Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Point of View in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin by Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, superintendent of Pomona Unified School District.

January 5, 2008 - While our students and teachers are eagerly getting ready to get back to school after the holidays, a struggle is about to begin in Sacramento over how to impose on school districts the sanctions required by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

Pomona Unified, along with 97 other school districts and one county office of education, is facing legally required state-directed "corrective action" for not meeting each of the many federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets. Next year, hundreds of California districts are expected to be in the same boat, but we 99 are the first to experience this struggle to define in our state how the federally required sanctions can and should be imposed.

The struggle is going to be between those who understand that imposing "corrective action" should be about helping students by helping school districts improve where they need to, and those who feel it's primarily about making a political point, about cracking down, about getting tough. Of course, in the balance are our children's education and future.

Pomona Unified is facing NCLB sanctions because, as a district, for several years in a row, we have not met each one of the continually rising federal targets for student performance among our Special Education and English Language Learner groups. We make no excuses, and we already hold ourselves accountable for better results with our own new, very specific district goals and achievement targets. We are working hard to help each of our students improve academically, setting expectations high for everyone, including ourselves. No one holds us more accountable for results than we do ourselves.

That's because the intensive work taking place at PUSD is not in response to the threat of corrective action by the state. For the past 18 months, the Board of Education and I have focused on improving student achievement and engaging the community. We began this effort simply because it's the right thing to do.

We believe the changes we have made and those we are implementing now will result in sustainable improvements in student academic achievement. However, when it comes to political wrestling hundreds of miles away, sometimes the facts of what is really taking place at schools and in classrooms each day get lost in all the rhetoric and commotion.

An objective look reveals that, in many ways, PUSD is quite a different place than it was not long ago. In fact, we have commissioned several objective looks by third parties. External audits of our Special Education, fiscal, Personnel, and Instructional Services divisions have led to positive changes that have made us more student-focused, more results-oriented, and more efficient. We are currently involved in a districtwide facilities study that relies heavily on community participation to help us develop a long-term plan for how best to use all our facilities to support student achievement. We even commissioned an external audit of our Maintenance and Operations division to make sure the daily and long-term upkeep of our facilities is efficient and student-focused.

To guide and measure all our work, we have developed the Six Essentials - Responsive Instruction, Student Work and Data, Aligned Resources, Shared Leadership, Professional Development, and Family and Community - the essential elements for continually improving student academic achievement. We know that if something doesn't fit into the Six Essentials, then it's taking us away from our mission.

We have reconnected with our community and the families we serve. Talking with and listening to parents and students, and involving them in the work of transforming education at PUSD, has led in the past year alone to the creation of two new and very popular schools and programs: Cortez Mathematics and Science Magnet School, unique in our region; and the School of Extended Education Options (SEEO), PUSD's first district-sponsored dependent charter school.

In December, U.S. News & World Report highlighted two of our high schools as being among the 500 best in the nation - out of 18,000. One of our high schools and one of our elementary schools were selected as Outstanding Title I Schools by the State of California. And earlier in the year, one of our high schools was chosen for the second time in a row as a California Distinguished School - one of just 13 distinguished high schools in all of Los Angeles County. Our seniors get offered millions of dollars in scholarships and grants, and they are recruited by some of America's finest colleges and universities.

We are doing many things right across the district, and our current intensive work is helping us link those "islands of excellence" in order to improve Reaching, Teaching, and Learning at all our schools and in all our classrooms for each of our students. The generous and active support of our community has been invaluable.

We have detailed our ongoing work and our progress so far to the State Board of Education, the state Department of Education, and the Governor's Office, and have asked that whatever sanction is imposed be as helpful and as nondisruptive to our current efforts as possible.

We have heard that some in Sacramento, however, want to "make an example" of several districts through very intrusive action, including possible takeover by the state. That would be a first for the state, taking over a district specifically to get it to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress targets.

It has taken professional educators and dedicated and supportive community members 18 months to begin to see results in our own local turnaround effort. Could a state takeover of a school district provide better, faster results than that? And what if, under the state's control, a district still fails to meet the ever-rising federal targets? Who takes over the school district then?

We know and care about the children we serve, so we welcome accountability; we expect it of ourselves, and our community expects it of us. We also welcome constructive assistance.

As the State Board of Education works to decide on appropriate and helpful corrective action, I urge the governor, our lawmakers, and our state education agencies to remember to always put children ahead of politics. I urge them to recognize the hard work that some districts are already engaged in to make sustainable improvements to support student academic achievement, and to consider carefully and thoughtfully the potential long-term effects that their actions can have.

• Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana is superintendent of Pomona Unified School District, which serves more than 30,000 students in grades pre-K-12, and 17,000 adult learners in Pomona and Diamond Bar. The Association of California School Administrators, the statewide "principal's union" says "Superintendent Melendez de Santa Ana is one of California’s brightest stars.
community has rallied around Thelma, her local governing board and
teachers to show their support for the great work this district is accomplishing."

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