A row of backpacks at Perkins Elementary School. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In San Diego Unified School District, the number of traditional public schools classified among the state’s worst-performing is growing.

Schools are automatically added to a list of the state’s worst-performing schools when they rank worst and next-to-worst in each of several categories measured by the state. The state measures this performance using the California School Dashboard, which was updated with new data late last month.

The schools that qualify for the list are, in theory, targeted for extra support. They also receive a small amount of extra funding. If they show no improvement over a long period of time, state officials can step in.

Last year, nine traditional public schools performed poorly enough to make the state’s list. This year, 12 traditional schools will automatically be added to the list, according to the new data reviewed by Voice of San Diego.

There is some good news. Of the nine schools on last year’s list, seven improved enough to no longer be officially considered among the state’s worst-performing. As the seven schools improved, however, even more schools fell behind.

The two schools that will remain on the list from last year are Porter Elementary and Knox Middle. Both are in the Lincoln High School cluster of schools. Voice of San Diego documented serious safety and special education concerns at Porter last year.

These are the 12 San Diego Unified schools that will automatically qualify among the state’s worst-performing:

John Muir Language Academy

San Diego Science and Technology

Millennial Tech Middle

Euclid Elementary

Fay Elementary

Perkins K-8

Rodriguez Elementary

Knox Middle

Porter Elementary

Johnson Elementary

Audubon K-8

Wegeforth Elementary

Charter schools fared slightly better. Last year, five charter schools qualified for the state’s list of worst-performing schools. All those schools improved enough to no longer qualify. But one charter school’s performance dropped enough to qualify it for the list: King-Chavez Academy of Excellence.

Last year, King-Chavez Community High was among the state’s worst-performing. Both King-Chavez schools are part of a local chain of charters.

Test scores are not the only metrics considered on the California School Dashboard, unlike many other state accountability systems. The dashboard also presents more nuanced measures of a school’s success, such as suspension rates and chronic absenteeism. The dashboard ranks schools on each metric using a five-point color scale. Red is the worst. Blue is the best.

The schools that made the list scored red and orange in each of the categories. The state refers to them as Comprehensive Support and Improvement schools, or CSI schools.

“The fact that many – not all – of the schools identified for CSI support last year are not on the list again for this year is evidence their school leaders used the additional state funding wisely to improve student outcomes,” wrote district spokeswoman Maureen Magee in a statement. “Those schools identified this year will make similarly student-centered decisions.”

Magee also passed on a bullet-point list from Porter Elementary’s principal Graciela Chavez pointing to many strategies they say will help improve the school. The list included an increased focus on restorative justice to lower the suspension rate, strategies to improve teacher collaboration and the hiring of extra behavior and support staff.

“We have scheduled monthly family events that will highlight what we are doing within the classroom in the areas of English language arts, math and science. We also held a Porter Family Night where we invited families to come and learn about all the supports we have in place,” Chavez also wrote.

Chavez discussed some of the school’s strategies at a public meeting last year after Voice of San Diego revealed problems at the school. But several community members at the meeting said the vision of Porter that Chavez painted did not match the reality.

Porter improved its language scores from red to orange on this year’s dashboard. But its suspension rate dipped from orange to red. Porter and Knox Middle were the only two traditional public schools to stay on the list two years in a row. Porter feeds into Knox.

In order to receive federal funding, states are required to maintain public lists of schools that are struggling the most. In previous years, under the old No Child Left Behind law, schools were penalized when they showed up on a state’s list of worst-performing schools. All of the penalties have fallen away, and the list now exists for transparency and to encourage support.

But Ed Sibby, a former teacher and consultant for the California Teachers Association, previously told VOSD the list still should not exist at all.

“As teachers we don’t look at our schools in terms of comparison with other schools and definitely not in terms of ‘failing’ or ‘not failing.’ The labels don’t help students at all, frankly,” he said.

Others believe that without transparency, struggling schools will languish for decades.

“It’s better to name what’s not working and what’s working. It’s good we have requirement that we show how schools are performing,” said Carrie Hahnel, an education policy consultant. “If schools fall below certain requirements, we need to ask them to do something different.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated how many San Diego Unified schools are on the state’s worst-performing schools list; there are 12.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

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