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New Fallbrook Superintendent Focuses On Urgency For School Success

Aired 11/23/11 on KPBS News.

Boosting the academic performance of students who are learning English as a second language is the new Fallbrook superintendent's specialty.

— Candace Singh is still getting to know the elementary schools in Fallbrook; she has been the district's superintendent for almost three months.

Candance Singh, Fallbrook Union Elementary School District's new superintendent, turns to ask Live Oak Elementary Principal Lilly Perez about the class they are observing, Nov. 10. 2011.
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Above: Candance Singh, Fallbrook Union Elementary School District's new superintendent, turns to ask Live Oak Elementary Principal Lilly Perez about the class they are observing, Nov. 10. 2011.

On one early morning in November she was making her second visit to Live Oak Elementary: Principal Lilly Perez led the tour through reading intervention classes for students who haven’t reached proficiency on state language arts tests.

The first classroom they stop in has four small groups of students working on different lessons. The students with the least developed language arts skills were working with the teacher. In another classroom, a second certified teacher was working on recognizing short vowel sounds with a group of students from the same class who need even more basic skills development.

Between classrooms, Perez stopped to explain that the last breakout group would have been taught by a teaching aide last year, not a certified teacher. The school is already seeing faster progress from pairing students with more experienced staff.

On visits like these, Singh is looking for strategies that can be replicated at all of Fallbrook’s elementary schools.

“When I have an opportunity to walk through classrooms with an individual principal,'" she said. "I look for trends and patterns across the school district to then in turn know: what would be the next step to take with all of our principals, together as a group.”

Singh took over as superintendent in August, but she has decades of experience handling the kinds of challenges Fallbrook schools face. The number of students learning English as a second language has increased dramatically, and those students’ scores on state English and math tests have lagged.

Singh spent three years heading instructional services for Solana Beach elementary schools before moving to Fallbrook. In Solana Beach, she helped put reading curriculum in place that included interventions for English learners.

“We’ve put systems in place where we are monitoring the achievement of our students on an annual basis," said Leslie Fausset, Solana Beach superintendent. "And we are getting some feedback that the intervention support that we’re providing is really making a difference for our students and giving them the skills they need to be academically successful.”

Before working in Solana Beach, Singh spent more than 20 years in the San Marcos Unified school district as a classroom aide, teacher, vice principal and principal. Focusing on literacy intervention for English Learners, she lifted one elementary school out of failing status in just two years.

Whether it’s affluent Solana Beach or low-income communities in San Marcos, Singh believes the key to improving student achievement is the same.

“That concept of being very congruent across the system – that no matter who your teacher is, the teacher is teaching grade level standards," she said. "If you are a student who is proficient or advanced you have the opportunity for extension or acceleration past what you already know and then students who are not yet proficient have a systematic approach to helping them move to grade level. When that happens and there is consistency across a school, the whole system just improves.”

Implementing that kind of consistency across all of Fallbrook’s schools is one of Singh’s first goals. Live Oak Principal Lilly Perez said she saw that idea in action even during Singh's visit.

“We’ve always done instructional walkthroughs but not with the coaching model, where we’re actually – the principals are getting coached," Perez said. "The way they are presenting it is for all of us to learn as a community, not just for the teachers or as an evaluative tool, but as a professional development tool. So that’s the biggest change and that’s why I’m excited to work with her.”

Singh's experience improving English learners' academic performance was one thing that set her apart from other candidates for the superintendent role, said Pat Rusnell, the district's governing board vice president. He said her attitude and ability to make changes without alienating veteran staff was also attractive.

“You cannot help but be touched by, and impressed by, her passion," said Fausset, the superintendent in Solana Beach. "She is absolutely committed to students with a whole range of learning needs. She is beyond committed, she is excited and energized and, as I said, passionate about her work. It’s the passion that she brings to the work that is contagious. ”

Singh has maintained that passion and built a track record of success in a landscape shaped by No Child Left Behind. Education officials across the country have criticized the law for punishing schools that serve the most challenging student populations, and using narrow measures of success. Studies show the law’s focus on reading and math has squeezed other subjects out of classrooms.

Singh agrees plenty can to be done to improve the law before it is reauthorized - but she believes it has caused at least one important change: “It has created urgency for schools and school districts to make sure that not just certain kids meet or exceed grade-level standards, but that all kids meet grade level standards,” she said.

School districts across San Diego County and the country have struggled to find strategies that work to help all students meet those standards. Singh has the opportunity to demonstrate targeted and consistent intervention can improve the performance of an entire district's increasingly diverse student body.

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