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New Principal John Becchio Ready to Tackle Achievement Challenges at Santa Barbara High

His experience at Santa Barbara Junior High has taught him what's needed to address problems of student preparedness and attendance

In his new job as principal of Santa Barbara High School, John Becchio plans to first focus on the school’s culture and achievement challenges.

He has tackled similar problems as principal of Santa Barbara Junior High, where he has worked since 1996, but he understands that each school needs an individual action plan.

Santa Barbara High will be entering year three of program improvement, the year before a school must either reopen as a charter school, replace all or most staff members, contract with an outside entity to manage the school or do some other restructuring. Santa Barbara Junior High was entering year three when Becchio took over as principal five years ago.

Next year, he and teams of stakeholders will work to develop a specific restructuring plan to be implemented in 2011-12. He said he has already gleaned that many groups of people want to be listened to more.

“That approach works really well because then it’s something that was built from the stakeholders and it’s not something I imposed upon a group of people,” Becchio said. “The way in which we created change at this school made it easy for me to leave and not have concern about where I’m going to leave this place.”

His successor will be Lito Garcia, the assistant principal at La Colina Junior High.

Data outlined in past reports and interviews of stakeholders show the school needs to improve in the areas of student preparedness and attendance, Becchio said. Achievement scores need to improve to get out of program improvement, a classification given through the No Child Left Behind Act to schools that can’t meet ever-increasing targets for two years in a row.

His new role should be a comfortable one, given his time in the district.

“There are a lot of families I know,” Becchio said. “The graduating class of seniors right now were eighth-graders when I took over as principal. I will literally know most of the kids and a lot of the families, so that’s going to feel really familiar.”

He said dealing with school culture challenges needs to precede major instructional overhauls.

The Santa Barbara High Faculty Senate came to him about the truancy and tardiness problem, a challenge for all secondary schools. The school had a unique program in place that dropped students from individual classes if they were truant, but it “didn’t work” and is being dissolved while a new, enforceable system is developed.

Students would merely stop coming if they wanted to withdraw and it was past the withdrawal date, or sometimes when they were failing a class.

“That’s one issue that I think is a big, big deal,” Becchio said. “Obviously, if kids aren’t in class or they’re late to class, there’s some other sophisticated stuff about instruction that we probably should deal with later.”

Santa Barbara High School also has a student preparedness problem — with students coming to class without any supplies or motivation to do anything — and he wants to build on the successes of junior high schools that require students to bring backpacks, agendas and reading books to class.

“A lot of kids will take the path of least resistance,” he said. “If you put structures in place, they’ll do them. If you don’t have them in place, they’ll drop down to the next level, whatever the expectation is.”

Entering year three of program improvement holds a lot of potential for a school, Becchio said. The restructuring will be aided by a new intervention specialist position, paid $100,000 per year, who will also supervise strategies for at-risk student needs and instruction.

Through the No Child Left Behind Act, Title 1-funded schools (with at-risk student populations) are classified as program improvement if they miss Adequate Yearly Progress goals for two consecutive years. To get out, the school must meet goals for two consecutive years, both for the entire school and in each subgroup, which include Latino students, white students, socio-economically disadvantaged students, English learners and students with disabilities.

In the Santa Barbara district, 13 schools are in program improvement, and none have ever gotten out of it. In fact, Isla Vista School in Goleta is the only school in Santa Barbara County to get out of program improvement, according to Cynthia White, the district’s director of curriculum and categorical programs.

The achievement goals increase every year, with the goal of making all students proficient by 2013-14.

“Most of our schools went into PI when the special-education target forced schools to pass on the same test required for non-special education students, and our English learners had to pass on the same test given to fully fluent students,” said Davis Hayden, the district’s director of research, evaluation and technology.

As Hayden explains, most district schools have to meet about 20 targets, and if any one of those targets isn’t met, the whole school fails.

Santa Barbara High has met Adequate Yearly Progress goals overall every year since 2003-04, but at least one subgroup has missed its goals since 2006-07, prompting program improvement status in 2008.

With such high targets, it appears the only way to get out of program improvement is through the “safe harbor” provision, which gives a school credit if subgroups improve — even if they don’t hit their targets — and the school scores well as a whole. Of course, higher-performing schools have a harder time getting out, Hayden said.

McKinley Elementary and Santa Barbara Junior High schools might make it out this year, though this year’s test scores won’t be published until August.

For the current school year, the following district schools are in program improvement: Cleveland Elementary, Monroe Elementary, Roosevelt Elementary and Dos Pueblos High School are in year one. Adams Elementary and San Marcos High School are in year two. Goleta Valley Junior High and Santa Barbara High are in year three. Franklin Elementary, Harding University Partnership School, McKinley Elementary, La Cumbre Junior High and Santa Barbara Junior High are in year five, where they will stay until they can exit program improvement.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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