RSF School board hopes to see improved advanced math curriculum

R. Roger Rowe School.
(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District board is pushing for a stronger advanced curriculum at R. Roger Rowe School. At its June 7 meeting the board gave direction to the district to pursue an advanced or honors math track for middle school, to challenge high achieving students and better prepare them for high school.

The board unanimously supported the development of an honors math program to be presented to them ideally by January or February of next year, aiming for the yet-to-be-hired new middle school principal to be a part of the conversation.

The board also unanimously voted to keep R. Roger Rowe’s elementary school advanced reading program despite the professional staff’s recommendation that it be discontinued in the fall.

This year for the first time the Rancho Santa Fe district developed a school site council. Superintendent Donna Tripi said they have been meeting throughout the year to discuss various topics including reviewing whether the district is meeting the needs of advanced learners, with the district gathering feedback from teachers and parents.

At Rowe, the advanced math program teaches a grade above (third graders taking the fourth grade curriculum, etc. ) with eighth graders taking integrated math 1 honors. Criteria like test scores, assessments and teacher recommendations are used to determine whether a student is qualified for the program.

Trustee Kali Kim said the biggest driver that she sees for people wanting an advanced math course at Rowe is because differentiation is not happening in the classroom—differentiation is how teachers tailor instruction to meet students’ varying levels of abilities and individual learning styles.

“The math in the regular classroom is not challenging… and it’s very disappointing to not have a curriculum for our advanced math students,” Kim said, noting that she doesn’t believe it’s enough to just cover a grade above. “With small class sizes, we have to start differentiating and the only way to follow through that it’s being done is to track student growth.”

“Differentiation has to be expected and middle school has got to improve,” she continued. “We have to be a leader in our middle school.”

Some middle schools in the area have three levels of math: a fundamentals course, a grade level/college prep course and an honors class. In the San Dieguito district, there is an honors class and an accelerated class. The accelerated class requires testing while the honors class is a class for high-achieving students.

Tripi said the enrollment at these schools is much higher than Rowe’s—for example, Earl Warren has 610 students and serves only seventh and eighth graders while Rowe’s middle school is 6-8 with 250 students and about 75 students per grade level. Teachers don’t feel that an honors program would be appropriate at Rowe based on the numbers, Tripi said, as it would lead to a very unbalanced make-up of the remaining classrooms.

Per a teacher survey, teachers believe they are meeting the needs of all students.

In a survey of parents, some said that they don’t understand the criteria for getting into advanced math and some feel it is too rigid. Some feel students on the cusp should be allowed into the program if they are willing to put in the work and some parents believe that the advanced math curriculum needs to be more challenging.

During public comment at the June 7 meeting, one parent said she was very concerned about the school’s approach to advanced courses, seeming to align with the direction that California wants to go with public education: “lowering opportunities for advanced learners in the name of closing learning gaps.”

“We’ve always prided ourselves on offering excellence in public education and it’s impossible to say that we offer excellence with a one size fits all approach,” the parent said. “Unfortunately without differentiation that is what we have.”

Trustee John Tree agreed with the parent comments about advanced math, especially those that described that it is hard to get into and exclusive—“I think that’s a shame because I feel like Roger Rowe is a special school and I feel like we should have the ability to differentiate our high achievers to more than just an advanced math program and a mostly token advanced ELA program,” he said.

Tree shared his support for an honors program across all subjects that would motivate and challenge kids who want to work hard.

The district’s recommendation was that advanced math offerings stay the same for the 2022-23 school year, but they have developed pathways to enable more students to access the program by changing some of the criteria. The board voted to support a summer program to allow students to enter into advanced math in middle school, allowing them to catch up to the existing advanced math kids.

Tripi said they hope to communicate more with parents about the program and its opportunities.

Tripi said the district has also committed to more professional development for teachers on differentiating to meet the needs of students who work at an advanced level.

“I think kids will be more challenged if we can make all classes more rigorous,” Tripi said. “I think all of our kids need rigor.”

On the English language arts (ELA) side, the current elementary school advanced reading program is one hour once per week and includes about 18 students in fourth grade and 19 in fifth grade. Students must meet certain reading level and proficiency criteria as well as have a strong recommendation from a teacher to be included in the class.

Principal Megan Loh said it’s not a very effective program, there are scheduling implications and while it sounds great in theory, some advanced readers are not keeping up with the assignments for both their class work and the advanced reading class.

The staff’s recommendation was to discontinue advanced reading as next year they will be reviewing their ELA curriculum for the first time in 15 years. It is the hope that the new or revised curriculum will better prepare students for advanced work at Rowe and for the rigor of honors classes in high school.

The board was not in support of canceling the program, urging the district to retain some kind of advanced reading program rather than asking them to eliminate the only advanced reading program they have, however “anemic” it is.

“Use this 4-0 vote to make it better or implement it differently,” Tree said.

Board approves 2023-23 school budget

The Rancho Santa Fe School District is projecting to close out the 2021-22 school year in the black with an estimated $464,000 surplus, however, they will need it next year, according to Allison Oppeltz, the district’s director of finance. On June 7, the board approved a budget for the 2022-23 school year with a slight deficit, reflecting its commitment to set aside funding to replace the gym roof and not including unknowns related to the universal meal program, state funding and staff contract negotiations next year.

Per the approved budget, revenues are projected at $14,633,677, which includes a bump in the contribution from the Rancho Santa Fe Education Foundation from $800,000 to $1 million and increased special education funding from the state which has increased 68% in the last two years.

The district is projecting a slight increase in enrollment in 2022-23 with 605 students: 375 elementary school students and 230 middle school students including 11 new sixth graders.

Expenditures were projected at $14,467,613, which includes San Diego’s increasing utility rates, retirement contributions and the annual set aside of $220,000 for the school gym repairs. The estimated $850,000 gym project could happen in 2023-24 although Oppeltz said supply chain issues and construction escalation could impact the total cost.

Looking ahead, Trustee Kali Kim said she would encourage the district to be more forward-thinking on facilities needs, including considering solar to help reduce utility costs. Solar panels over the parking lot and blacktop areas have been discussed by past boards; panels atop the gym could also be a possibility to explore.