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English Language Development ll students hold up their sentences for teacher Diane Shamai at Oak Grove Middle School in Concord, Calif., on Thursday, March. 11, 2010. Some students came to the class this year not speaking English. Oak Grove Middle School has been identified for the unwelcome distinction of being in the bottom 5 percent statewide, based on poor performance on standardized tests in English language arts and math for the past three years. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Staff)
When the state identified California's worst performing schools, it promised tough reforms that included getting rid of the principal and shutting down the campus.

Schools were told they "must" decide between four "intervention models." But, now, a new, fifth option is emerging: Ignoring the sanctions altogether.

The governor and other state officials have insisted schools that made the list because of poor performance on standardized tests are "required" to implement one of the models beginning next school year "to dramatically improve student achievement."

But the requirements have no teeth, state education officials concede. The federal School Improvement Grant program -- under which the identified schools can apply for grant money to fix their problems -- is voluntary, and state laws requiring the changes do not specify a deadline, said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. This means schools could blow off the legislation indefinitely and keep doing what they want, as long as they don't mind giving up $50,000 to $2 million a year in funding.

"At this point in time," McLean said, "there is not an enforcement mechanism other than public opinion."

Schools on the list are being asked to choose between closing; restructuring by replacing the principal, increasing instructional time and other improvements; turning around by replacing the principal and at least half the staff; or closing and reopening under outside management, such as a charter school. Yet, school officials who have been briefed by the state Department of Education understand there is no penalty for failing to choose one of these drastic measures.

"I think it's nebulous," said Mt. Diablo district trustee Sherry Whitmarsh. "I think it's another one of their mandates where they have no proof or backing for what needs to be done."

David Richey, spokesman for the California Secretary of Education, said the state expects schools to adhere to the law.

"It absolutely is required," he said. "Although there isn't a specific deadline in the statute for when school sites will have to engage in one of the improvement models, we do feel the school improvement grant is definitely significant motivation."

The list of lowest-achieving campuses was created to comply with U.S. Department of Education requirements to identify schools eligible to receive School Improvement Grants. As part of its effort to push nationwide education reform in underperforming schools, the federal government is requiring that schools receiving the grants implement one of the four improvement strategies. State legislation recently adopted to enhance California's "Race to the Top" application for federal education grants also required the identification of lowest achieving schools.

Officials in some districts, such as Concord-based Mt. Diablo, are not convinced the four options are the best answers to the challenges the schools face.

"There is absolutely no way that I trust the federal or state government to come up with a good program," said Mt. Diablo district trustee Gary Eberhart. "They can't. They've proven that time and time again. So, why should we all be clamoring to hear what their plan is? Their plans are terrible. Every bit of their money has strings attached to it. Every time they roll out a new program, we have to hire more accountants to figure out the financing."

A few of the district's half-dozen schools on the lowest achieving list are likely to steadily improve without such drastic overhauls, said Superintendent Steven Lawrence. "It is concerning that in every one of these models, the assumption is that you're removing the principal," he said. "When the feds came out with these four models, there was research that came out fairly quickly that shows they are not equally effective and that some of the assumptions built into the models aren't necessarily valid."

Whitmarsh, whose daughter attends Oak Grove Middle School in Concord, said the school, which is among the state's lowest achieving, has made significant improvement since 2008.

"When I have a staff that's performing for two years, why would I change it?" she said. "Turnover of new staff just doesn't feel good to me."

She and Eberhart also questioned the benefit of closing campuses, especially the district's two Bay Point elementary schools on the lowest achieving list.

"What would be the advantage of closing every elementary school in Bay Point?" Whitmarsh said. "Then, I'm busing students someplace else. I don't understand the logic of how that's going to help."

Lawrence said the district might consider restructuring some of its sites, but that it might not make sense to replace the principal of a school that is making gains.

"They all think they've started to do some practices that are beginning to lead them in the right direction," he said. "Their biggest concern is changing courses just to change course, as opposed to changing because we've shown that our current practices are ineffective."

Terry McCormick, principal of Oak Grove, said the school has implemented many suggested changes to boost performance, including training staff in best practices, extending instructional time, collaborating on schoolwide goals and reaching out to parents.

"We absolutely are, I think, leading the way for where education is going," she said. "Parents are saying, 'We are not going to accept this label. This does not represent how we feel about our school.' "

AT A GLANCE
East Bay schools on state-approved list of lowest-achieving schools
CONTRA COSTA COUNTY
  • MT. DIABLO UNIFIED: Bel Air Elementary School, Meadow Homes Elementary School, n Rio Vista Elementary School, Shore Acres Elementary School, Oak Grove Middle School, Glenbrook Middle School
  • West Contra Costa Unified: Lincoln Elementary School, De Anza High School, Helms Middle School
    ALAMEDA COUNTY
  • Hayward Unified: Burbank Elementary School, Longwood Elementary School, Tennyson High School
  • Oakland Unified: Alliance Academy, Elmhurst Community Prep, Explore Middle School, ROOTS International, United for Success Academy (all middle schools)
  • San Lorenzo: Hillside Elementary School
    More information about the state's persistently lowest-achieving schools is at www.cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/pl.