Solorsano serves more than its share


Ascencion Solorsano Middle School already educates more than 40
percent of Gilroy’s middle school students and district
administrators only expect this number to increase.
Ascencion Solorsano Middle School already educates more than 40 percent of Gilroy’s middle school students and district administrators only expect this number to increase.

Last year, about 120 students left South Valley and Brownell middle schools to go to Solorsano, bringing Solorsano’s population up to 972 students – 39 percent more students than at South Valley and 48 percent more students than at Brownell this year. This has turned Solorsano’s sprawling campus into a administrative dilemma for Principal Sal Tomasello and degraded morale at the other two shrinking campuses. Worse yet, the school district won’t be able to halt the migration of students to Solorsano until 2011 at the earliest and there is no definite end in sight.

Despite steady progress on federal and state measures of student achievement, Brownell and South Valley middle schools just can’t pull themselves from the depths of fourth and fifth year Program Improvement – a designation given to schools that don’t meet federal growth targets. With the dreaded designation comes external oversight, sanctions, scrutiny and – possibly the most visible manifestation of a school’s subpar performance on standardized tests – the option for parents to enroll their students in a non-PI school.

The deadline to submit a transfer request is Tuesday and 85 transfer requests had already been handed in to the Gilroy Unified School District office as of Thursday, said Superintendent Deborah Flores. The district cannot legally deny transfer requests, which means that Solorsano could be looking at upwards of 1,000 students next year.

“The good news is that we have the space,” Tomasello said.

Last year, the district added four new portables on the campus to accommodate its skyrocketing growth. More classrooms opened up when the school board reduced the middle school day from eight to seven periods at the start of this school year. But even though six classrooms stand ready and waiting for more students, the bad news is that more students mean more problems, Tomasello said, and he will have to weigh the possible need for an extra vice principal with the obvious need for at least four new teachers.

“The large amount of students attending Solorsano poses issues for the administration,” said school board Vice President Francisco Dominguez. “Large campuses are more difficult to (manage).”

Though Flores hopes the number of students transferring away from PI schools is eventually closer to zero, she said every year the district manages to whittle down the number of transfers is a success.

“I tell every parent who talks to me about this, ‘visit the schools first, talk to other parents who made the decision to keep their student at South Valley or Brownell’,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to respond to what parents want and need in their neighborhood schools. I think that, in time, things will turn around.”

Principals also said they wish families would make the decision to remain at their neighborhood schools.

South Valley and Brownell “are really good schools that deserve a chance,” Tomasello said. “I don’t think the imbalance is good for the community.”

A vicious circle is created when top performing students pack up and head over to Solorsano, further hurting South Valley and Brownell’s scores and reaffirming the distorted belief that Gilroy’s two PI middle schools are inferior, district staff said.

Changing the perception that students get a better education at Solorsano is “something we have to work on,” Dominguez said.

“Every high performing student moved from a PI school has negative repercussions on the schools they’re leaving,” said Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Basha Millhollen.

As a word of warning, Millhollen cautions parents that “it’s not necessarily going to be that different at a new school.” Sometimes parents don’t consider the big-picture benefits of staying at their home school in their home community, she said.

Since Millhollen joined the district about two years ago, she has been working closely with South Valley’s and Brownell’s administrations to ensure teachers have access to appropriate professional development and supplies – two areas that were lacking in previous years, she said.

Despite the ongoing budget crunch, the district has also pledged to keep one extra teacher at both of the PI middle schools to keep intervention classes – smaller classes targeting low-performing students – small, Millhollen said.

When a school enters its fourth year of PI, districts are required to develop a plan for alternative governance which can include reopening the school as a charter or replacing the staff. But the district has chosen to contract with several experts to help with the schools’ master planning, curriculum implementation and professional development, Millhollen said.

“There’s nothing wrong with the schools,” Millhollen said. “What’s happening is the number of children who we’re trying to teach content to are at the same time learning English.”

South Valley and Brownell teachers face “a triple whammy” of problems with many students: their unfamiliarity with the English language, their tendency to switch school districts in the middle of the year due to the seasonal nature of their family’s work and their poverty.

While Brownell added 18 points to its score on the Academic Performance Index – a measure of student performance on a scale of 200 to 1,000 – in math and English on the May state-administered California Standards Test, and South Valley added seven points and bumped a significant amount of students out of the lowest performance bands, their progress wasn’t enough to help them shed their PI designations. The government requires that a school meet expectations for two consecutive years to shed the designation. To meet the federal goal this spring, schools must show that about 46 percent of all students perform proficiently in math and language arts, across all subgroups. The bar is raised in 2010 to about a 57 percent requirement.

Though South Valley Principal Greg Kapaku was confident that his students would meet federal targets this spring, “the subgroups might be tough to make,” he said.

South Valley’s population is made up of about 26 percent English learners and 68 percent low socioeconomic status students, compared to 20 percent English learners and 50 percent low socioeconomic status students at Solorsano, according to the schools’ fact sheets posted on the district’s Web site.

In his fifth year at South Valley and wrapping up his first year as principal, Kapaku said the professional development introduced by the district is an “integral piece” of moving forward. But while the schools are working to align their teaching methods and staff with the federal accountability system, parents need to work in tandem to get to know their home schools, he said.

“It’s disheartening that parents aren’t making informed decisions,” Kapaku said. “I don’t mean any disrespect but Brownell and South Valley have as much to offer if not more, especially if Sal (Tomasello) is looking at more than 1,000 kids next year. If parents want to do a PI transfer, that’s fine, but no one calls to talk to me. Mostly parents just listen to other parents.”

South Valley will graduate its first Dual Immersion class this spring, Kapaku said, and the district plans to introduce the GATE – Gifted and Talented Education – Program at Brownell next year. Other than those two magnet programs, Flores said every middle school has the same offerings.

Last year, South Valley lost more than 50 students to Solorsano, with the majority of the students transferring before they even gave South Valley a shot, Kapaku said.

This year, “we did a really good job of sending the message of what students and parents can get if they come to South Valley,” Kapaku said. “Our biggest goal was to make sure they understood what our school has to offer.”

After five years experience of working closely with PI schools, Millhollen said one of the best stabilizing factors at a school is a constant leadership. Four principals in four years at Brownell is stressful on a school, said Dominguez, whose daughter graduated from Brownell during a period of volatile leadership. But as a parent, he recalled a positive three years at Brownell, he said.

“Both (schools) have new principals and we want them to stay,” Millhollen said.

Kapaku said that’s fine with him.

“I plan on sticking around as long as they’ll have me,” he said.

Brownell Principal Greg Camacho-Light and Assistant Principal Kristen Shouse were not available for comment due to school vacation.

Middle school students in Gilroy

Solorsano: 972

South Valley: 697

Brownell: 658

Total: 2327