade," she said. "None of our high schools are on the list."

But a high school across the river is.

Kennewick High School became eligible for the federal grant this year because its graduation rate over the past three years was below 60 percent. But that average was skewed by one really bad year -- barely half of all students in the 2007-08 school year were on track to get their diploma on time.

Graduation rates went back up in the years since, rising to 66 percent by the summer of 2009 and 69 percent last year, said district spokeswoman Lorraine Cooper.

That means Kennewick High is on track to be off the list by next year and the district would suffer no consequences even if it did nothing to improve.

The district will not apply for the school improvement grant and will not initiate any of the drastic measures prescribed under the federal program, Cooper said. It does plan, however, to raise its graduation rate.

"Since I came on board last year we've said, 'The graduation rate is too low -- let's get it higher,' " said Van Cummings, who took over as principal of Kennewick High last summer. "We're not happy with our rate."

In October, the district added so-called success coordinators to its three high schools. The staffers identify students that could graduate with a little help and track students who've transferred to other schools to make sure those don't get counted as drop-outs.

Each school does things a little differently to help kids graduate, but the coordinator at Kennewick High "concentrates on the kids who are only two or three credits short in their senior year," Cummings said.

These students come in for an extra 45 minutes after school four days a week, under the supervision of math and English teachers.

Laura Jepsen, the success coordinator at his school, "has already made an impact," Cummings said.

The school is about to expand the program -- starting in the next couple of weeks, Jepsen will pick out freshmen who need help, to get to them before they start falling behind, Cummings said.

Both districts feel they already are taking care of their shortcomings, even without the lure of free money.

"We need to do things in good faith," Hill said. "If we just applied for the grant to not be on the list, that wouldn't be in good faith."