For nine years, Edison-Bethune Charter Academy in southwest Fresno has been labeled a "program improvement" school -- an ominous federal term for schools not making the grade.
This year the label came off.
Edison-Bethune, operated by EdisonLearning, a New York-based for-profit company with schools in 25 states, was one of seven Fresno County schools -- and 16 in the central San Joaquin Valley -- that departed from the watch list.
Edison-Bethune's success is noteworthy, given the school's demographics. It's an inner-city charter school adjacent to subsidized housing where many of its students live. About two-third of its students are Hispanic, and nearly one-third are African-American.
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Many come from homes with only one parent or where parents work many jobs. Some live with grandparents, other relatives or foster parents. Many have parents who don't speak English.
Few have attended pre-school and many don't know the letters of the alphabet -- or even how to hold a pencil -- when they arrive for kindergarten.
Edison-Bethune's students improved through a combination of factors, including specialized instruction, a morning reading laboratory, a homework club and after-school tutoring.
"We were looking at the students who were having problems with reading and put them in small-group instruction," said Principal Nancy McLaskey. "We figured out where our students were struggling and gave them reading interventions that helped them get up to grade level."
Getting off program improvement is no easy feat. In the six-county region stretching from Merced to Tulare counties, 347 still are on the federal school watch list.
Schools are evaluated under a federal program that tracks whether student subgroups are showing adequate academic progress each year. An entire school might post high scores, but if a subgroup fails to achieve proficiency in one or more subjects, the school could wind up on the program improvement list.
And because the federal program continues to make the proficiency targets harder to hit, more schools are struggling to get off the watch list.
One way is to reach the goals set by the state, which this year required 56.8% of students to be proficient or above on standardized testing in English. Many schools will not come close.
Edison-Bethune's proficiency score in English was 39.8%. But because the school increased the number of students reaching proficiency by 10%, the school qualified for the "safe harbor" provision of the federal law. The school must continue to show similar progress over the next two years to stay off the program improvement list.
Safe harbor is an alternative way for schools to exit the watch list, said Jenny Singh, a Sacramento-based consultant in the California Department of Education's accountability division.
Schools that can increase the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students testing as proficient or better each year by 10% can seek the provision.
Parlier and Firebaugh program improvement schools, along with Edison-Bethune, have been assisted by the Fresno County Office of Education, which is consulting with districts in achieving stronger test scores.
The county office program works with teachers in the classroom and promotes meetings among teachers to ensure students are learning.
Administrators also are encouraged to design new programs to direct resources to areas where students have learning problems.
Two Parlier elementaries qualified for safe harbor this year -- the first time any of the district's schools exited program improvement.
Rick Rodriguez, Parlier's superintendent, credits the county team for improving instructional skills of teachers and getting teachers at the same grade level to meet with each other regularly and conduct more student assessments.
"This is going to be a continuous effort with all school staffs, parents and the board," he said. " We are real proud of the growth and the achievements of each student."
The Safe Harbor provision is recognition that schools are reaching individual students and closing achievement gaps, Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said.
Three Fresno Unified schools left program improvement through the safe harbor provision this year, the first time three schools exited the list in one year, he said.
But more schools could soon be in need of safe harbor. Next year, the state will require that about 68% be proficient in English, and the requirement will continue rising until it hits 100% in 2014, as required by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.
Those progress standards will place even the highest-scoring districts in program improvement -- including Clovis Unified, which scored 866 overall on the recently released Academic Performance Index.
"The districts have been real clear and we have been telling the U.S. Department of Education about our frustration with 100% proficiency by 2014," Singh said. "That's when everybody is going to be in program improvement."
She said federal education officials are considering revisions to the No Child Left Behind law.
"We want all our kids to be proficient, but statistically, it's just not possible," she said.
No Child Left Behind set a high bar and forced educators to make changes to improve academic performance, Hanson said.
In the future, he said, he believes the federal government will employ more of a "growth model" similar to Safe Harbor.
At Edison-Bethune, where 100% of the students taking tests last year were considered "disadvantaged," the API score has risen from 629 in 2007, to 752 today. The school's API score in 2004 was 582.
The school's reading laboratory began after McLaskey arrived three years ago after serving as principal of Webster Elementary in the Golden Valley Unified School District, south of Madera. Since her arrival, test scores have climbed significantly.
As a charter school, Edison-Bethune has some leeway in reading programs being used, said Rachel Anderson, the school's reading specialist.
Anderson understands many of the students' struggles. She was raised by Spanish-speaking farmworker parents in subsidized housing in Sanger, picked grapes as a child and moved to the Edison-Bethune neighborhood in high school.
"We would pick grapes in the summer and I would get bugs up my nose," she said. "My parents would ask me if that's what I wanted to do."
Even if parents don't have expectations for their children at Edison-Bethune, the staff does, McLaskey said.
"It doesn't matter if you come here and you can't read because we can teach you how to read," McLaskey said, "I don't care if you don't know the answer right now, I care that you can learn it."