Educating students in the Napa Valley has gotten more complicated in recent years due to changes in statewide curriculum standards, testing procedures and student demographics.
The Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD) and the county as a whole are dealing with a major shift in the student population that has been ongoing for the past two decades.
What once was a predominantly white school system is now majority Hispanic. Hispanic students now make up 54 percent of the kids in classrooms, while white students comprise only 29 percent, statistics show.
“The demographics in this community have taken such a big shift in the last 18 years,” said Elena Toscano, NVUSD’s assistant superintendent for instruction.
With this shift has come an influx of children from Spanish-speaking homes, many of them living in poverty and with parents who lack college education, or even a high school diploma.
Kids with this kind of background often start school behind others who grew up speaking English, resulting in what educators call “an achievement gap.”
“A kid not read to all the time, whose parents don’t speak English at home, walks into kindergarten on day one with a two-year deficit,” said Napa County Superintendent Barbara Nemko, whose office operates preschools and early childhood development programs.
“That [deficit] we now call the achievement gap, and that deficit continues all through school because as quickly as that child learns English, the English speakers are learning other things too, and the trajectory of the kid who doesn’t speak English as a native language is lower because they’re having to process the English part and that takes away from learning,” Nemko said.
Earlier this month, the state released the results of the first testing for the Common Core standards for English and math that illustrated the differences that poverty and language barriers make.
Those results for the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress showed only 43 percent of all county students who took the test in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11 met or exceeded the standards for English.
The results were even worse in math: only 32 percent met those standards.
The county’s test numbers nearly matched those of NVUSD, the largest school district in the county.
NVUSD’s results were: 42 percent of students met/exceeded the English standards; 30 percent met/exceeded the math standards.
But underlying NVUSD’s numbers were the test results of Hispanic students: Only 28 percent of Hispanic kids met/exceeded the Common Core standards for English — 72 percent did not.
In math, only 19 percent of Hispanics met/exceeded the standards — 81 percent did not.
NVUSD Superintendent Patrick Sweeney and Nemko said they were not surprised by the low scores, considering it was the first time that students had taken the test, and that the test itself was different from the previous assessment used by the state.
Kids used to be tested on paper and using only multiple choice questions, but the Common Core exam is administered on computers—and students are required to explain how they came up with their answers.
“There’s no more guessing,” said Sweeney, “and you have to show you know what you’re taking about.”
Also, Sweeney pointed out, the district only now is implementing its Common Core math curriculum, due to lags in statewide approval. This means Napa kids were being tested on Common Core math without having been instructed in this new method.
“We know we’re going to get better in math,” now that instructors are teaching kids this part of Common Core, said Sweeney.
As for the performance of students on the English portion of the assessment, “The test is harder” for everyone regardless of a student’s ethnicity, said Elizabeth Emmett, NVUSD’s director of communications and community engagement.
“The test will be more complicated for people who don’t speak English very well,” she added.
Emmett and other officials noted that the education levels of parents made a significant difference in how students did on the Common Core test.
For example, 61 percent of kids whose parents went to college met or exceeded the English standard, according to figures compiled by Toscano.
For kids whose parents went to graduate school, 72 percent met/exceeded the English benchmark.
But for those whose parents didn’t graduate from high school, only 22 percent reached this level.
“There’s a huge correlation between test scores and parents’ education level,” said Nemko about the Common Core results.
“There’s a huge correlation between test scores and primary language spoken in the home,” she added, “and that all correlates whether they are Hispanic or not Hispanic.
“So it’s not race — it’s a higher proportion of Hispanic residents tend to be less educated and they don’t speak English as their primary language.”
To help these kids, the Napa County Office of Education and NVUSD have implemented a variety of programs designed to “close the achievement,” said the school district’s top official, Superintendent Sweeney.
“In Napa, we have a lot of students who are on free or reduced lunch, which is an indication of poverty,” said Sweeney. “It’s not an issue of Hispanics; it’s an issue of poverty. In the town of Napa, the demographics are such that many of the students of poverty are Hispanic.”
Providing a free lunch is just one of the ways schools are trying to help Hispanic children.
At the preschool stage, there is NCOE’s Early Digital Learning initiative, which seeks to boost preschool literacy through the use of tablets and reading apps.
More than 1,600 preschool children in the county have been able to use the Footsteps2Brilliance app because of the initiative, exposing them to libraries of books in either English or Spanish to help them increase their vocabulary before starting kindergarten.
Since the program went countywide in February 2014, according to Nemko, kids have read 20 million words with the help of technology and, thus, expanded their vocabulary before starting kindergarten.
Even with this help, many Hispanic children have started school behind on their English language skills.
So NVUSD has employed several programs with names like Imagine Learning English, System 44, and Read 180 that utilize both computers, specialized software that “diagnoses” students’ reading abilities and small group instruction to make these kids bilingual before the start of middle school.
The district, though, still isn’t done providing extra assistance once Hispanic students reach their teens.
There is AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), which is designed for kids whose parents didn’t attend college. Taken as an elective, the class is designed to put students on a college-bound path, and the results so far have delighted Sweeney and Toscano.
Ninety percent of AVID students in NVUSD have been accepted into a university, according to statistics compiled by Toscano, who calls the program “a game changer.”
Sweeney concurred: “We’re seeing results, and it’s closing the achievement gap.”
Because of its success with high school students, the district has expanded AVID to the middle schools and the elementary level.