Union Democrat staff

Sonora Union High School District will focus this year on improving math instruction and boosting academic achievement among low-income students, Principal Todd Dearden said at a Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday.

Dearden gave a presentation on the school district's most recent standardized tests that highlighted increases in English scores over previous years, but also pointed out significant slips in some math classes.

The solution will require improved teaching and interventions targeted at struggling students, Dearden said.

Like other California students, Sonora High's ninth- through 11th-graders took the STAR standardized tests last spring. They assess knowledge of state-mandated curriculum, including English, math, history and science.

Students earn scores classified as far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient or advanced. In some areas, such as English and social studies, many Sonora Union High School District students moved from the "far below basic" or "below basic" level to higher categories.

For example, only 1 percent of Sonora High freshmen scored at the "far below basic" level in English last spring - an improvement over the 4 percent of freshmen who landed in the same category in 2011.

Math scores were a different story. While freshmen and sophomores improved their Algebra I scores in 2012, more juniors did poorly in Algebra II, which could drag down Sonora High's overall marks for academic performance.

In part because more students took Algebra II and were tested, the number of juniors classified at "basic" or "far below basic" levels increased by 22 percentage points. Dearden called the drop unacceptable and said changes were needed to teaching practices.

Sophomore geometry and Algebra II scores also plunged, with a full 50 percent of sophomores earning "below basic" scores in Algebra II.

"That represents a serious concern for Sonora High School," Dearden said. "Guess where Sonora High will be focusing its efforts this year?"

Improvements will entail providing extra support for struggling students and making sure they're ready for algebra, he explained. The school already has a course called Basic Math Review that some students take concurrently with Algebra I, which reviews previous lessons and helps with homework.

Sonora High may want to consider extending a successful curriculum called Pacent from Algebra I to upper-level math courses, suggested Board President Ed Clinite.

At Sonora High, Algebra I is now a graduation requirement. Students on a college-preparatory path take Algebra II, while others can take a class in technical math.

Students classified by the California Department of Education as "socioeconomically disadvantaged" are another concern, Dearden said. They tend to pass the California High School Exit Exam, required for graduation, at lower rates than their peers.

They also represent a rapidly growing population for Sonora Union High School District. District Chief Business Official Kim Burr estimated that students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches now make up 40 percent of the student body.

In other news Tuesday, Board of Trustees member Jeanie Smith gave an update on calls being made to community members about the district's $23 million Measure J.

The bond measure, which would fund improvements to school facilities such as Centennial Hall and the humanities building, will be decided by district voters on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Volunteers spent part of Tuesday placing calls to homeowners in the district, informing them that Measure J is on the ballot and seeking support. Five of the volunteers were students, with more expected to join in soon.