OCEANSIDE — Ken Noonan’s early days as Oceanside schools superintendent were marked by frank talk about the district’s problems — high dropout rates, low test scores and social promotion of students.
Contrary to the view held by some educators, Noonan believes disadvantaged children can learn as well as their wealthier peers. The key is providing a heavy dose of reading, writing and math.
Nearly five years later, it is apparent Noonan wasn’t paying lip service. He has engineered change. Three schools have catapulted well over 100 points on the statewide performance ranking, which rates schools according to test scores. Oceanside schools are among the highest gainers in the county. This year, San Luis Rey Elementary was the eighth-highest gainer in the state.
Third-grade math scores leaped throughout the district.
In four years, Oceanside’s dropout rate was cut by one-third to 1.2 percent in 2000. The county average is 2.2 percent, and the state average is 2.8 percent.
Other academic successes have earned Oceanside’s schools recognition after a decades-long drought.
This year, Ivey Ranch was named a Blue Ribbon School, the nation’s top honor for campuses. A record six schools are eligible to apply to become a California Distinguished School because of higher test scores.
“For another district, this may not be such a big deal — but this is Oceanside,” said Noonan. “This used to be the lowest-scoring district in the county.”
The district didn’t just raise test scores. It changed its image.
There were keys to Oceanside’s success.
In the classroom, Noonan switched to a phonics-based reading program that breaks down words. Previously, teachers picked their own programs.
He switched to back-to-basics math.
When I arrived, one administrator said, ‘We don’t teach long division.
We don’t need it.’ ” said Noonan. “Some kids weren’t memorizing multiplication tables.”
Many teachers were using “new math,” where the process is more important than the answers, Noonan said.
For years, students were promoted to the next grade despite their scholastic shortcomings. So Noonan set up an alternative school for eighth-graders unprepared for high school.
Oceanside’s implementation of Proposition 227 may have helped. The measure ended most bilingual education, except for parents who obtained waivers exempting their children from English-only instruction.
Oceanside Unified, unlike many districts across the state, denied most waivers — essentially throwing out all bilingual education.
The scores of Oceanside’s non-English-speaking students skyrocketed on the Stanford 9, the statewide standardized test of basic skills, after their first year of English-only instruction. For example, Oceanside’s seventh-grade English learners scored in the 4th percentile in 1998 in reading, meaning they scored as well as or better than only 4 percent of the national sample. In 1999, seventh-grade English learners scored in the 23rd percentile, a 475 percent increase over the previous year.
Their scores have continued to rise, confirming Noonan’s belief that he had been right in throwing away bilingual education.
The school board supported his ideas.
“We needed change,” said trustee Emily Wichmann. “Ken saw how scattered we were — different schools doing things different ways. We needed to focus, stop making excuses and get the message out there to staff that these kids could learn.”
The principals concentrated heavily on the state’s standards of what children should know in language arts, math, history and science.
The students felt the pressure. At San Luis Rey, they say there were more reports, more homework, more tutoring and more tests.
“And every time you get like a C or D, the teacher says, ‘This is a standard,” said fifth-grader Rebecca Boston. ” ‘You have to score higher on this.’ ”
“It takes a lot longer to do math problems,” said classmate Vincent Ortega. “We can’t just give answers. Now the teachers always ask us to explain how we got them. Explain, explain, explain.”
The principals, knowing how crucial parent involvement is to student success, held parents accountable. At Laurel, they were asked not to take their children out of school to do personal business. At Santa Margarita, they are asked to read and write with their children.
At Laurel, morning assemblies were eliminated. Noneducational field trips were canceled. Teacher training workshops shelved. All done so the elementary schools could concentrate on language arts and math.
Teachers worked longer hours. Before-school tutoring was added, as well as after-school homework programs.
The sacrifices were necessary, said fifth-grade teacher Traci Galloway.
“Many of these kids aren’t reading at home with mom and dad before they come to school,” she said. “These kids are doing math that their parents never learned.”
More than half the children in the 22,400-student Oceanside school district receive free or reduced-price lunches because of low income.
About a quarter are English learners. Generally, students with income and language barriers score lower on standardized tests.
Fifth-graders Nicolas Soriano and Richard Flores arrived at Laurel in kindergarten barely speaking English. Both have families that immigrated from Mexico.
“When we had to write, other people were always faster than me, so I was embarrassed,” said Nicolas. His mother cleans houses, and his father works in a nursery. Neither speak English. Nicolas doesn’t ask his parents for help with his school work. He goes to his teachers.
Richard gets tutoring after school.
Both boys got two hours of uninterrupted language arts lessons in the morning. That meant no intercom announcements or calls to the office during that period.
Their math teacher prepared them for the standardized test. If they scored low on classroom tests, the material was retaught to them using another method.
Today, the boys compete for being the top student in Galloway’s class.
They’re both on the honor roll. They read at grade level and perform math well above.
Richard jumped from the 37th percentile in math on the state test to the 93rd, meaning he scored as well or better than 93 percent of the national sample.
Galloway is proud of them. They want an education, she said.
“They’ll get mad at other kids in class who disrupt the learning atmosphere,” she said.
Oceanside’s schools are still under the state’s target score of 800 on a scale of 200 to 1,000 on the Academic Performance Index, which is based on test scores. Nearly half the students at Oceanside High School scored in the bottom quartile on the reading portion of the Stanford 9.
But the gains are significant in a district that once was the county’s lowest academic performer.
For some residents, Noonan has restored their faith in the district’s schools. Evidence of that is the passage last year of a $125 million school construction bond. Eight years ago, voters rejected a measure for a fraction of that amount.
“It’s one thing to talk about higher academics, but there’s been an entire paradigm shift with the teachers in Oceanside,” said county schools Superintendent Rudy Castruita. “The culture of the district is different. They have kids believing they can achieve, and then actually doing it.”
Sherry Parmet: (760) 476-8238; firstname.lastname@example.org