James Lick Middle School.
James Lick Middle School, located in Noe Valley, serves students in the Mission and throughout San Francisco. Photo by Erica Hellerstein.

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is spotlighting James Lick Middle School, profiling the school’s rising standardized test scores and narrowing achievement gap for Latino students in a recent press release.

Lick is nestled among manicured gardens, aromatic coffee houses and luxurious boutiques in the heart of Noe Valley. But its students hail from all corners of San Francisco, and 65 percent of the school’s nearly 600 students are Latino, says Principal Bita Nazarian.

“Most of our kids are from the Mission,” said Nazarian. “It’s widely accepted that is an equity issue at our school when Latino students are not performing at the same level as their white counterparts.”

To close the achievement gap, Lick is teaching students “academic language” – abstract words and phrases that are common in tests but uncommon in everyday English. The school is also reaching out to families and emphasizing teacher collaboration.

Lick’s push to improve student achievement has brought results. Nazarian points to six years of rising standardized test scores, especially in English and math. According to the 2011-2012 SFUSD Balanced Score Card for James Lick, the school’s gains include about a 170-point increase in statewide test scores. In the 2010-2011 school year, Lick surpassed both the district and the state in API (academic performance index) growth, with a 12-point gain.

Enhancing academic performance begins with making sure all students understand the language of tests.

“Academic language is words that are not content-specific,” said Nazarian. “They’re terms that could be used in every content area, like categorize or analyze.” For example, she said, when tests ask, “Which category would you place this thing in?” even kids who know the content area might not understand the term category, because it is abstract.

“A lot of the textbooks assume children can read at a certain grade level,” Nazarian said.

Other key elements to enhancing academic performance include family involvement, teacher collaboration and staff dedication in the face of deep budget cuts.

“For me, the number-one biggest factor is the collaboration amongst the teachers,” Nazarian said. “We have daily common planning times, so grade-level teachers can discuss student progress, talk about kids’ needs, meet with families and plan their lessons together.”

During planning time, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teachers meet by grade to plan common lessons and assessments centered on increasing student achievement.

Lick’s notable strides in achievement come despite severe budget cuts for the school that are “absolutely devastating,” said Nazarian.

“We’re pretty much at our capacity in terms of workload,” she said. “Because of these cuts, we’re not able to do things that we think are really important to kids and families. We’re just kind of holding on as best we can, as things get chipped underneath us. Everybody on my staff takes on the duties that we used to have help with, and that’s not very sustainable.”

Cuts have forced the school to slash staff positions critical to its well-being, including administrators, counselors, school social workers and student advisors, according to Nazarian.

One deeply felt cut was that of the school’s student advisor, who focused on attendance and safety. Despite the staff’s efforts to pick up the slack, attendance data has worsened, Nazarian said, and with attendance closely related to student achievement, it may be difficult to continue the upward trend in achievement as measured by standardized test scores.

In the face of cuts, Nazarian said, having a dedicated staff is paramount.

“When you hire smart, caring people and they get to talk to each other about what kids need and how to better meet their needs, good stuff is going to happen.”

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  1. It’s important to note that discretionary funds were available to continue the student advisor part time position. Parents (including myself) and staff voted overwhelmingly at the community budget meeting to retain him. Staff and parents on the School Site Council meeting voted to keep him. The SSC is supposed to have that budgetary decision making power, but Mz Nazarian unilaterally overrode their vote and decided to use the funds for tech support. [This SSC vote is a matter of public record and can be researched]. It was well known at the school that this staff person (who is also a parent at the school) was let go because of a personality conflict between Ms Nazarian and himself, not because of any budgetary necessity. At the time Ms Nazarian made this unilataeral decision against the community and the SSC, parents and staff knew that without this advisor, attendance and discipline would increase in severity-and it has.

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