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The Long and Winding Road

For Priority Schools, transformation is about the destination and the journey.


By Mary Ellen Flannery and Kevin Hart

The directions to Golden Eagles Elementary go something like this: “You will travel through a canyon, past a dam, up a steep incline with an S curve, and then basically start wondering if you have gone too far and missed it. You have not.”

Lisa Van Elswyk listens intently during a teacher planning session at John Muir Elementary.

Photo by Dave Monley

Following the glistening snake of the Spokane River, about 40 minutes outside the small farm town of Reardon, Washington, the road finally brings you to Golden Eagles, previously known as Wellpinit Elementary, a small two-story brick school with 170 students, 90 percent of them Native American, and a 6-foot-tall Native war shield on its lawn.

Until this past spring, you couldn’t find this place by mistake, as teacher Anne Taylor says. But in April, then-Wellpinit Elementary was awarded a $477,641 federal School Improvement Grant, which it won with a union-led application that promises to boost student achievement through frequent educator training and regular observation by instructional coaches. And since then, the road less traveled has been regularly trafficked by dozens of school improvement experts, a cadre of teacher trainers from regional and state offices, and a phalanx of NEA leaders, all working to help the Golden Eagles soar.

Golden Eagles teacher Anne Taylor breaks the news to her students that in their new schedule, they will not have recess daily.

Photo by Daniel Sheehan

This is exactly the kind of transformative work supported by the NEA Priority Schools Campaign, which seeks permanent change in the nation’s lowest-performing schools. From Washington, where intensive educator training is just getting under way, to California, where one school has much to show for smart investments in staff development and collaboration; to New York, where public school, community, and university partners insist every child have the opportunity to go to college: the Priority Schools Campaign means union educators are sitting down in an unprecedented way with school officials, community members, and state and federal lawmakers to support innova­tion.

“There are countless examples of reform currently under way in public schools across the country—all developed and implemented by educators,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. Here are a few of those stories.

PART 1: Merced, California

Full Steam Ahead

There is plenty about the San Joaquin Valley that hasn’t changed much in the 80 years since John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath made it famous. The cotton and grape mega-farms still stretch for miles in places. Migrant workers still flock to the valley to eke out livings. And the gulf between the haves and have-nots is as wide as ever.

The blaring horn of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad freight train, which interrupts lessons as it rumbles past Merced’s John Muir Elementary School a few times a day, is a powerful reminder that here you are not among the haves.

“Don’t let the train bother you,” warns school principal Sandi Hamilton. “You get used to it.”

Don’t get sidelined by distractions. It’s the same advice John Muir’s educators dole out daily to students, nearly nine in 10 of whom come from lower-income families. Many students at the K-5 school face some pretty serious “distractions”: from an empty stomach to a shaky grasp of the language (more than a quarter of John Muir students are English language learners) to ethnic gang violence.

“When I first started here, kids would throw gang signs at each other,” Hamilton recalls.

Five years ago, John Muir was the lowest-performing elementary school in Merced, tallying a 650 on California’s Academic Performance Index. The state target is 800.

John Muir needed to make drastic changes—and fast.

And it did. Over the course of the past five years, the school has been making incremental progress—but it was last year when the school really blared its own high-decibel horn. In 2010, John Muir scored an 806 on its state API and made Adequate Yearly Progress for the first time in eight years—it was one of only four schools in the district to exceed 800.

“I cried when I found out,” admits Hamilton. “A lot of us did.”

John Muir’s roadmap to success is as notable for the reforms it did not use as the reforms it did. The school did not rely on magic bullets or unproven pseudo-reforms designed to draw more applause than results—like firing teachers. In fact, John Muir has had very little staff turnover. “All across the district, we are talked about as a school where people come and stay,” says reading interventionist Lisa Van Elswyk.

Instead, the school focused on reforms supported by research, such as collaboration, professional development, data sharing, and intervention for lower-performing students—a strategy Van Elswyk calls “meeting students where they’re at.”

Collaboration isn’t just encouraged—it’s built into teachers’ schedules. They meet as a faculty to share data and to present summaries of effective lessons they’ve recently delivered.

Teachers at John Muir also routinely surrender their lunch and prep periods to work together to craft lessons, improve assessments, and share strategies for reaching struggling students. On a Wednesday afternoon in November, kindergarten teachers Rosa Munoz, Joni Imberi, and Diana Franca were huddled around a miniature table planning a math lesson. In another room, 10 teachers from grades 1 and 2 who meet as a professional book club were discussing a new text on improving writing instruction.

“You always hear teachers talking about teaching as a lonely job,” says second-grade teacher Cordell Randall, who has been with John Muir for 23 years. “In this school, we all work together and it’s not a lonely job.”

The school has been bolstered by a seven-year grant from California’s Quality Education Investment Act, which was implemented (thanks to advocacy from the California Teachers Association) to dedicate extra funding to lower-performing schools for staff development and other proven reforms. Research has shown QEIA to be a runaway success that has led to improvement at schools throughout California.

John Muir has used the funds for professional development, reducing class sizes, and providing intervention assistance for kids who were falling behind. As budget cuts lead to increased class sizes throughout Merced and other California communities, John Muir has been able to keep the problem in check and continue delivering personalized attention.

“We believe our students can learn, and we work to develop relationships with our students and families so that they believe as well,” says fifth-grade teacher Teresa Pitta. “We celebrate each and every bit of growth.”

Although John Muir is now classified as one of the top-performing elementary schools in Merced, the school’s educators are not resting on their laurels. Keeping the train on the tracks is going to be a yearly struggle, played out across hundreds of smaller, daily struggles. “But we have an idea of how to get there and what works,” says Van Elswyk.

Hamilton says the ultimate motivation is what’s at stake for the students and the community.

“My worst fear is that nothing would change for these families—that things would stay cyclical,” she says. “The students wouldn’t think about finishing school or going to college. Some might even join gangs. We can’t have that.”

PART 2: Wellpinit, Washington

Ready for Takeoff

I wish we learned times. I wish we went to the fair. I wish I drank coffee. I wish I had a trampolen.

The third- and fourth-graders in Anne Taylor’s multi-age classroom write in their discussion journals, old-style black-and-white composition books, almost every day, often responding to prompts from Taylor like this one: What do you wish for?

  1. I wish I can go to Hollywood.
  2. I wish I can be a good basketball player.
  3. I wish I can airplane fly.

Taylor’s own wish list is just as ambitious. She wants all her kids to read on grade level. She wants them all to master the state’s math standards. She wants her school to make Adequate Yearly Progress and shake off its third-class label. Considering where they’re starting from, it’s almost like wishing for that NBA contract. Last year, about a third of Golden Eagles Elementary’s fourth-graders met the state’s reading standards and only 15 percent met the mark in math. It was around the time one of her third-graders was spotted sniffing gas from an open can on her front porch.

I wish for a four wheeler. I wish for my grama to be alive. I wish for my other grama to get better. I wish school was a year and summer was a year too.

Even just a few weeks in, this school year is so packed with changes that it feels like a year. The school has a new name, a new address in the old middle school, and its own principal (in years past, they relied on one of the high school’s assistant administrators). They’ve also tested every one of their kids, mapped their curriculum to state standards, and had weeks of valuable training. “It’s not the kind of training where you think, ‘I should have just stayed in my room,’” says fourth-grade teacher Sarah Neumann.

Fourth-grade teacher Sarah Neumann feels supported by the new instructional coaches at Golden Eagles Elementary.

Photo by Daniel Sheehan

But it’s the instructional coaches that everybody’s talking about. In a profession that can be remarkably isolated, and sometimes insular, Golden Eagles’ teachers are throwing open their doors to frequent observation. “We’re in a community where we can use all the help we can get,” says Neumann frankly.

“I really see this as an opportunity to improve my teaching practice, and that’s a rare opportunity,” adds Taylor.

Example: Click! Taylor holds a stopwatch in her hand and her eyes flit between the running numbers and the running mouths of her fourth-graders—20 seconds, 30 seconds. Are they ever going to quiet down and move on to math? Taylor, the only National Board Certified teacher in Wellpinit, is tired of wasting time in transitions, so now, at the suggestion of her coach, she’s timing them and announcing her findings to a chagrined class.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Kelsie Williamson—the first new teacher hired here in six years—is struggling with 26 fifth-graders who don’t want to listen, and hoping her coaches can help. “This is the perfect first-year teacher opportunity,” she says.

For their part, the instructional coaches, like former WEA board member Nancy Comstock, have made it very clear that they’re not supervising or evaluating—“we’re here to support the teachers,” says Comstock.

Kindergarten teachers (from left) Diana Franca, Joni Imberi, and Rosa Munoz huddle during a break to plan a math lesson.

Photo by Dave Monley

In years past, Golden Eagles teachers were evaluated annually with a simple one-page form. But this year, a Memorandum of Understanding promises a new tool that includes a “growth model,” to be developed collaboratively by the union and district. As yet, it’s unclear what that will look like—“growth” could include the measurement of student progress, but also the professional development of teachers, said union President Kris Wilsey.

Still, the big question that nags at Golden Eagles educators is this: What if they do everything right and their kids still fail? Last year, Wilsey had a seventh-grader who didn’t show up on 92 days. “I knew he wasn’t going to pass the state’s writing test. I mean, how could he? He missed all that instruction!”

There are parents here who are devoted to education, but there are far more families struggling with with homelessness, addiction, and domestic violence—poverty’s ills that manifest all over America, but almost always on American Indian reservations.

But these can’t be excuses for failure, says Taylor. She points to her students and says, “They’ve got brains in their heads.” Downstairs, in a small break room, three bulletin boards are covered with Post-its, each representing one student’s reading score—and a depressing mass of them fall to the left, the lower side of the achievement scale.

“This is actually a lot like building an airplane while it’s flying,” says Golden Eagles’ new principal, K.C. Abbott, of the school’s transformation efforts. But he points to the Post-Its and says, “I think a lot of people will be surprised at how this looks at the end of the year.”

Video Extra: Transformation in Wellpinit

NEA Priority Schools

Six Hundred and Counting…

By Rebeca Logan

Fourth-grader Marisa Thomas is only 9 years old, but she already knows she wants to go to college. Thanks to Say Yes to Education, a community-based effort in Syracuse, New York,  financial barriers won’t stand in the way of her dream.

Marisa attends Martin Luther King, Jr. Applied Science Magnet Community School, which is part of the Say Yes Syracuse program that offers free college tuition for graduating students to attend either Syracuse University or Cooper Union.

To help ensure that Marisa and all the city’s students will get there, the program includes “wraparound services” such as after-school activities, mentoring, and emotional health support networks aimed at overcoming the barriers to graduation faced by many inner-city students.

The district-wide effort, launched in 2007, unites teacher unions, civic leaders, local businesses and private foundations. Six hundred Say Yes graduates from Syracuse are already attending college, and 2,500 high-schoolers are receiving extra support from Say Yes tutors, mentors, social workers, and others.

“Say Yes is a reform model that begins to deal with the overwhelming issues of poverty that school systems have never been able to successfully address,” says Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahorn.

Ahorn says by bringing the entire community together to provide those desperately needed supports, the program “recognizes that meaningful school change can only occur when all the stakeholders are fundamentally committed to doing what’s best for kids.”

The program couldn’t have worked without local union efforts, such as changing schedules to make social workers available after school, when children and families need them most. The union also helped implement compensation for educators working extended hours and more time for professional development.



Read about the progress of other school transformations at the NEA Priority Schools' website.

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