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A school finds a singular road to academic success

Bunche Elementary defies conventional wisdom and makes rapid strides without reliance on the state's intervention programs.

January 14, 2007|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Compton fifth-grader Alejandra Guizar has already gone to class at Tufts, Stanford, Emory and Princeton. And it's just by chance that she missed out on Harvard.

These are the names of classrooms at Bunche Elementary School in the Compton Unified School District. Naming them after colleges is one small piece of the school's enveloping academic culture that emphasizes achievement and, ultimately, college aspirations.

Bunche students have responded with remarkable gains, defying the conventional wisdom that poor and minority students are virtually destined to land on the downside of the achievement gap. And Bunche did this without the help of the state's two major intervention programs for low-performing schools.

This success puts Bunche at center stage of a debate over the state's school reforms and the federal No Child Left Behind Act. A group of contrarian researchers has singled out Bunche and 303 other rapidly rising California schools as evidence that schools statewide can and ought to be improving much faster. And that all schools can reach the target of bringing all students to grade level by 2014.

"Schools rise to the level of expectation we place upon them," said James S. Lanich, coauthor of the just-released "Failing Our Future: The Holes in California's School Accountability System and How to Fix Them." "If we don't have a high level of expectation, schools won't improve."

Hundreds of California schools are "failing" under the federal standards, but one that's shining bright -- and adding its own wrinkle to the debate over school reform -- is Ralph Bunche Elementary, named for the black American diplomat who won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.

At this school, the primary mover has been first-time Principal Mikara Solomon Davis, who arrived in mid-2000. Some would say she's done the near impossible.

Bunche has blown past the target score of 800 on the state's Academic Performance Index. Its 868 compares favorably to the scores at schools in Beverly Hills and San Marino. A school would score 875 if every student scored "proficient" on standardized tests.

Visually, the school sparkles as well, with clean, recently modernized classrooms, well-tended grass and rose bushes.

The campus sits in what looks to be a solidly middle-class minority neighborhood in the city of Carson. But a closer look suggests the classic profile of a school with poor achievement: The student body is about half black and half Latino, most of the students speak limited English, and the entire student body qualifies for free lunches. Some students come from the surrounding neighborhood, but most are bused from Compton.

In 1999, the first year of the state's current testing and improvement regimen, the school ranked in the lowest 10% of schools statewide.

With qualified, experienced principals in short supply, the school system hired a smart, hardworking prospect.

Solomon Davis, in her late 20s, had just earned a master's degree in education at Columbia University, which followed three years of teaching in Compton. There she impressed her own principal as one of the most gifted teachers she'd ever supervised.

Tireless, idealistic, demanding and at the time single, Solomon Davis critiqued daily the individual lessons of her teachers, including the veteran ones to whom she made clear: "It's not an 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. job. And you're going to be asked to do a lot of work."

Only two of 21 teachers remain from before her arrival. About eight departed, she said, because they disliked the new regimen. Another half dozen or so made a strong transition but have since retired. Solomon Davis' hires tended to match her own profile: young, energetic and relatively inexperienced. There's been substantial turnover in these ranks as well.

Several, including Solomon Davis, were affiliated with Teach for America, which places virtually untrained recent graduates from top colleges in urban classrooms.

So what does the Bunche example say about the widely accepted notion that it's experience that matters most in teaching effectively?

Solomon Davis has kept the academic rise going by hiring carefully and by developing, in essence, her own monitoring and training system. Her ongoing accountability measures are the state standards for each grade level, which specify what students are supposed to know. Top grades for students, she said, have to equal mastery of these standards.

On a recent day, 25-year-old Georgetown University grad Joanna Belcher was leading her fourth-graders through a crisply paced lesson on figures of speech. She handed out a passage from "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros, noting: "I didn't read this till I was in college, but you guys are ready for this.

"Why do you think Sandra Cisneros is using figurative language?" she asked, not needing to explain the term.

The class seemed to be in hurry-up mode, with no room for downtime, even when children acted out examples of figurative language.

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