Thursday, Oct. 8, 2009 | It was once imagined as the Star Academy, a school where kids who had fumbled in middle school would be nurtured to leapfrog ahead to high school.

It was dreamed up last year to help children who would be held back in middle school as San Diego Unified tightened its rules on whether students can advance to high school. Preventing schools from passing along children who had failed was popular, but decades of studies showed that retaining children was risky unless they were helped along the way.

But a year later, San Diego Unified quietly ended a program that eventually only vaguely resembled the Star Academy, called the High School Readiness Program. That brings the school district back to square one: Sending kids back to the same schools they failed. Scholars say that could be a dangerous step, but the school district says it can make it work by adding extra supports at schools, even without money.

“We’ve gone full circle,” said Sid Salazar, chief secondary school improvement officer. “The difference is that now, we have a better understanding of who these kids are and the interventions they need.”

Yet as the school district forges ahead, there are still wildly differing opinions about whether the original program worked and how well. Teachers describe the program that evolved last year as poorly planned and thin on resources such as computers. Administrators worried that late hiring put the greenest teachers in the classes. Most of the students were ultimately placed in high school, but Salazar had no analysis to show if scores improved. Former Principal Anna Cazares declined to talk about it.

“It didn’t turn out the way we had hoped,” said Sandy Helmantoler, who was a resource teacher with the program. “It was all done at the last minute.”

Budget problems tied to lower-than-expected enrollment ultimately killed off the program. School board members who were elected after its birth knew little or nothing about it. It died quietly.

“If you’re going to [retain students], it had better be perfectly executed,” said Susan Stone, associate professor of social welfare at the University of California Berkeley. “This does not sound like it was perfectly executed.”

‘Familiar With All of It and Uninterested in All of It’

The new program was born last summer as the school board grappled with holding back students who had failed two or more classes. Passing along unprepared students would set them up for failure. Trustees wanted to prevent it by tightening their policies.

But yanking kids back to the same schools and lessons they failed would only discourage them, research showed. So the district crafted a compromise: the Star Academy. Jennifer Cheatham, then the director of curriculum and instruction, imagined that retained students would complete middle school and get through their freshman year too.

“There’s no student that doesn’t learn anything in a grade. They pick up something, even if they didn’t pass,” Cheatham said. “So to start from zero and retake the whole grade doesn’t make sense.”

Computerized classes would help them accelerate through their lessons at their own pace. Teachers would get curriculum and training from a Kansas corporation that had succeeded elsewhere. They originally hoped it would be at a high school, but none had space, so it was planned for Mann Middle School.

Yet the school board questioned whether kids could really do two years in one and balked at the price tag and the idea of a separate school, worrying that it would stigmatize kids. So San Diego Unified hurried to redraw its plans. Cheatham had already left.

It ultimately changed the program again and again, giving it a new name, a new curriculum and a new, different cohort of students. It sent students to four different schools, instead of one, and scrapped a nearly $700,000 contract with the Kansas company. Instead, it used the same lessons that children had taken before — with long blocks of English and math — but added some extra programs.

Helmantoler said that tack made sense because students hadn’t succeeded and some missed lessons entirely. But many teachers grew frustrated, especially when getting the programs became difficult.

“They were the exact same readings they failed last year,” said Sormeh Ayari, who taught at Roosevelt Middle. “They were familiar with all of it and uninterested in all of it.”

Shrinking Numbers and a Budget Crunch

Ayari, like many teachers in the program, was relatively new to teaching. Because schools scrambled to put together the classes late in the summer, principals had limited choice in hiring. They praised teachers’ passion, but worried they were too green for the challenging job.

Nor were they prepared. Ayari said she got a phone call days before school started. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said. One of the few veteran teachers, Azizuddin Khalifa, said he was “inadvertently dumped into it at the last minute.” Another found that the program changed markedly after he interviewed.

Underlying the massive changes in the program was a basic problem: Fewer students landed in the program than expected. That was good for hundreds of students who avoided being held back through summer school or test scores. But most of the remaining students decided to leave San Diego Unified instead of being held back, quitting the district for charter schools, county programs or even other states. Only 27 students ultimately ended up in the program at the four schools.

Classes were tiny , but the school district was spending roughly $550,000 on the program, or $20,300 per student. So the school district brought 65 current 8th graders into the classes midyear.

Trying to Pull It Off Now with No Budget

Khalifa called it “a disaster,” with older, struggling students trying to show off for younger children. Behavior problems became overwhelming at some schools, Helmantoler said. And other promises fell flat. Computers arrived late in the year, and some computer programs never arrived, even after teachers were trained.

“[T]he excitement has dwindled as the cold budgetary winds and hollow promises have left me with two ‘computer assignments’ and no computers.” teacher Joseph McLinden complained in an e-mail.

Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris said visiting the program was one of the few times he grew angry in his time at the district. “I was disturbed,” he said. “We were supposed to have had computers in the classrooms. There were absolutely no computers. We fixed that.”

Salazar said was “almost inevitable” that the program would be eliminated as the district faced an $80 million deficit.

“The people who designed it had their hearts in the right place,” said teacher Nathan Leboffe. “But I’m not sure anyone was really happy, ultimately, with the way it turned out and the resources we had.”

Meanwhile, all of the students were promoted to high school, though a fraction had to go to summer school to make up classes beforehand, particularly. Salazar said attendance and emotional problems proved to be a bigger issue than expected. Clark Middle Principal Tom Liberto recounted the story of a girl who was “just nasty to everybody” who succeeded in the program.

“She brought her GPA from a 1.8 to a 3.2. Had a beautiful attitude. That’s just one example of what the small classes can do. Does it do it for all kids? No,” Liberto said.

The question now is how San Diego Unified will support children who are being sent back to the same schools to repeat a grade, with no extra funding. Stone, the Berkeley professor, said her research shows that when schools lack explicit guidelines on retention, they revert to “the same old, same old,” which is unlikely to work.

Middle school principals have created plans to help retained students, said Nellie Meyer, executive director of dropout prevention. Those plans include linking retained students with a counselor for support, tutoring after school and computerized classes. School board President Shelia Jackson said the shift could actually help, by forcing schools to take responsibility for failing students.

“But you have to do something different,” Jackson said. “That was the whole point.”

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Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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