A tiny elementary school in the Stockton neighborhood has done nearly everything the government says failing schools should do. It converted into a charter school, free from school district rules. It swept out most of its teachers and replaced them. It hired a new principal. It lengthened its school day.

Yet California officials dubbed King-Chavez Arts Academy a persistently failing school this week based on its test scores. Their remedy: Do the things that it has already done.

It is one of just six schools in San Diego County that have been targeted for turnarounds, a menu of dramatic and controversial changes meant to kickstart school reform. The problem is that the tiny school has already been turned, and turned, and turned. It made big changes to try to pull up its scores. And now the feds are demanding that it turn again.

“It’s ironic,” said David Wilson, development director for the King-Chavez schools, a system of charter schools in Logan Heights. “We did exactly what they’d like for us to do now.”

It is a paradox that reveals just how complicated and clumsy the aggressive new federal push to fix schools can be. Struggling schools must choose from a short list of drastic changes, no matter what their specific problems seem to be. And the school’s strange situation also shows that the turnaround methods the federal government is touting are far from failsafe.

Failing schools have four options:

  • They can replace their staff, which King-Chavez Arts Academy already did, jettisoning eight of its 10 teachers a year and a half ago in a deeply controversial move that angered parents and stirred up talk among teachers of unionizing.
  • They can become a charter school, which the Arts Academy already is.
  • They can replace their principal, add more school time and alter instruction, which it already did, tapping a physical education teacher from a sister school as its director.
  • Or they can shut down completely and send their students to neighboring schools.

The only thing that the Arts Academy hasn’t already done is shut down. And it isn’t excited about that idea.

State officials say schools that are already trying a turnaround may be able to avoid doing it again, but they have to make their case. Schools that just hired a new principal, for instance, may be able to hang on to them.

King-Chavez leaders say they can’t fathom how their school can be tagged as failing at all.

Four years ago, it was one of three related charter schools that replaced King Elementary, a San Diego Unified elementary school with significantly lower scores that was up for an overhaul under No Child Left Behind. But California didn’t measure the Arts Academy scores against King Elementary; it only measured the school’s own growth over time.

“I don’t know who this would make sense to — other than a number cruncher,” said Tim Wolf, chief executive officer of the five King-Chavez charter schools. He plans to appeal the decision.

King-Chavez Arts Academy would also have avoided the list if test scores hadn’t fallen last year.

The irony is that their scores dropped after the school replaced its teachers, one of the severe steps that the feds are urging struggling schools to consider. Wolf believes that replacing the teachers and other curricular changes will ultimately bear fruit.

But the sheer fact that the Arts Academy is now pegged as a failure — despite doing everything the feds say it should — also shows the reforms’ limitations.

“This is why you don’t want people in state or federal government making decisions about the fates of neighborhood schools,” said Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified school board. “It’s incredibly prescriptive about what schools can do. That would be understandable — if any of these strategies were proven to work.”

There is a carrot to go with the stick: Failing schools can get grants from $50,000 to $2 million annually for three years. Schools have to choose a turnaround option and apply for money by June 1.

Dramatic attempts to redeem failing schools are nothing new.

No Child Left Behind insisted that schools would be “restructured” if test scores stagnated year after year, which could mean anything from becoming a charter school to replacing staff to other changes decided by the school. The new menu of reforms isn’t dramatically different from the tactics pushed by George W. Bush, but the president is putting a lot more money, the threat of closure and a different focus behind his plans.

“What’s new is they’re focusing national attention on that set of schools that have consistently been at the bottom,” said Daniel Aladjem, principal research scientist for the American Institutes of Research.

But one stab at turnaround after another has shown that reform is a messy, imperfect business. And it rarely works. One recent study found that 77 percent of schools that restructured last year failed to improve enough to get out of hot water under No Child Left Behind; some just closed.

Charter schools, for instance, range from stellar schools to failing ones. Firing teachers or the principal only works if the employees really are the problem — and if the new ones are better than the ones they replaced. Turnover is already high in many struggling schools, which means they may need to keep staff instead of getting rid of them. Reforms work differently from school to school.

“People go out and identify something that has worked somewhere. But they don’t figure out why it worked where it worked,” said Joseph Murphy, who chairs an education college at Vanderbilt University.

Banking on a single, dramatic reform rarely works, said Paul Koehler, who directs the policy center for WestEd, a national nonprofit. Schools that do turn the tide usually make many different changes, not just one. But the idea of a magic bullet is appealing and scores points for politicians, said Heinrich Mintrop, an education professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

“What you need to do is go in and look at what exactly makes a school such a basket case,” Mintrop said. “There really are no quick fixes. But these are spectacular kinds of solutions that appeal to people.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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