LCUSD Commentary:'Middle Learners'

In a companion column in this month's District newsletter, Superintendent Jim Stratton shares with the community a number of new programs, expanded learning opportunities and strengthened resources that the District has introduced to provide academic and emotional support for our students.

If you have not seen the superintendent's column, I strongly encourage you to go to www.lcusd.net and click on the 'District Newsletter' icon at the top of the page. I believe you will be inspired and pleased with the progress being made at our schools under Jim's leadership.

This column will focus on one area of "growth opportunity" that was highlighted in the high school's year-long self-study assessment related to our accreditation process (known as the WASC process, which refers to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges).

Last completed in 2001, the accreditation process includes fact finding, surveys, focus groups and other means of reflection to identify strengths and weakness of the high school to meet the evolving needs of our students.

After fact-finding was complete, but in advance of assembling the focus groups, the accreditation leadership team attempted to identify critical areas of need at the high school.

One of two critical academic needs identified was "the continued need to implement approaches and strategies which focus upon ensuring the success of every student with particular emphasis on the 'middle learner' at LCHS."

It is not too difficult to understand the focus on the "middle learner" given that the fact-finding component of the self-assessment process demonstrated considerable success in supporting the needs of our "advanced learners" and our special education population.

Evidence cited to support the success in serving our "advanced learners" included:

An increase in the Advanced Placement test passage rate in 2006 to 84% (from 81% in the prior year) despite a 30% increase in the number of students taking the test since 2003;

An estimated 98% of our students pursue higher education of which 75% attend four-year colleges;

A gain of 40-points in API scores over five years and an overall ranking among the top ten non-selective California high schools;

The statistic that over 93% of the LCHS seniors took the SAT in 2006;

A majority of the LCHS student body — more than two-thirds — is enrolled in AP or honors courses.

Evidence cited to support the success in serving our special education population included the information that the special education subgroup scored the largest year-to-year gain in 2006 API scores among all of our subgroups — a 21-point gain compared to a 3 point gain for the white cohort and an 11-point gain for the Asian cohort — despite a 23% increase in our special education population at the high school over three years.

Regarding "middle learners," the report states, "Despite high levels of student engagement in the school community (arts programs, athletic programs, clubs, organizations, after-school enrichment opportunities, open enrollment in honors and AP courses, and specialized programs such as English Language Development), there is still a portion of the student population that is not academically succeeding and not receiving intentional and personalized support from school personnel and/or school programs."

Interestingly, the focus groups struggled to define the middle student at LCHS; in fact, no consensus was reached.

Even so, the five focus groups -- Organization, Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment, and Culture -- consisting of staff, students, and parents identified and recognized the considerable effort and initiative that the high school has devoted to "middle learners."

Recent curriculum-related enhancements which benefit the "middle learner" include:

Three levels of Algebra I;

A smaller 20:1 targeted algebra class in eighth grade;

Additional sections of life science and earth science in ninth grade to allow students to meet graduation requirements while potentially preparing for more rigorous lab science in upper grades;

Classes that "bridge the gap" in ninth grade social science to facilitate the transition into honors and AP classes, if desired;

UC-certified discrete math class that allows students additional choices for the recommended third year of high school math as an option to pre-calculus or advanced math;

Open enrollment in fine arts and performing arts introductory courses;

Spanish 4 for students seeking a fourth year of Spanish but are not interested in the more rigorous AP Spanish course;

A three-level course pathway sequence in computer programming for grades eight through twelve;

A range of exploratory courses for LCHS 7/8 including technology classes (computer applications, computer programming, and Photoshop), speech and debate, journalism, woods, art, drama, orchestra, band, and foreign language;

Expansion of the culinary arts program, which occupies a new seven-kitchen classroom;

An improved media arts facility, which now operates from a "state-of-the-art" media lab complete with full audio/visual presentation facility and digital editing bays;

The transformation of Photography from a "wet lab" class after school hours to two sections of fully digital, fully enrolled UC fine arts-approved classes during the regular school day;

Potential new ROP courses including sports medicine, small business, web design, stagecraft, and computer animation, all of which would be designed to meet UC certification and are currently under consideration.

The study additionally recognized the site's counseling department, which is a major beneficiary of the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation, for seeking to provide additional support to identified "middle learners."

Finally, the focus groups determined that the high school staff continues to focus on improving systems of support to provide the methods of identification, instructional intervention, and reintegration of struggling students.

However, as our WASC self-assessment process progressed, two of the focus groups identified "middle learner" initiatives as "strengths" of the high school in their findings.

The Curriculum Focus Group recognized the "added new courses to meet the needs of the middle student" and the Assessment Focus Group highlighted the "additional attention directed at supporting the middle student."

Our WASC report concludes with a three-goal action plan including a number of specific steps that emphasize support for each student, without particular emphasis on any subgroup of students.

The District is greatly indebted to the staff, students, and parents who have invested considerable time and energy on our accreditation process. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the WASC Leadership Team of Mary Lou Langedyke, Patricia Compeau, Barbara Leach, Kevin Buchanan, Joanne Davidson, Wendy Sinnette and Dr. Damon Dragos for their organization and commitment.

The process continues during March with a visit from the seven-member WASC team. The final report will be available soon after the visit.

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