A Desert School Blooms
How National Board Certification helped transform a low-income school
One March morning in March of 2009, Julius Corsini Elementary School Principal Kiela Bonelli got a call at 7 am from a teacher at the school who told her, “There’s a tank across the street.”
Nearly 700 federal, state, county and local police officers from 35 agencies raided houses in the area, in Desert Hot Springs, California, with a Black Hawk helicopter circling overhead. It was called “Operation Fallen Sun” and by the time it ended, 120 people had been arrested and charged with drug offenses and other criminal activity.
But in school, kids were learning. Attendance was down a bit. One girl came to school in tears because one of her relatives had been taken away—but she came anyway. Teacher Barry Wissman remembers his second grade students asked about the helicopter. “I told them it was looking for bad guys, and went on with my normal lessons.”
The school kept functioning because of its extraordinary faculty, led by a great principal.
When Bonelli started at Corsini seven years ago, her first job as a principal, she knew it was a tough assignment, but she didn’t know how tough. “I figured it out when I was trying to hire new teachers and no one wanted to come in for an interview,” she recalls. “Maybe it’s a good thing that I didn’t know the problems beforehand because it meant I came there with higher expectations.”
Several years later, those expectations were justified.
But it took time.
Here’s what Bonelli didn’t do: Decide what the staff needed to do for children to learn, and make it happen.
Here’s what she did instead: Ask teachers what they felt was working and what wasn’t, and help them make the changes they decided they needed to make.
“Teachers led the change,” says Bonelli.
One of the teacher leaders was Bev Bricker, then a reading coach and now president of the Palm Springs Teachers Association. Desert Hot Springs schools are part of the Palm Springs district.
“Kiela was amazing at helping teachers take charge of their profession,” says Bricker. “It paid off for the school.”
The Palm Springs school district is marked by extremes, divided into rich and poor by Interstate 10. Corsini Elementary is on the poor side.
“There was a high crime rate, drugs, gangs. Attendance was low. Parent conferences attracted maybe 10 percent. Family mobility was high,” says Bonelli. “It was not unusual for us to finish the year with 75 percent different children than we started.”
Teachers turned over fast, too. “It was a springboard school,” says Bricker. Teachers would start there to get into Palm Springs, and move to another school as fast as they could. The average experience level at Corsini was three years, compared with 12 for the district as a whole.
So what did Bonelli and her faculty colleagues do about it?
They didn’t change the curriculum, but they worked to changing their instruction to better meet the needs of the students.
Bonelli had gone through the National Board Certification process and she encouraged the faculty to try it. Every teacher took part, either in the full certification program or an abbreviated version called Take One. In the board certification process, Bonelli notes, educators work on teaching the student, not the curriculum.
At the faculty’s request, Bonelli got district administrators to back off from the professional development program they had mandated and let the staff focus on board certification.
Putting the teachers in charge of their professional development was a key element in Corsini’s success, says Bricker, the former reading coach. “So often what you get is a consultant who tells you what’s wrong and they can magically fix you. That often doesn’t work.”
Board certification also includes work on parent and community involvement, and Corsini made some of its most dramatic improvements in that area.
Before the change, the first parent conferences were several weeks into the school year. The Corsini staff shifted them to before school started, and had school buses pick up both parents and students on their regular routes, so that parents and children could get familiar with the children’s riding experience and have a friendly introduction to Corsini and each child’s teachers before the year started.
That was especially important for kindergarten and first grade children, says Bricker: “It was, ‘This is my teacher. She’s nice. This is what we’re doing.’”
The school moved parent conferences from afternoon to evening so more parents could come.
Then there was the “postcard campaign,” Bricker recalls, in which each family got a postcard from their child’s teacher once every month or so, saying something like “Wow, your child had a great day!” and describing something specific that the child had done in school.
Corsini also added daytime programs for parents who were not working—many of them because they were unemployed. A GED teacher and an ESL teacher taught some 60 parents. Besides making progress toward their degrees and English fluency, these parents also became more comfortable with Corsini and more involved in their children’s learning.
And Corsini added the magic ingredient used in so many successful programs for all ages and every social class: food. “Donuts For Dads” and “Muffins For Moms” nourished Corsini’s parent connections.
Parent conferences began bringing in as many as 85 percent, not 10.
Student attendance went up, too. So did test scores.
Teacher turnover plummeted to near zero. Now Corsini is a school teachers try to get into, not out of, says Bricker.
Unfortunately, state budget cuts doomed the in-school, daytime parent courses. And a new school opened nearby, causing both a reduction and shift in the student body—even more poor students than before—causing a new dip in test scores. So there’s more work to do, and the faculty will be doing it without Bonelli because this year, she was reassigned to Desert Springs Middle School.
Can other schools make the kinds of changes that succeeded so well at Corsini? Bricker says yes, but she adds, “It couldn’t happen overnight. Sadly, nothing happens quickly—except mandates.”