By PHIL YOST | NY Times
November 20, 2009
Kathleen Martin stood in front of a white board covered with math problems, her class clustered at her feet. As they talked through the solutions together, the students repeated the headings over each problem on the board: “Algebra and Function,” “Probability,” “Data Analysis.”
“So I see three addends here,” said Mrs. Martin, in her third year of teaching, “and I know I am going to find the sum.” The children then call out the addends — make that the numbers — in unison. They are adding six, four and zero.
Mrs. Martin teaches first grade at Leroy Anderson Elementary School in San Jose, a regular public school. Of its 430 students, 90 percent receive subsidized lunches. For 70 percent, English is a second language and 70 percent are Hispanic.
Those can be the demographic ingredients for a watered-down curriculum and the excuses for academic failure. Indeed, four years ago Anderson was, academically, the worst elementary school in Santa Clara County, with the lowest score on California’s Academic Performance Index. But when scores were released this fall, Anderson had jumped 136 points in a year, to 810 out of a possible 1,000.
Only a handful of Bay Area schools notched triple digit increases. In the past three years, Anderson’s scores rose 206 points.
What is turbo-charging academics at this school? It is never easy to prove a cause-and-effect relationship in education, but three ingredients associated with success in other schools are at work: high expectations for everyone, constant assessment and family involvement.
Now, other schools are looking to Anderson for guidance in eliminating the so-called achievement gap between Hispanic and African-American students on one hand and whites and Asians on the other.
Anderson is bucking a disturbing trend in Santa Clara County: on California’s 2009 Accountability Progress Report, which measures student performance, scores for Hispanic students in the county — 715 — fell further behind those of Hispanic students statewide. The gap this year was 19 points; last year it was 14.
Not surprisingly, given the affluence and high education levels in Silicon Valley, its overall scores exceed the statewide average. But many Hispanic students — 37 percent of the school population — are in danger of being left out of the “knowledge economy.”
Closing the gap is this generation’s civil rights issue, said Charles Weis, superintendent of schools in Santa Clara County. “We know what needs to be done; we know how to do it,” Dr. Weis said at a rally for educational improvement. Yet, he added, “educators are notoriously bad at adopting others’ good ideas.”
Anderson illustrates the potential and the challenge. Much as the school has improved, its A.P.I. score still falls just below the upper half of the county’s elementary schools. While 71 percent of its students are proficient in math, only 53 percent are in reading and writing.
When Glen Ishiwata became superintendent of the Moreland School District in July 2006, he chose for Anderson a young new principal, Destiny Ortega, and assistant principal, Karen Allard. They overhauled the core instruction, tested all students to establish their skill levels and insisted on a can-do attitude.
The despairing mentality of “What are we going to do with these kids?” ended quickly, Mrs. Allard recalled.
Reading came first. “My focus then,” Mr. Ishiwata said, “was on how early literacy should be taught.”
Previously, reading “was mainly textbook driven, the teacher in front of the whole class,” said Mrs. Ortega, now 32.
“We said the first two hours of the day with the kids needed to be focused on literacy,” she continued, and that it include working in small groups.
On a recent day in Martha Borg’s third-grade classroom, she asked three students to join her at a small semicircular table. While the other students worked in their notebooks or with tutoring programs on computers, the three sounded out some new words — like “natural,” “environment” and “tortoise” — and then read aloud as Mrs. Borg moved from one to the next.
Small groups are a part of all classes at Anderson, and students get small-group time with the teacher. “The teachers help me a lot,” said Brizia Arce, a fifth grader, “and I understand more.”
The groupings cluster students of similar skills, as determined by another practice the new leadership introduced: continual assessment. The assessments then guide individual instruction.
Anderson is not alone. One charter school with a similar student body, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy in central San Jose, scored 926. John Danner, the chief executive of Rocketship Education, said: “The key is not the collection of data. It’s how you translate that data into the way that teachers’ classroom instruction changes.”
Anderson also has put in place more computer-based instruction in reading and math, allowing children to learn at their own level and pace. “The kids love it,” said Terry Clavelli, a first-grade teacher. She can monitor their work not only by looking over their shoulders, but also through a report that the JiJi program, developed by the MIND Research Institute in Santa Ana, compiles.
BoardMath, the program Mrs. Martin uses, acquaints children with formal mathematical terminology in the first grade and beyond, but the familiar methods remain. Holding up her fingers, she kept the tally as children added five and three.
None of this works, Mrs. Ortega said, without “believing that kids can and will learn.”
Maritza Lauriano, a fifth grader, said students used to be “nervous that we wouldn’t pass the test” but now took exams with confidence.
Anderson’s academic makeover proceeded with the support of its teachers. “They allow quite a bit of flexibility for us to be good teachers,” said Katrina Rumbold, a fifth-grade teacher. “At a school like this you work harder.” Many teachers stay after school to tutor students needing extra help.
Anderson’s staff members also work to include parents and assist them. At a class that meets three mornings a week, the mostly Spanish-speaking parents learn English, life skills and how to talk to teachers about their children.
One parent, Lucy Diaz, said through an interpreter that she attended “to help my child with homework when he doesn’t understand.”
In the meantime, optimism is in the air. Anderson has been invited to apply for the state’s Distinguished School designation.
Peg Batista, the bilingual secretary in Anderson’s main office, reflected on her 16 years at the school, many of them when “nothing was working.” Now, Mrs. Batista said, “the kids talk about how well they are doing.”
As for parents, Eva Chesnut, the community liaison, said: “They feel more comfortable. They feel more pride.”