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How one South Bay school got off the failure list

Ohanian Comment: Targeting kids closest to proficiency is regarded as a clever strategy by some. Others regard it as reprehensible and even immoral.

A dynamic principal and committed staff have accomplished a dramatic turnaround for Hawthorne's Cimarron Avenue Elementary School.

By Melissa Milios

Nestled on a wide, tree-dotted residential street near the Hawthorne airport, Cimarron Avenue Elementary School had worn the scarlet letters of education for two years when Carlen Powell arrived on campus in the spring of 2003.

Parents, teachers and even students knew about Program Improvement -- dubbed "P.I." or "the list" -- the federal government's roster of chronically low-performing public schools.

To Powell, a first-time principal, the letters and the list were daily reminders that Cimarron students -- about eight in 10 who are black and from low-income families -- deserved a better opportunity.

"It's not a good feeling to be on that list," she said. "It deters parents from enrolling their kids here. It's difficult for teachers. You want to keep them motivated, but after year one, year two, year three -- they start to feel the pressure."

No one at the 450-student school was satisfied with 2003 proficiency levels of less than 16 percent in English, and less than 22 percent in math, Powell said.

Without large jumps in student test scores for the next two years in a row, the sanctions associated with Program Improvement would get increasingly worse for Cimarron. Just one more year of failing to clear proficiency benchmarks, and much local control could be wrested from the school. The threat of state takeover or staff reorganization loomed not far away.

But what would it take to get off the list? Would there be sacrifices?

In the end, it would take a full-court press from an ever-changing staff, constant attention to standardized testing, laser-targeted tutoring and buy-in from teachers, students and parents to make the scores climb.

While the strategies are common to many public schools operating in the high-stakes testing environment of No Child Left Behind, the federal accountability law passed in 2001, the looming consequences for Powell and Cimarron gave them a relentless focus.

"It was to get off that list," Powell said. "We did not want to go into year four. I thought about that every day."

Two years later, Cimarron stands out as a beacon of hope for other low-income schools attempting to boost student achievement and break out of Program Improvement.

Since 2003, the number of students testing proficient and above in both English and math has more than doubled. The school's Academic Performance Index jumped 104 points last year alone to 720, not far off the state's goal of 800.

Last month, the Hawthorne school was one of just three Los Angeles Unified campuses to be dropped from the Program Improvement list.

Across California, 121 schools were removed -- but 320 others were added, bringing the statewide Program Improvement total to 1,772 schools, or 30 percent of those that receive Title I funding for low-income students.

For schools on the list, getting off can seem like an insurmountable task.

Under No Child Left Behind, achievement benchmarks are a moving target, increasing from year to year, with the ultimate goal of 100 percent English and math proficiency for all children in all ethnic groups, including special education students and English language learners, by 2012.

At Cimarron, poor students -- three-quarters of the entire school -- were falling short and needed attention. So devising a strategic plan was the first step toward real change.

Teachers were asked to scrutinize student test data and identify kids who were on the cusp, five or 10 points away from counting toward the target schoolwide proficiency rates.

Because Cimarron is such a small school, the actual numbers of students they needed to target were reasonable.

"We put names to faces -- 'Who are they, who's it going to be?' " Powell said. "Then it became doable."

The kids were dubbed "The 330 Club," given motivational pep rallies and targeted for after-school enrichment. At each grade level, a handful of students -- eight in English and eight in math -- were assigned one-on-one tutoring, two or three times per week, with their teachers, Powell or other administrators.

To offer the intervention during school, the educators worked through their lunch hours almost every day. Second-grade teacher Jennifer Zabatta said the commitment of administrators was a motivator.

"The positive atmosphere has to come from the top down," Zabatta said. "If (Powell) wasn't willing to go the extra mile, a lot of teachers wouldn't have been so willing."

Not everyone was as enthusiastic. Since Powell arrived, there has been a turnover of about half of Cimarron's 25 teachers. Three left at the end of 2003, another four in 2004, and six more last spring -- some retired, but others clashed with the changes being made at the school.

"I'm very demanding," Powell said. "But I have to be. Where we were in 2001, in 2002, in 2003 -- that's not OK. ... We have to set high goals."

Though Powell had spent five years as a teacher and two years as an assistant principal in South Los Angeles, some questioned putting a first-time principal into such a challenging position. But Hector DuBon, the district administrator who oversees Cimarron, said that after Powell's first year on the job he guaranteed his superiors that she would lead the school out of Program Improvement.

"I banked my reputation on it, because of what I saw," DuBon said. "Seeing Carlen lead the way, not just from the top down, but standing shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers convinced me she was a true instructional leader, which makes the most successful type of principal."

She took chances, and made some major changes to the way things operated at Cimarron. But changes had to be made on a smaller budget, since state money is doled out according to attendance.

To integrate the new, sometimes less experienced teachers into the staff, and to build on the strengths of the veteran teachers, some grade levels have incorporated more team teaching.

In second and fifth grades, for example, teachers would trade students to deliver reading and writing lessons targeted to their ability level. While the kids were at the library or gym class, teachers would meet to share notes and strategies.

"There was collaboration, no competition. Every single teacher was willing to help," said fifth-grade teacher Floyd Webb. "It was my first year (at Cimarron) last year, and it's the happiest I've been in 15 years of teaching."

For years, Cimarron had a full-time literacy coach to help teachers improve their lessons. But now even more emphasis was placed on reviewing quarterly assessments, mining periodic test scores to figure out what the kids were and were not comprehending.

"We were talking about it all year long," said literacy coach Shilby Sims-Guillory. "Teachers know you don't just 'teach to the test.' What the child needs is what you do."

Powell and teachers would meet one-on-one with students to review their periodic results and talk about their strengths and what they needed help with. Teachers saw marked progress from the strategies.

"By the end of last school year, our kids had improved their reading levels by 40 to 50 words per minute," said Webb, of the combined fifth-grade classes. "Some might still not be at grade level, but they all improved."

Powell also lobbied the district for more money to bring in a full-time math coach, who revamped the math program to include more hands-on lessons for children. Groups of teachers went to off-site training seminars to learn the techniques, then came back and taught the lessons to the rest of the staff.

"We were very strategic. The object is to work smarter, not harder," said math coach Robin Wynn-Davis.

In just a year, math proficiency levels went from 21.5 percent in 2004 to 47.7 percent in 2005. But the teaching changes also won rave reviews with those who mattered most: students.

"It challenges your brain," said Isaiah Copeland, a fourth-grader. "When you're up there (at the chalkboard), they teach you if you get angry with one problem, skip it and come back."

Kids said the periodic testing also helped them feel more comfortable when the year-end exams came.

"When I get nervous, it's because I feel like the test is going to be hard for me," said fifth-grader Ashtyn Coleman. "But I have confidence now. My mom says, 'You can do it!' "

Powell and the staff urged parents to become more involved in their children's learning. As is required by law, they sent home fliers about the school's Program Improvement status, but also invited parents to evening meetings where they were briefed on what students were learning and may need help with.

"We were aware from the beginning," said Minnie Solomon, chairwoman for Cimarron's school site council. "We did extra activities at home, because my daughter was nervous about testing. We buckled down on homework, we paid attention to the reading assessments."

"That actually helped a lot -- being able to help prepare my son for tests," added Andrea Sterling, whose son is a third-grader at Cimarron. "The science nights, the math nights, all the teachers got involved."

This fall, when standardized test results came back, students, teachers and parents saw the benefits of their hard work.

"I started crying. I was crying for joy," said Kristen Hornback, a fourth-grader in the "330 Club." "I went up on math and English both. It just made me so excited."

Brian Stecher, a senior testing and accountability social scientist with the RAND Corp., said that under No Child Left Behind, it's not uncommon for struggling schools to focus on "bubble kids" to boost the whole school over proficiency hurdles.

"The federal accountability system only gives you points if you cross the line to proficiency," Stecher said. "The incentive in a system like this is to ignore students who are far below it and far above it, because changing them is not the efficient way to look better."

As for how effective this strategy will be in the long run, he said, the research is still out.

But Powell says that getting the "330 Club" kids up to proficiency now lets the school focus on the shrinking numbers of lowest-performing kids who have taken their place on the cusp. She also bristles at the idea that the school's focus was "teaching to the test."

"It is not fair to test a child on something we have not prepared them for," Powell said. "We have an obligation to prepare them for what's coming."

She points out that California's year-end achievement tests are closely aligned to the state's standards, which clearly outline what each child should know in each subject at each grade level.

"We have a responsibility to teach those skills," she said. "If we do that, we will automatically get better results for the school."

There's a long way to go still at Cimarron. Despite the achievement gains, despite losing the PI brand, the campus still has nearly half of its kids testing below proficient in math and even more below grade-level in English.

"Are we where we need to be? In my mind, no," Powell said. "We still need to have higher goals, we still need to do better."

But the excitement of accomplishment has encouraged the staff that they're on the right track.

"People feel inspired," Powell said. "Teachers are human, they can feel they worked hard and not reach the targets. Students can get discouraged. This success is such a boost."

Zabatta said that for her second-graders, the benefit goes far beyond standardized assessments.

"The list, and the numbers, and the testing -- it's all there. But it's not why we do what we do," she said. "We want to inspire them to lifelong learning. We know these kids can do it."

— Melissa Milios
Dailly Breeze


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