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Publication Date: Friday, July 18, 2003

A plan for Castro A plan for Castro (July 18, 2003)

After years of poor test scores, a searing audit leads to new strategy

By Julie O'Shea

Mountain View-Whisman school officials are set to unveil a plan next month aimed at putting Castro Elementary -- the lowest-performing school in the district -- on the road to success.

This comes three months after a blistering audit of Castro roasted its staff for not holding "high academic expectations for all students" and criticized the school for not using state approved teaching standards and textbooks.

Superintendent Jim Negri, who ordered the audit following the school's low performance on a state-mandated test, isn't promising a quick fix to the problems, but he says he plans to meet with Principal Carla Tarazi (who is now on vacation in Greece) in August to implement a corrective action plan.

Castro uses a "dual immersion" program that aims to make students fluent in English and Spanish by grade five. But with more than 80 percent of the students native Spanish speakers -- and only 10 to 30 percent of class time taught in English in kindergarten through third grade -- the program has been under fire for years.

"The plan (Negri) has described to me is very strong," Trustee Ellen Wheeler said. "Our board is strongly committed to using the results of the audit to improve Castro School."

Wheeler declined to elaborate on the details of the plan, saying they haven't been made public yet. She did, however, say the plan would be in place for the start of school.

The independent audit, conducted over four days in mid-May, highlights a problem that has plagued the school for years: making native Spanish speakers proficient in English by fifth grade. The program is moving at a snail's pace, according to the audit, and the students "are not able to articulate what they are supposed to know."

Records show only seven native Spanish speakers -- 1.9 percent of the student body -- had been reclassified by the district as "English proficient" by the end of last year.

Negri sees the auditors' five-page report as a "really good starting point" for what needs to be done at the Escuela Avenue campus.

He is tight-lipped about the specifics of the plan, but did drop a few hints last week. There will be a focus on educating the parent community. There will also be monthly status reports to the school board regarding Castro.

Marcela de Carvalho, the director of English Language Learner Programs for Mountain View-Whisman, offers a little more insight. She said there will be a math mentor coming aboard next year. De Carvalho also said district officials are looking at the possibility of extending the school day and extending staff development training.

"I think it's a risk sometimes when you do a dual immersion program. It takes commitment from all sides," de Carvalho said. "I'm not going to say it doesn't work for kids. It does. There have been some stars, but learning in two languages is not easy for all kids."

Castro teachers use something called a 90-10 system to teach their students. This means kindergarteners are taught 90 percent of the day in Spanish and 10 percent in English.

Each year, the balance shifts as more of the day is taught in English. By the time students reach the fourth grade, they spend 50 percent of their day learning in Spanish and 50 percent learning in English.

Some of the critical findings made by evaluators at the Creative School Resources and Research include:

* "District and site leadership have not fully implemented a standards-based educational system."

* "Teachers do not engage students in problem solving, critical thinking and other activities that make subject matter meaningful."

* "Students' English language fluency assessment results are not used when planning instruction."

* "There is a lack of tolerance for feedback regarding school programs, achievement and perceived areas needing improvement."

"I'm not going to give you a good sound bite on this. I don't feel it's a sound bite issue," said Amy Beare, a Castro parent and the Mountain View Educational Foundation President. She said Castro is facing serious challenges, but is hopeful district officials don't make this audit the focus of their investigation.

"I would never doubt the dedication of those teachers," Beare said.

Juan Aranda, a former school board member, agreed.

"I can tell you what the problem is not. It isn't the principal. (She's) a sweetheart -- she's great. If you are going to place the blame, it's not her. And the teachers are so full of zest. You can't blame them, either," he said.

Blame, Aranda said, should be directed at the state Department of Education, which he contends should not force children to take tests in English if they don't understand the language.

Of course they are going to do badly, Aranda said. "The system is wrong. The system that is imposed by the state is erroneous."

Castro has consistently performed poorly on state standardized tests. Although this year saw a substantial improvement from last year, the school still scored among the lowest in Santa Clara County on the final scores of the Academic Performance Index (API) report, which evaluates schools based on how well they do on the standardized SAT 9 test and the California Standards Test in English and math.

De Carvalho says the harsh words of the voluntary audit "concern" her.

"It is a snapshot, but it was collected by a broad group," de Carvalho said.

The auditors collected their information from classroom observation; teacher interviews; parent, student, and teacher focus group interviews and a review of the school's exiting documents and assessed data.

The auditors did cite the school's strengths as well, including:

* "District and site budgets support the short- and long-term goals."

* "The school provides time for teachers to evaluate student work and other assessment data. "

* "Lessons are well prepared and consistent within grades."

* "Teachers demonstrate knowledge of subject matter content."

While district officials say this is good to hear, they say there is still a staggering number of pitfalls they hope to improve this year.

"What is it that our parents want? ... If they really want their child to learn English quickly, a 90-10 model isn't going to do it," de Carvalho added.

She said perhaps there needs to be a bigger focus on language acquisition, suggesting that the school should think about using a 50-50 model starting in kindergarten -- teaching students half the day in English and half in Spanish.

This is something Aranda said he's been saying for years.

"It has to be 50-50. You have to have balance," he said.

E-mail Julie O'Shea at


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