Problem hard to pinpoint, official says

By Christina Calloway

PNT senior writer

Portales Schools Interim Superintendent David Van Wettering said the bottom 25 percent of students in the school system is a group staff has targeted for years.

The state’s Public Education Department’s recent school grades of Portales schools show schools are doing a poor job of improving that particular group in terms of growth, especially at the schools of Lindsey-Steiner Elementary, which serves students in grades fifth and sixth, and Portales Junior High.

Van Wettering said while the grades certainly push educators to strengthen that group of under-performing students, he feels the grades aren’t helpful in pointing out the causes of the problems.

“We’re on our own to figure out what went wrong,” Van Wettering said.

Van Wettering said educators and administrators look at test scores to pin-point problem areas while also making sure the environment is sound for learning.

He said math scores were particularly low last year for fifth-grade students, so that’s going to be a focus area.

“The number of kids proficient or above in math dropped 19.4 percent from fourth to fifth grade,” Van Wettering said.

He concludes students are not performing as well at Lindsey-Steiner and the junior high because there is no pressure on students to pass the state’s Standards Based-Assessment tests.

Van Wettering said high school students have to pass the SBA tests in order to graduate.

“They take that test very seriously, whereas their counterparts don’t have to,” Van Wettering said. “There are no repercussions.”

With the lowest performing students, Van Wettering said there is more of an effort by educators to see that group succeed.

“We have tutoring, after school programs and we take federal money and apply it to the kids that are struggling,” Van Wettering said. “We put them on special growth plans. We do all of those things. I don’t know why it’s that way.”

Van Wettering said the schools plan to do an educational audit with the PED, which will require PED officials to visit those schools.

“Everything they asked for, we’re going to show them that we’re doing it,” Van Wettering said. “Those teachers are giving their heart and soul. We’re going to take it very seriously and look for continuous improvement. We’ll do what it takes to get (the school’s grades) back up.”

Geni Flores, coordinator of bilingual education at Eastern New Mexico University, said there are a few factors that can bring a school’s grade down even when the environment for learning was given a high grade like a school such as Lindsey-Steiner.

“Even if the learning environment is top notch, it’s possible individual students can fall through the cracks through family issues interfering with focus on school work,” Flores said. “There could be learning disabilities that are not being addressed in schools. Sometimes there are very quiet kids who fall through the cracks because they aren’t demanding attention.”

But she said a school’s grade is no reflection of the students themselves.

“A failing school doesn’t mean the students failed, it means certain populations didn’t make the grade they were hoping for,” Flores said. “By any stretch of the imagination it should not be mistaken for that. The school labels should not reflect on the individual students.”

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