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Burbank Educator Draws High Praise for Turnaround at School

June 11, 2003|Erika Hayasaki | Time Staff Writer

Linda Reksten had been principal of Walt Disney Elementary School in Burbank for nearly 13 years before the state implemented a standardized testing program in 1998. To Reksten's surprise, Disney found itself on a list of low-performing schools.

"We thought we were doing a pretty decent job, but what we were doing was mediocre," particularly with students learning English, she recalled Tuesday. "We didn't really see that before, and maybe we didn't want to see that."

Her students, who come mainly from low-income and immigrant families, were scoring in the 40th percentile in reading and the 44th percentile in math on state tests, below the 50th percentile national average.

Reksten then launched an aggressive achievement plan of staff training, frequent student assessment and extra tutoring.

Test scores steadily climbed, and last year Disney students scored in the 58th percentile in reading and the 71st in math. "It was sure hard to deal with being called an underperforming school. But it proved to be a blessing for the children and the entire staff," Reksten said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

Hours earlier, she had been a special guest at the White House's Rose Garden to hear an education speech by President Bush in which he highlighted Disney's success. Bush's comments focused on his No Child Left Behind education law, which hinges on measuring student progress and holding schools accountable.

Bush said Reksten "has shown what works in education. She is the model of education reform." Reksten, in turn, said she was "blown away" by the recognition.

Reksten has served as principal of Disney for 17 years, and before that worked as a teacher in Burbank Unified for four years. She earned a bachelor's degree from Montana State University, where she majored in biology and minored in chemistry. She has a master's degree in curriculum and administration from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and received her doctorate in education from UCLA. She also recently finished writing a book about how to turn around a troubled school.

Out of Disney's 426 students, half of them are not fluent in English, and nearly two-thirds come from low-income families.

Andrea Canady, director of elementary education for the Burbank Unified School District, said Disney's staff had been hard-working but got a wake-up call when the first test scores arrived. "The principal is the one who said 'Hey guys, no excuses, we're going to do this. We're going to get our kids up where they need to be,' " Canady said.

Canady described Reksten as a "very intense person," who is "very driven that these kids are going to make it."

Cathy Robinson, who teaches second grade at Disney, said she came to the school as an inexperienced teacher three years ago and was given extensive training.

Robinson said Reksten has created a culture of teamwork, encouraging teachers to continually monitor and question each child's progress. For example, she said teachers will focus on a small group of students with problems learning vowels until the youngsters master the skill.

"That's what I love about working at this school," Robinson said. "When they say 'no child left behind,' they really mean no child left behind. Our principal knows every kid that is struggling, and knows why."

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