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West County School Watch for Nov. 5, 1999: Reading, Writing and Renewal

by Nick Despota

(Note: Nick Despota is the editor of the most wonderful newsletter of the East Richmond Neighborhood Council (ERNC), VIEWS. The following article by Nick appeared in their November edition and he has graciously allowed me to reprint it here. As alluded to in the article which follows, ERNC has taken an active interest in its neighborhood schools. It its the kind of community involvement our schools urgently need districtwide. Glen Price)

There are two reasons people care about their neighborhood schools: Either because their children are enrolled in them or will be soon. Or because, school-age kids or not, they understand that schools tend to improve, stabilize, or drag down their communities. But in either case, the smart people adopt the long view.

Because Rich Avalos and Dean Karahalios are smart people, and because they are school principals, they specialize in long views. They have to. It takes years to develop a capable staff and sound curriculum. It take years for children to learn to read, reason, and calculate. And it takes years to cultivate productive relationships with neighboring communities. On all of these matters, the principals of Mira Vista Elementary and Adams Middle School had much to say at last month's East Richmond Neighborhood Council (ERNC) meeting.

To appreciate Mira Vista's present situation you need to know a little about its past. In the wake of the 1991 district bankruptcy, our neighborhood's only public elementary school faced declining enrollments and a district administration on the lookout for budget savings through school closures. But thanks to the commitment of parents, lobbying from the ERNC, and especially the solid work of MV's administration and staff, the school doors stayed open to accommodate more and more children. Four years ago enrollment was at 208. Today it stands at capacity, 383—approaching a doubling.

But as principal Karahalios pointed out, the bottom line enrollment number is only part of the story. When Karahalios started nearly 5 years ago, 1 out of every 2 students lived within the East Richmond neighborhood boundaries. Today, that ratio is 2 out of 3. More neighborhood students mean stronger ties between the school and the community. This in turn builds the synergies that benefit everyone. The clearest example of this has been the successful effort to remove Mira Vista field from the for-sale list, and the subsequent creation of gardens here that serve both as a learning resource for students and as an environmental preserve for the community. There are others examples: neighborhood volunteers help out in the library, assist in craft activities, and lend a hand with outdoor projects.

But good schools do more than just survive. They help their students make strong academic strides. Two months ago we reported that Mira Vista had chalked up impressive gains in standardized achievement tests. Averaged across all subject areas, its students had increased their scores about 8.5% over last year, peaking with a 22% gain in math. Nevertheless Karahalios was quick to point out that there remains plenty of room for more improvement.

But Mira Vista's principal doesn't measure achievement only through test scores: "I sleep well. I feel that the kids are safe and nurtured, and that they're learning here. I like the ethnic mix and the community support. We're going down the right path."

Rich Avalos, Adams Middle School principal, also believes he is leading his school down the right path—but it's a much tougher terrain. Not only are the students older, sixth through eighth graders, but they come from backgrounds that are more varied and, often, more challenged. While Mira Vista draws most of its students from East Richmond, Adams' students come from throughout the city. Of the six "feeder schools" that supply Adams' students, five are Title 1 schools; that is, they receive federal assistance because their students achieve well below national standards. And while we may appreciate our city's multi-cultural profile, we must also acknowledge its costs: while nationwide 3% of all elementary grade students are designated LEP-"limited English proficiency"— at Adams the figure is 20%.

Adams' students must clear some big hurdles if they are to close the academic gap that separates them from most other schools. The good news is that they're doing it. Look at the standardized test scores of sixth graders, that is, students in their first year at Adams. They rank around the 9th percentile on a nationwide scale. However, average scores of 7th and 8th grade Adams students jump to around the 30th or 40th percentile-a remarkable accomplishment. We can see the same trend within a single grade. Seventh grade students who entered the school the previous year scored approximately 10% higher on the Stanford Achievement test than those who entered in the current school year.

Test scores, however, do not represent how these gains are being made. The improvement of reading abilities is at the core. A special program known as Reading Renaissance stresses the crucial role of reading practice, and harnesses technology to assist in testing and record-keeping. It comes down to this: learning to read requires practice, instruction, testing, and more practice. The cycle must be repeated again and again. Lest this sound like one of those prescriptions that everyone preaches but no one follows, consider this: two years ago 50 books were checked out of the Adams library every week. Now 250 books are checked out every day.

Of course there is more: after-school tutoring, conflict resolution training, counseling, and a growing list of extracurricular clubs.

An important piece to the Adams plan is now in development. It will address not the development of skills but rather the kindling of desire, of motivation. It is a curriculum reform known as the Adams Academies and Career Consortium.

Helped along by the award of a 3 year, $1.4 million grant, next fall Adams will open as a school organized into five academies. Quoting from the Adams Middle School News (Fall 1999), "the academies will give all students the opportunity to choose the kind of school program that fits their interests and talents. These five small 'schools within the school' will each have a particular learning focus." They are: media and communications; business, service and commerce; history and science; humanities, culture and language; and visual and performing arts.

When the new middle school on Macdonald Avenue opens in 2 years, students who now have to travel long distances to Adams will attend the new school. The new middle school and Adams will have a greater opportunity to establish strong connections to the neighborhoods they serve.

Going to school can be likened to building a bridge, a bridge that can take the learner from the present to the future. But construction skills alone won't accomplish the task. The builder must also have a sense of where that bridge can take her. This requires an act of the imagination. The Adams Academies— and in a larger sense, all the innovations and effort at both Mira Vista and Adams— are dedicated to fostering that imagination.

Remember, the smart people take the long view.

Glen Price is a member of the WCCUSD school board; the opinions and views expressed in West County School Watch are his own and do not reflect official views or positions of the school board or WCCUSD unless otherwise noted. Back issues of West County School Watch and other sundry items can be found on the West County School Watch web site: http://www.igc.org/westcounty/

Run dates: 1999-11-05 - 1999-11-12

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