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Progress Report

How the school district in the nation's 13th poorest region boosted its test scores by 182 percent

A little south of San Diego--just 10 miles from the U.S. border with Mexico--is National City. If the name sounds like one an unimaginative suburban developer might have come up with, that's understandable. But in this case, the name fits the long history and the character of the community.

National City is 117 years old--the second oldest city in San Diego County. Four beautiful Victorian buildings are on the National Historic Register, including the railcar plaza where Wyatt Earp tried out for himself the newfangled mode of transportation.

But National City is also very much a 21st century city, with all the attendant challenges and opportunities facing an area that is being co-opted into a larger metropolitan region.

National City faces the portion of San Diego Bay generally called South Bay. Some residents have lived here all their lives because of the ideal climate and the amenities only a seafront location can provide: beaches, parks to watch the sunset from, and pleasure boat harbors.

"We're never at the promised land in education. No matter how much improvement you've made, it's still a good idea to think ahead to how you're going to turn achievement up a notch." -Christopher Oram, director of technology and assessment, National City (Calif.) School District

On the other hand, the waterfront piers, warehouses and work associated with the United States Naval Station provide jobs for thousands of manual laborers. Plus, new families from Mexico come to National City looking for better lives. In fact, right down the center of the city is a full mile of new car dealerships, showcasing thousands of gleaming automobiles, as if holding out a promising future for newcomers.

But the neighborhoods that low-income families tend to crowd into, living on wages from entry-level jobs, put tremendous pressures on the school district.

"There are a lot of people moving in and out of the district. It's an area with a high concentration of Hispanic families. A lot of them are new arrivals to California, so there are language issues, too," says Christopher Oram, director of technology and assessment.

One of the 13th Poorest

The National City School District is eight miles square in a semi-urban setting serving 10 elementary schools. The latest statistics indicate that the region is the 13th poorest in the U.S. based on per-capita income, because of the number of entry-level workers pulling down about $10,000 or less a year. The district relies heavily on categorical monies: federally sponsored title programs; state funding and special grants.

But despite the odds against it, National City School District has been achieving remarkable results with its students. Progress began, Oram says, with identifying and quantifying the academic problems.

"We had a lot of years during which our student achievement wasn't as good as it could have been. So we started with identifying assessments, regardless of what the state assessment program is. We needed to get a handle on where kids are, and then be able to use that data in a meaningful way. We had to be able to access it quickly, and disaggregate it and process it. This is the way to know what's happening and when it's happening," he says.

Getting a Handle on Data

One of the key components of getting a handle on data was a software program from Pearson Digital Learning called SuccessMaker. By using the software, the district has taken advantage of more than 6,000 hours of reading/language arts, mathematics, and English language development/ESL and bilingual courseware. Administrators and teachers are able to use progress reports that show overall course performance for a student or group of students, allowing for timely interventions and course adjustments. Teachers are also able to identify skill areas in which a student is having difficulty, which drives individualized instructional decisions.

Oram says the "kids love it." But the question in every administrator's mind, of course, would be, Does it work?

Rita Palet coordinates the district's school readiness and family literacy programs. She conducted a study about SuccessMaker's influence on student achievement in National City's schools.

Says Palet, "The district wanted to see whether SuccessMaker was worth the investment and getting the kind of results needed. So the key comparison was how does the amount of time spent using the program affect results on the California standards tests. So we first took a look at math and science. And we found that those students who used SuccessMaker a minimum of 15 hours or more scored 182 percent higher scores than those who were on for less than 15 hours," she says. "When it came to reading and language arts, those students who used the program 14 hours or more scored 42 percent higher than those who used the program for less time."

Staff Development is Key

The third leg of the district's tripod approach to improving achievement relies on resources in the area to help the faculty keep its competitive edge.

"The new standards in California are pretty challenging and in some cases require a new way of thinking," Oram says. "Now, at least at the elementary level, most teachers would say their strongest subjects are language arts and humanities. It isn't math and science nearly as often. If teachers are going to meet the world-class standards developed in California, then staff development is critical."

The district has had a long relationship with the University of California, San Diego, and turned to it for help with staff development. Says Oram, "For many years we had professional development tied to science. The next round was focusing on mathematics, because our scores were not as good as we had wanted them."

Squeezing More from Data

"We're never at the promised land in education," Oram says. "No matter how much improvement you've made, it's still a good idea to think ahead to how you're going to turn achievement up a notch. And with No Child Left Behind, the requirement is, of course, that 100 percent of our children have to be at the proficient level, which is a pretty daunting goal,

I can tell you. And that's all population groups, including special education."

Recently, Oram and Palet met with representatives from Pearson Digital Learning to take the value of SuccessMaker to the next level. The company will take scores gathered right before the California assessments, and then after the California assessments prepare for the district a report that correlates student effort with the software to achievement on the California tests.

"What's exciting is we can tell a teacher, 'This kid has a lot of work to do. But if he does these specific things, there's an 85 percent probability that he'll be at the proficient level or above on the state standards test," says Oram.

"The reasons we've been successful in this district is we use data in a meaningful way to drive instruction and develop the programs we need to support student learning."

District Stats

National City (Calif.) School District

Number of schools: 11 elementary

Number of teachers: 326

Student population: 6,716

Ethnicity: Hispanic 69.1%; Filipino 13.7%; White 8.0%; Native American 6.0%; Black 5.7%; Asian 1.7%; Pacific Islander 1.1%

Annual operating budget: $33 million

Limited English proficiency: 40%

Chapter 1 eligibility: 55%

Newly enrolled students from Mexico: 75%

Single-parent households: 52%

Superintendent: George J. Cameron

Web site:

Charles J. Shields is a contributing editor.