Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009 | Montgomery High School does not feel like a school in trouble. It is a seemingly ordinary school south of the Otay Valley Park, ringed by modest homes and big box stores. It has Spirit Fridays and butcher paper banners advertising school dances, cheerleaders decked out in red, white and blue. Teachers say their biggest discipline problem is “yakking.”

And yet Montgomery has become a battleground for Sweetwater Union High School District. It had the lowest test scores among all the South County high schools last year, even lower than neighboring schools with far higher poverty levels than Montgomery, where roughly one-third of students are impoverished and one-third are learning English. Its seniors have been less likely to take and pass Advanced Placement tests and more likely to drop out than at other schools.

School board members have wrung their hands over its lackluster scores. Even students who love Montgomery know the rap on their school.

“We’re not stupid,” said Christian Rodriguez, a senior at the school wearing a red-and-blue shirt with Montgomery’s Aztec mascot. “But I think what they say is true. We’re not there, academically.”

The pressure is on to turn Montgomery around. It has been under the microscope for the last three years to ramp up its state scores this year or face added penalties. Montgomery was one of six Sweetwater schools to accept state money in exchange for extra accountability for its test scores. It is the only school that faltered, its scores essentially flattening over the past four years.

That could have big consequences. If the scores do not rise, the state board of education could decide to take over the school, sending someone to work alongside or replace the principal. Teachers invoke the idea that Montgomery could transfer them away. No one at Montgomery or even at the school district seems to know the likelihood of a state takeover. But the worry is there.

“We don’t really know what’s going to happen until it happens,” said Rhea Faeldonea-Walker, an English teacher. “You just kind of hope.”

So Sweetwater made some big changes. It yanked the principal and brought in a new one, Lee Romero, to turn the school around this year. He is pushing teachers to make common tests and to stay at the same pace. And it scrapped the old schedule of four quarters with four classes each and replaced it with a more traditional schedule, arguing that the old calendar sometimes hurt struggling students who only took English or math for half of the school year or ended up spending less time at school entirely.

That, in turn, angered the teachers union, which contends that the schedule needed to be negotiated. Romero said that Montgomery had no time to wait. The tests and penalties hang over his mind. His letter to parents on the school website asserts, “Failure is not an Option.”

“I don’t sleep at night sometimes thinking about it,” Romero said.

The new principal is a ball of energy, a young, grinning guy from National City who could be mistaken for a senior if he untucked his spirit shirt. He pops into classrooms to watch teachers teach. He sprung out of a box at a recent pep rally. Kids notice more mottos and banners around campus. Teachers seem to like him, even those who question what all the changes will mean.

“He is a breath of fresh air,” said Kathleen Daley Obrist, an English teacher who called herself part of “the old guard” at the school. She added, “Everyone understands we are in trouble. He has an enormous responsibility on his plate.”

The state system parallels No Child Left Behind, which pushes school to raise test scores annually. Montgomery has technically already failed because its scores must improve two years in a row after the state starts monitoring. Scores rose at first, then fell, and are expected to have risen again when last year’s scores are calculated. But educators hope that another good year at Montgomery — this year — could convince California to let them be.

Teachers already feel the pressure. Keith Nuthall, the County Office employee charged with overseeing Montgomery, visits regularly to jot down problems that need fixing: teachers who aren’t checking whether students understand, questions that only measure knowledge of facts. Even the Western Association of Schools and Colleges is keeping the school on a short leash. It gave Montgomery the shortest accreditation of all the Sweetwater schools — a two-year term.

There is no silver bullet for Montgomery, no one problem that must be solved, Nuthall said. Romero is seeking a broader set of changes, many of them tied deeply to what teachers do. And teachers are doing things very, very differently at different classes at Montgomery High.

Romero ushered me into an English class where a teacher was hunched over an overhead projector that displayed a simple worksheet on the wall. The teacher read each sentence aloud and waited for students to say the right answer. “Angela wore several rings, or Angela wore much rings?” she asked the class. It was a world away from another English class just a few doors away, where a teacher circled the room rapidly, asking students to analyze a text.

Math classes are similarly spotty. One teacher bounced from one side of her trailer to another, peppering students with geometry questions. Every eye was focused on her. Another classroom seemed chaotic. Teens chattered and pulled out pocket mirrors to check their makeup. It was unclear what, exactly, was being taught. Romero wants to iron out the differences.

His goal is to keep students more engaged and focused in class. He also wants teachers to cover the same topics at the same time, making it easier to tell how their students are faring on regular, common tests given by the teachers. Vanessa Carranza, a senior, noticed that her teachers quiz her daily now instead of weekly, to prepare her for standardized tests. Teachers meet every other week to compare notes and data.

“We try not to do it in a threatening way,” said Tim Murphy, who coordinates the teachers’ meetings. “But some teachers are really quite intimidated by it. … It forces teachers to examine their practices.”

The idea is that if teachers collaborate and compare results, it’s easier to pinpoint which classes are doing well and which aren’t. Teachers can then copy what works — and jettison what doesn’t. But keeping all teachers on the same schedule rankles some. One teacher called it “a bit ridiculous.” Gonzalez compared it to being on an assembly line. And some teachers worry that testing has overwhelmed all decisions at the school.

Romero was given “a directive to get our test scores up,” said Laurie Steinberg, an English teacher. She worries that critical thinking and writing — things that are more elusive to test — could be lost.

“Maybe we’re just training kids to take the tests better,” she said.

Even the schedule, a seemingly simple banal change, became a battle. Montgomery used to have four quarters of four classes each. Teens could earn 16 credits in four quarters — each class was 10 hours shorter — instead of 12 credits in two semesters. Teachers had fewer students at a time.

Mary Anne Stro, who was principal when the schedule started, said the idea was to focus on fewer subjects at a time and help students snap up more credits. But the problem, as Romero and others at the school district see it, was that students didn’t get consistent classes for the entire year. Kids who were learning English might only take English for half the year. Students in Advanced Placement classes might take exams months after classes ended.

Some teachers complain that the old schedule could have worked if the school district had funded it better. Others argue that the schedule is being blamed unfairly for other problems; scores rose at the school for years under it. And the teachers union protests that Sweetwater imposed it without going to the bargaining table, breaking its contract.

Even Rodriguez, the senior who generally likes the change, complains that the district never asked his opinion. Teachers often sport black “Respect Our Contract” buttons; last year they marched in front of the school with signs, cars honking as they passed.

“We’re not against change,” said Juan Gonzalez, the union representative at Montgomery. “But the superintendent wants to have a green light on deciding everything on every single campus. To have total control. We don’t want to give them that.”

Romero believes the change, however rocky, will be justified by later scores. It is just part of his makeover of Montgomery, one battle out of many, big and small.

He looked on as seniors posed for photos after a pep rally, their foreheads ringed with homemade yellow headbands. Yellow isn’t a school color, he noted — but they were just so excited about being seniors. Girls had slashed their spirit shirts Flashdance-style, exposing a shoulder. He thought about saying something — but decided to let it slide for now. They were smiling. They were excited about Montgomery. School reform is sometimes the art of the possible.

“I’m still hopeful that we’ll improve,” said Rodriguez, the Montgomery senior. “Maybe not as fast as other schools — but I think we’ll get there.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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