Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Leveraging Resources to Transform a Struggling School

Teresa Pitta, John Muir Elementary School, California

Story posted November 17, 2010

• Once the lowest performing elementary school in its district, now one of the highest

• Over the past five years, the school has shown significant growth on every state test administered

John Muir Elementary is the oldest of the Merced City Schools. Just five years ago, we were the lowest performing elementary school in the district. Today, we are one of the highest.

Our school serves about 500 children in preschool through Grade 5. 86% of our students receive free or reduced price lunch. Most live in rentals, low cost apartments and multi-family dwellings within walking distance of school; however, approximately 200 children are bused to Muir daily from the “unhoused” Loughborough area.

Our families are not only stricken by poverty, but they also experience generational gangs, drug use and violence. We have an abundance of grandparents struggling to parent their children’s children and students in and out of foster care.

Yet we at John Muir believe our students can learn, and we work to develop relationships with our students and families so they believe that as well. And we celebrate our students. We celebrate Perfect Attendance, growth on formative assessments and monthly reading achievement/growth. We celebrate our students whose theme skills scores are in the green (proficient range). We celebrate the growth our below basic students make each quarter on the SRI (Scholastic Reading Inventory) in our READ 180 program.

And we have had a lot to celebrate recently. In 2010, we met the federal target for school improvement for the first time in eight years. Our Academic Performance Index (API) score was 806, up from 650 five years ago. Statewide, the goal for all schools was 800. And since 2006 we have experienced steady growth in the percent of students scoring at or above proficient on all state tests at all grade levels. For example, our 3rd grade proficiency rate in English Language Arts is now 60% (the state average is 44%), up from 28% in 2006. Our 5th grade math proficiency rate is now 65% (the state average is 60%), up from 22% in 2006.

Factors in the Transformation

Teacher Collaboration
Although our stable, senior teaching staff has spent many years collaborating and working hard, it wasn’t until the arrival of a new principal in 2006 that we began teaching smarter. Principal Sandi Hamilton is an expert at designing academic interventions and then continually tweaking them to maximize student achievement.

Thanks to her inspiration, we became committed to working as a team. We began deploying our 4th and 5th graders for English Language Arts, placing them in reading classes based on the strengths and resources of personnel. Switching students for Language Arts Instruction shifted thinking from “my kids” to “our kids.” We began data chats with colleagues and eventually with students, inviting them to set their own goals for improvement. And we continually share results of common assessments, making decisions for student placement based on that data and other anecdotal notes and records.

We also engage in collaborative professional development. We share teaching successes at staff meetings. And nine of our teachers are UC Merced Writing Project fellows and have sponsored writing in-services over the years for the entire staff. Last year grade-level teams designed a writing lesson and observed each other teaching it. We learned a lot when we worked together to determine the effective features of the lesson and possible next steps. And whether we are discussing a professional book or analyzing student writing, we  work constantly in cross grade-level groups as well, to help us learn more about instructional implications of our actions.

Data-Driven Decision Making
If you walk through classrooms at John Muir, you might see a 5th grade student reviewing his or her plotted oral fluency rates, log of recently read books, essays in a writing portfolio, current theme skills scores or Student Reading Inventory scores with his or her teacher. All students participate in data chats, and each year five or six below grade-level students are targeted by each teacher as students who can grow into the basic or proficient level by the end-of-year CST (California Standards Tests). Those students and their families know they are targeted for an academic growth spurt and enjoy data chats with the school principal as well as their classroom teacher.

Energizing Parents
In 2007-08 the district’s magnet K-3 Montessori program moved to John Muir’s campus. The parents energized our base parent group by volunteering, joining clubs and committees and being very visible on campus.

Quality Education Investment Act

Our school has also recently benefited from a QEIA—Quality Education Investment Act—grant. QEIA is a California state law (strongly supported by the California Teachers Association) designed to provide $3 billion over seven years to 488 lower-performing schools (now expanded to 496 schools). It is designed to reduce class-sizes, improve teacher and principal training, ensure instruction by qualified teachers, provide more school counselors and give schools the flexibility to develop programs that best fit the needs of their students.

After we were awarded the grant, we had a year for planning and preparation. Starting in 2008-2009, we received an additional $500 per K-3 pupil and $900 per pupil in Grades 4 and 5 (we received two-thirds this amount during our planning year).

This grant has supported our efforts for academic improvement in a number of different ways. First of all, class-size reduction. With this money, we have been able to pay several teachers’ salaries, allowing us to have just 25 students in our 4th and 5th grade classes and 20 students in our K-3 classes. These smaller classes allow us to know our students intimately. They are one of the fundamental reasons that we have become more successful.

The money also paid for an additional teacher at the 4th-5th grade-level, so we had an additional classroom for the reading deployment program I mentioned. That greatly benefited our students as well.

We can also pay substitutes for our monthly teacher collaboration meetings. And we were able to hold a week-long training/collaboration before school started focusing on Academic Vocabulary for our EL population. We also spent part of that time working together to align state standards to our new math textbook.

While certainly this money alone is not the reason for our transformation, it has greatly supported it over the past two years. Money does matter when it comes to school improvement.

Teresa Pitta has been a teacher at John Muir Elementary School for over fifteen years.