O’Connell praises work of Grover Beach and Oceano schools

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston

State schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell lauded the accomplishments of teachers and staff during a visit Monday to two Lucia Mar schools with large numbers of students in poverty or learning English as a second language.

“You really are moving in the right direction in meeting the needs of these students,” O’Connell told a group of teachers at Oceano Elementary School.

He later visited Fairgrove Elementary School in Grover Beach. Both schools made improvements this year in statewide testing used to measure schools’ academic performance.

Oceano Elementary, for example, uses a combination of strategies to aid students, Principal Ron Walton said. They include before and after-school tutoring programs, literacy teachers to work with students who need extra help in reading and language, and frequent assessments of students to make sure they are grasping concepts taught in class.

Over a five-year period, Oceano students’ scores on the Academic Performance Index improved to 769 this year from 674 in 2005. The API is measured on a scale of 200 to 1,000; the state goal is 800.

O’Connell also praised the work the teachers are doing in “impossible budget times” in which schools statewide have laid off staff, slashed arts and music programs, and cut extracurricular activities.

“And what’s the result?” he asked. “Class sizes are bigger than we’ve seen in a decade.”Oceano third-grade teacher Debbie McElreath agreed. “If you could just keep pushing for class size reduction — that’s the big thing,” she said.

Class sizes at Oceano Elementary average about 26 students per class in kindergarten through third grade and about 30 to 31 students in fourth through sixth grades, Walton said.

O’Connell also commented briefly on a $7.2 million federal grant the Lucia Mar Unified School District hopes to use for added coaching and feedback for teachers.

Lucia Mar officials plan to launch a program called TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement. It focuses on ongoing professional development with special mentor-teaching positions, but also provides a new system for evaluating teacher performance that includes bonuses.

The program would start in the next academic year at six schools in the district — including Oceano and Fairgrove elementary schools — as long as 75 percent of teachers at those campuses vote to participate.

Other participating schools could include Dana, Dorothea Lange and Nipomo elementary schools and Mesa Middle School.

Some teachers have visited schools with the TAP program and are generally positive about the professional growth the program could provide, said Lloyd Walzer, president of the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association.

The teachers’ union had expressed concerns with the way teachers would be evaluated, and hopes in current negotiations with the district to keep the TAP evaluation separate from the current evaluation method of teachers, Walzer said.

O’Connell said he thinks the TAP program has potential.

He urged teachers: “Be participants in the program. Help design a program that is fair and equitable.”