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RSF School board stresses urgency in improving math program

Rowe Middle School Principal Joel Spengler addresses the Rancho Santa Fe School board on Oct. 6.
(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District is continuing work this year on developing an honors or advanced math program and an overall improved math program to address a decline in proficiency as students progress through the grade levels. Staff plans to make a recommendation to the board on the new honors program in December.

“It’s broadly agreed by the board and the community that our math standards have fallen and it has drifted away from where we once were and we all have an urgency to improve the capabilities of our students, in middle school math particular,” said RSF School Board Trustee John Tree.

After the last school year, feedback from the school’s site council made up of parents was critical of the district’s advanced math track and revealed that many leave the Rowe after elementary school as they feel like their children are not being challenged at middle school.

In June, the board gave direction to staff for the development of an honors math program to be delivered by January or February of 2023, aiming for the new middle school principal to be a part of the conversation. In August, the board further received a petition from 180 parents asking for the immediate implementation of an honors program to better prepare students to enter the highest levels of math and English language arts available.

“Fundamentally we’re trying to improve the overall performance of our students, enrich their brains but also put Roger Rowe on top of the local community in terms of test scores,” Tree said. “Maybe it’s too aspirational to be number one in everything but we are now not near number one in anything.”

The New Rowe Middle School Principal Joel Spengler was hired in August, bringing with him experience as a teacher, administrator, math coach, math resource teacher and math consultant in public schools in New York and California. Determining what an honors math program would look like at Rowe was given as his primary task and he said it is his goal to deliver.

“We have some really strong teachers in our mathematics program and really strong systems in place,” Spengler said. “We absolutely have the responsibility and the ability to meet the needs of all of the students.”

At the Oct. 6 meeting, Spengler provided the board with a timeline of the work that has been done so far and what is planned, leading up to his recommendation in December and implementation in January. He said he did not know what the program will look like yet as as he is evaluating the curriculum and student assessment data, meeting with teachers, neighboring San Dieguito Union High School District and San Diego County Office of Education, aiming to develop a program that is more than just teaching a grade level above with more complex activities, sophistication and depth of knowledge in the content areas.

Training for teachers is also planned for this month and next.

The board pushed Spengler to understand the urgency and the frustration. Board members said they didn’t understand what work was happening and questioned if he had done enough in his month at the district—Trustee Rose Rohatgi said she sensed there was some hesitation from Spengler to deliver an honors program.

Spengler said he personally believes that the district needs to challenge all students.

“We have to understand our specific students well enough and our content well enough to be able to close the gap,” Spengler said. “Is there one program, a magic thing that we can put on that to make that happen? No. That’s the systemic work that we have to do.”

While 2021-22 Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC) scores have already been provided to individual school districts and shared with parents, the California Department of Education initially postponed publicly releasing the data. They now plan to release the scores this month and it is anticipated the numbers will show pandemic-related declines in student achievement.

Per the Rancho Santa Fe School District’s SBAC scores, 91% of Rowe third graders, 96% of fourth graders and 81% of fifth graders are proficient and advanced in math. Per the district’s iReady assessments, 89% of elementary school students showed growth from fall to spring.

At the middle school, 88% of sixth graders are proficient and advanced, 80% of seventh graders and 70% of eighth graders.

The district’s goals for the year are to analyze individual student data to identify differentiation in instruction that will accelerate learning and provide supports in any areas of need for each student. By the end of 2022-23 school year, the district’s goal is to have 92% of students scoring proficient or advanced in math.

The board is asking Spengler and the district staff to really dig into the why for the consistent drop in proficiency and why they aren’t seeing the desired outcomes despite having a lot of resources and small class sizes.

“The quantitate data and the qualitative data is that we have drifted away from a prior period of excellence and we are less excellent than we used to be. That’s the urgency that you feel from the board, it’s the urgency that the board feels from the community,” Tree said. “We don’t want to take too much time to implement something better at the expense of another year of kids going through this system with a mediocre program.”

Trustee Kali Kim encouraged the district to incorporate parent feedback as they go through the process. Rohatgi added that they should especially include the members of the school site council.

At the meeting, some parents in attendance were upset that they were not allowed to weigh in after hearing Spengler’s presentation. At Rancho Santa Fe school board meetings, public comments are heard at the beginning of the meeting, not after each agenda item (Neighboring San Dieguito and Solana Beach School Districts also handle public comments this way). As meetings are the board’s opportunity to do board business in public, typically boards avoid having a dialogue between the audience and the board.

Tree suggested that a parent forum might be helpful on this topic, where the district can share information and parents can ask questions of Spengler and the staff.


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