School spending: Where the neediest students get more help

Weeks before starting kindergarten, Kannon Sinnott arrived early on Wednesday for class at White Rock Elementary School. The 5-year-old has spent his summer mastering the alphabet – on this day, Kannon focused on X, Y and Z – and learning to write his name.

The summer program in Rancho Cordova also teaches Kannon’s mother, Koreena Sinnott, how to help her children with their studies at home, while her 2-year-old son, Kamden, has an opportunity to play with other children his age. The new offerings are part of a Folsom Cordova Unified School District attempt to give low-income children the same educational advantages that more affluent families have.

“A lot of the parents here have never been involved, or they’re busy working a lot, so they don’t get to be involved in their children’s studies or even helping with their homework,” Sinnott said. “Or, if they don’t speak English as a first language, they don’t even understand their homework.”

Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers say that disadvantaged children require more public resources than students in affluent neighborhoods in order to succeed. To that end, California has begun directing more money to schools based on their enrollment of low-income students, English learners and foster children, and school districts across California last month approved their first blueprints for spending that money.

In Sacramento County, some districts expanded educational programs already in place, adding positions such as teachers and classroom aides. Others were intent on restoring programs cut in prior budgets.

The new funding model is good news for schools in Rancho Cordova, where the share of struggling students outstrips the more affluent Folsom at the other end of the district in almost every crucial measure. Poverty is greater, more students are learning to speak English and test scores are lower, according to the state Department of Education.

At White Rock Elementary, tucked in a working-class neighborhood between Highway 50 and Folsom Boulevard, 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on family income, while 41 percent face language challenges. In Folsom, the three highest-performing schools have less than 5 percent in each category.

This fall, Rancho Cordova schools will add four preschool classes, hire about 10 teachers to further reduce class sizes in grades K-3 and add reading specialists to help English learners in those grades, said Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt.

Sinnott said after four weeks of Kinder Camp at White Rock Elementary, Kannon is able to write his name, a skill he is supposed to have by the time kindergarten starts in August.

“We had been practicing it at home,” she said. “But he just wasn’t getting it. He didn’t know how to write.”

She said she was pleased with her son’s progress: “Basically, he’ll be able to read by the time he is done with kindergarten.”

For older students, the district is adding classes for college-entrance SAT preparation, which one parent said would help many students at Cordova High School who may not have access to private tutors.

“I think a lot of kids may have been more inclined to take the SATs or do better on the SATs if they had access to preparation resources,” said Sheryl Longsworth, a leader in the school’s parent-teacher association.

Longsworth said she believes the quality of public education is the same across the Folsom Cordova district. But she thinks students who need help are embarrassed to ask for it or they can’t stay late or arrive before school when help is available.

And there can be huge disparities in community fundraising to support local campuses.

A year ago, the Eureka Schools Foundation – a group of parents, community members and businesses – raised more than $700,000 to support campuses in the Eureka Union School District primarily serving Granite Bay, an affluent area in Placer County.

“Rancho Cordova PTAs cannot raise that amount collectively,” Longsworth said. “It would take 10 years.”

Differences in socio-economic factors are reflected in academic scores. The state combines every school’s test scores into a single composite called the Academic Performance Index, or API. The top score is 1,000, and the state’s goal is to have every school score higher than 800. All Folsom schools had a three-year weighted API of more than 800, and almost half scored better than 900. None of the 14 schools in Rancho Cordova scored above 800.

The Folsom Cordova district illustrates what Brown described in his 2013 State of the State address. “Growing up in Compton or in Richmond is not like it is to grow up in Los Gatos or Beverly Hills or Piedmont,” Brown said.

He suggested his new education plan would combat the disadvantages that poor children face: “This really is a classic case of justice. To unequals, we have to give more to approach equality.”

In districts that have a distinct socio-economic divide between rich and poor such as Folsom Cordova, dollars must be targeted toward low-income schools. But where poverty and language barriers are widespread – anywhere the disadvantaged population exceeds 55 percent – administrators have more flexibility to use their new dollars on programs used by all students.

At Twin Rivers, which serves students from mostly low-income neighborhoods in North Highlands, Del Paso Heights and North Sacramento, changes are significant: The district is creating 90 new teaching positions, including 24 to teach the arts and music. The district will add arts programs at elementary schools and band and choir at every middle and high school, said Craig Murray, executive director of secondary education.

Arts and music classes will be blended with instruction in English or history or math, said Jacqueline White, who coordinates arts integration efforts for the district. District leaders hope the approach will excite students about school and prepare them to enter college or a career, she said.

“There were 2 million jobs in the arts, media and entertainment,” White said. “Creativity is a huge part of what is expected of students once they reach the workplace.”

This school year, she said, a student may use math to understand music scales. An art student might use visual arts to depict history.

“You could have a math lesson paired with a music lesson,” she said. “The kids aren’t just learning their ABCs, they’re learning about the music. It’s a lot deeper learning,”

At Sacramento City Unified, where nearly 7 in 10 students qualify for subsidized lunch programs and 1 in 5 are English learners, the focus is on strengthening existing programs – but some parents are disappointed.

Carl Pinkston of the Sacramento advocacy group Black Parallel School Board said the new law unleashed a determination among community members and parents to get involved. But he questioned whether Sacramento City Unified is doing enough to help its disadvantaged students.

“Districts clearly did not understand what the local control funding is all about ... that the groups most impacted are to receive additional funding,” Pinkston said.

Many parents and community members in the district were interested in smaller class sizes. The district has the region’s biggest K-3 classes: 32 for kindergarten and 31 for first through third grades. Anna Molander echoed Pinkston’s concern.

“As a parent, what I really care about is reducing class size,” Molander said. “It should be a first priority.”

Sacramento City Unified is the only area district on the state’s fiscal warning list, and it is still trying to claw its way back from deep budget cuts during the recession. Declining enrollment has proved a financial challenge.

Spokesman Gabe Ross said the district is continuing to look at class-size reduction. “But we know the financial reality of that is significant. ... After a 20 percent reduction in our operating budget over a 10-year period, there is no shortage of need.”

Ross said the district responded to parents who sought to make school cleanliness a priority. He said the district knew that its custodial services weren’t sufficient, “but the feedback from the community really underscored” the need. The district will spend $2 million more in the coming school year on a combination of plant managers and custodians at school sites, a bump of 30 jobs or about 27 percent.

Elk Grove Unified will use some of its money to expand its “positive behavior intervention support,” which enlists students to help shape and respect campus rules and trains teachers to reinforce positive student behavior.

A simple rule might prohibit hats from being worn on campus, said Doug Phillips, lead program specialist for student services for the district. When students don’t comply, he said, “We’d be asking them to take the hat off. Now we have other students telling them, ‘You know, you’re not supposed to be wearing that hat.’ ”

The program already has been successful in reducing suspension and expulsion rates at about half the district’s schools. Starting next year, Elk Grove Unified will phase it in at 22 elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools.

The ACLU reviewed 50 spending plans across the state and found that a plurality of them appeared to use new state funds to restore old programs that had been cut during the recession, according to David Sapp, director of education advocacy for ACLU in Southern California.

Jonathan Kaplan of the California Budget Project said state leaders should have required districts to show more specifically how they are spending state money to serve struggling students.

“There’s nothing we have to look at and say whether a district is actually doing something to increase services for disadvantaged students,” said Kaplan, a senior policy analyst with the group that advocates for low-income Californians.

“Unless the state board improves upon the regulations that exist, we won’t have that information going forward,” he said. “And state policymakers will be flying blind when it comes to understanding how these education dollars are being used.”

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