National News

SFGate, April 21, 2008

Oakland: School works to close achievement gap

By Jill Tucker, Chronicle Staff Writer

That's all Monarch Academy, a small Oakland charter school, needs this year to reach the state's target of 800 on the 1,000-point scale used to judge, reward or punish a school.

This is testing season in California, when students in grades 2 through 11 take a barrage of standardized tests. The final scores represent a year's worth of effort.

At 800 or above, schools are in an academic safe zone. About half of the state's elementary schools reached that goal last year. Schools that fail to make progress toward that objective end up on the state's watch list, which could lead to sanctions resulting in staff changes or even a state takeover.

Given Monarch's meteoric rise of nearly 150 points on the Academic Performance Index over the past two years, boosting last year's 795 score five points higher doesn't sound like much. However, it might be the toughest hurdle faced so far by the elementary school that sits squarely in the flatlands of East Oakland, where residents take refuge behind barred windows and police regularly investigate killings.

Monarch serves 355 predominantly low-income Latino children in kindergarten through fifth grade, many of whom are still learning English - a demographic often linked to bottom-of-the-barrel test scores.

While education officials often say schools like Monarch are "beating the odds," Principal Tatiana Epanchin says it isn't complicated. She believes it involves hard work and high expectations.

"There's not a single child who cannot learn," she said. "One of our main mottos at Monarch is: 'Think you can! Work hard! Get smart!' All the people in the Monarch community deeply hold the belief that when a child believes in himself or herself and applies effective effort, he or she can learn anything. Our scores are a testament to that belief."

Day to day, that belief system translates into strict school and classroom routines, uniforms, organic lunches and a no-sugar policy, a morning greeting with group cheers about college, art classes, music and physical education, and teachers who talk to each other.

And there are tests - lots of tests. The students and staff spend a great deal of time preparing for, talking about, practicing and taking tests.

Ten weeks before this year's high-stakes standardized tests in May, Monarch shifted into high gear with student practice tests for an hour or so each week. They call it "Figure it out Friday." They also review material and talk about the test between other lessons.

Recently, on one such Friday, students walked to their classrooms along hallways festooned with college banners. Every classroom at Monarch is named after a university - part of the school's effort to put college on the radar of children with no exposure to higher education.

Elizabeth Shafer's third-grade students filed past their Yale banner and gathered on the rug to review test-taking tips with their teacher. "Breathe and relax" was at the top of the list written on the board. "Read the question carefully and circle key words. Reread the question and figure out what it is asking. Say the question in your own words."

Then, their desks moved from clusters to traditional rows, the students gripped No. 2 pencils and hunched over answer sheets, breathing, reading and rereading.

"Yeah, we work hard to do well on the test," Epanchin said later. "We work extremely hard to do well on the test."

The emphasis on testing is part of the philosophy of Monarch's operator, Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit organization with 21 charter schools across the state. Aspire uses quarterly assessments to determine the progress of every child learning grade-level academic skills. The annual statewide test comes too infrequently and too late to help a child who's fallen behind, Aspire leaders say.

Epanchin believes in even more frequent standardized testing. In her office, for example, charts cover a wall with the names of every student in grades 2 through 5 - each child located above or below a red line based on recent assessments. Above is proficient; below is not. More than half the students are below.

Epanchin wonders out loud how a school can be so close to the state's coveted 800 points "and still have so many students, according to this one measure, who aren't proficient."

While she believes in data and in regular assessment to help get the children above the red line, she's aware there are those who believe the emphasis on testing and test preparation is sucking the life out of learning.

Epanchin said taking tests is a skill that every student and adult must have.

"I think it's important for people not to be scared to take a test," she said. "It is a part of life."

In addition, the tests provide information to her and the teachers about each child's needs. Another school motto is: "We're down with data."

Every week, Epanchin makes sure the teachers in each grade have 50 minutes to share information with each other about their students' progress and how to improve the teaching.

"The amount of collaboration that goes on is really amazing," Shafer said. "We have time built into the day to look at student work and data together."

The principal believes this is a key part of her school's high test scores. Too often, teachers lead solitary lives in their classrooms, succeeding or failing alone, she said.

Not so at Monarch.

"You need to check the ego at the door," Epanchin said. Teaching, she said, "should be a fishbowl."

Monarch parent Lucia Sanchez passes two elementary schools on her way to the charter school, where her son Miguel, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a fifth-grader. "They give that student the individualized attention that they need in a group setting and to me, that was very important - that he felt like he belonged," she said.

Critics, however, question the kind of success a charter school like Monarch has achieved, wondering whether the students choosing and attending such schools would have done well anywhere. These successful charters, they say, are simply "skimming" the best kids off the top of the public school system.

Yet, in 2001, Monarch's first year in business, the students scored in the bottom 10 percent on statewide tests, posting an embarrassing API of 466. In the years since, the school has seen everything from a 31-point decline in 2004 to the recent dramatic gains.

Epanchin believes the high test scores represent more than points on a scale. They represent dreams. In March, she arranged for her students and their families to board chartered buses for UC Berkeley, where many of the 1,000 visitors stepped onto a college campus for the first time.

Sanchez was one of those visitors to Cal. The Oakland mother said Monarch's focus on college has been ingrained in her sons, although she graduated from a continuation high school and her husband never got his diploma.

"For us to push them, to have that instilled in them since kindergarten, that's a big dream for us," she said.

As for Epanchin, even this year's goal of an 800 score won't be good enough, she said with a smile. She wants every child to be proficient - and a score of 950 would be nice. "I just think the work is going to get harder and harder," she said.

E-mail Jill Tucker at
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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