Parents demand honors program at R. Roger Rowe

The Rancho Santa Fe School District board meeting.
(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District board received a petition signed by 180 parents last week, asking the administration and the school board to reform the existing math and English language arts programs, “immediately implementing a common sense honors program in order to allow our children easy access to advanced learning options without roadblocks.”

A group of parents came to the board’s Aug. 12 board meeting to air their concerns, after they said many students were not accepted into a summer program that was meant to provide an improved pathway into advanced math.

“We have to be a school with a vision of excellence, where average is simply unacceptable. As such, we need to set the bar high for our children and provide them with every opportunity to learn and advance their knowledge at every level,” the petition stated. “Our children need to be prepared to enter the highest levels of math and ELA available in high school and our current system, unfortunately, does not adequately provide that preparation, failing some of our children in the process.”

In June, 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. A potential program was slated to be presented to the board for consideration by January or February 2023.

The board also unanimously voted to keep the elementary school advanced reading program despite staff’s recommendation that it be discontinued this year.

“I will never vote to cancel an advanced program,” said Trustee John Tree, a sentiment echoed by his fellow board members.

“There are too many schools taking away advanced classes to make education more equitable,” said Trustee Kali Kim. “Education is more equitable when every student is challenged.”

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.

Feedback from the school’s site council last year revealed that many parents didn’t understand the criteria for getting into advanced math and some felt it was too rigid. Some parents believed that the advanced math curriculum needs to be more robust and that many parents leave the school after elementary school because they feel like their children are not being challenged.

In June, the board voted to support a summer bridge program to allow a pathway for more students to enter into advanced math in middle school. At the Aug. 12 meeting, parents said that a “gatekeeper test” acted as a barrier to keep students out of the summer program and left many students feeling discouraged and “devastated.”

“How can we turn away kids that want to work more, that want to learn more?” asked parent Hazel Bentinck, who served on the school site council. “I feel like we need a solution now, we need to give kids who want to be challenged an opportunity.”

Parent Nadelle Kijewski, who also served on the school site council, said she, too, wants to see an honors program at the school but she did not support an immediate implementation of such a program, as requested by the petition.

“An immediate implementation of an honors program is not helping anyone, that’s just changing the name of something,” Kijewski said. “Let’s do it right, let’s do it with education, with research, let’s do it properly.”

After their actions in June, board members said they were confused about why they were still talking about this issue as the board as a whole has supported and pushed for honors and advanced opportunities for students. Trustee Rose Rohatgi said she 100% supported the parents’ petition and that she felt every child who is motivated and shows they qualify by getting high scores in their present math curriculum should get into advanced math.

“It kills me that we are killing the souls of our students who want to be in advanced math, who have done the work, who have proven to be able to this and are shut down continuously…This is terrible and I want to change that,” Rohatgi said. “I believe in individualized growth for each child and that is not happening in the classroom. It’s not at all.”

Tree agreed that it was a shame that more kids couldn’t get into the advanced math program and it bothered him to hear that a student considered themselves “not a math kid” when they were not accepted.

“I think our administration should have a bias to want to challenge our kids and to develop programs that allow every kid to reach their potential,” Tree said.

Kim said the implementation of an honors program needs to be done thoughtfully and led by the experts, who are the teachers and staff. While the district is developing the details and scope of program, she said they need to make sure differentiation is happening in the classroom and that each student is meeting their growth goals.

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

In addition to the development of honors middle math, this year the district will also be reviewing its ELA curriculum for the first time in 15 years. Tripi said it is the hope that the new or revised curriculum will improve critical literacy for all students, better preparing them for advanced work at Rowe and beyond.

School safety
In a wide-ranging public comment period on Aug. 12, parents touched on several topics of concern, from advanced math to the superintendent’s resignation from discipline to campus security: “Advanced math is not important if safety is not taken care of,” said one parent.

The issue of campus safety has been heightened since the July 13 arrest of a former school substitute teacher Daniel Zachary Dasko. Dasko, a substitute teacher for the last two school years, was charged with distributing child pornography with federal prosecutors alleging that he solicited sexual images and videos from young boys. According to Superintendent Donna Tripi, law enforcement does not believe that anything occurred on campus but they do believe that R. Roger Rowe students may have been contacted through social media.

As targeting of students through social media is a national problem, Tripi said they plan to incorporate more social media education with students this year. Last week, teachers also went through training on appropriate social media activity and communication with students.

Parents asked how a person like that could end up at the school and how the district would prevent it from happening again.

The school board had its own questions about the vetting of substitutes, which is done through the North County Coastal Substitute Consortium. Trustee John Tree asked for an agenda item at the next board meeting about the district doing its own additional screening, including social media profiles.

“I want to be on the aggressive end about what we can do within the law so every new substitute gets vetted,” Tree said.

During the public comment period, several board members were saddened by a story shared by a parent whose young daughter was punched in the head by a boy on the playground. She was diagnosed with a concussion and the boy received two days of lunch detention. The parent said he has now pulled his children out of R. Roger Rowe.

“To me our greatest failure in the last year is our lack of response,” remarked Trustee Annette Ross. “We have a lax approach to everything and this is the result of it…that’s how we get someone like Daniel Dasko in, because we have a lax approach. That to me is not doesn’t feel like we’re a school of excellence to me. I really want it to be that school of excellence and I’m going to be here really fighting hard to get there.”