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Where poor students soar

What works at a school dealing with poverty and a lack of English fluency? Tough love, hard work and a laser focus on achievement.

November 05, 2011|Sandy Banks
  • Fourth-graders Marco Carrion, left, and Oscar Rios, right, mentor kindergartner Giancarlo Francia during recess at Plummer Elementary.
Fourth-graders Marco Carrion, left, and Oscar Rios, right, mentor kindergartner… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

From the outside, Plummer Elementary doesn't look much like a showcase school. The 60-year-old campus has drab green bungalows, a patchy lawn and graffiti scrawled on the "Please, No Honking" sign.

The California Distinguished School logo above the front gate, out of reach of taggers, is about the only indication that something special is happening inside.

The San Fernando Valley campus, in a working-class pocket of North Hills, was singled out by Los Angeles Unified Supt. John Deasy in a conversation we had last month about whether low-income, Latino students in this district are doomed to mediocrity.

Plummer — where 90% of the students are poor and two-thirds begin school not fluent in English — is one of the district's highest-scoring elementary schools. Its Academic Performance Index score has risen by more than 200 points, to 862, in the last four years, outpacing schools around the state with similar demographics.

Whatever is going on there shouldn't be a secret, so I paid a visit to poke around.

What I found was tough love, hard work and a laser focus on student achievement. Not rocket science, but not magic either.

::

Amid all the jargon of school reform, everyone agrees that the fundamentals of an effective school are high expectations, a strong leader, engaged parents and competent teachers.

Angel Barrett would add one more key ingredient: student data. And educators who aren't afraid to pay attention to it.

Barrett, the daughter of an Arkansas soybean farmer, has been Plummer's principal for 15 years. Years of low test scores had landed the year-round campus on a list of failing schools. By 2005, Plummer had fallen just short of its improvement target and was at risk of being turned over to outsiders.

Barrett rallied her teachers, gave them homework — research on how to reach at-risk kids — and told them to prepare for the hardest year of their careers.

"You've got to give me 200%" or find another school, she said. The teachers who stayed dug deep "and reexamined everything we did."

Teachers began collaborating more, developing strategies based on programs that had worked in other schools. They crafted new lessons and practiced their delivery in "fishbowl" sessions, laying strengths and weaknesses bare.

"It was not a comfortable transition," recalls second-grade teacher Lynn Roth. "We got away with a lot of different things back in the day," when teachers had flexibility and privacy in their classrooms.

"It's easy to stick with what you've been doing for years," Roth said. "It was stressful, all the changes and new assessments."

But when student scores shot up 100 points in one year, skeptics became converts.

Now the staff believes so strongly in the power of their program that three teachers who were laid off last year attended summer training sessions without being paid, "just in case

they got called back," Roth said.

That's a measure of loyalty the teachers union might reject. But their commitment sends a message: Success is a powerful catalyst.

"We don't want to be made out to be superteachers," Roth said. "What we've done here is take it off 'me' and put it on 'we.' And we will do whatever it takes."

::

There was a lot that impressed me on my visit:

•The classrooms, where posters of problem-solving strategies cover every wall.

•The parents, who gathered in the computer lab for technology lessons and English classes.

•The students, who clamored for teachers' attention and were quick to praise, or correct, their classmates.

•The fact that Barrett teaches a class herself and seems to know every student on campus.

Barrett talked a lot about being a "data-driven campus.... We look at everything," she said.

They even analyze discipline reports to arrange recess and lunch periods on the 1,000-student campus. That's how they discovered that a read-aloud session on the schoolyard at recess calms kindergartners before they head back to class.

In Plummer's classrooms, teachers assess students regularly and study the data to see who needs help. "Every teacher I know works hard. "We try to make sure we're working hard on the right things," Barrett said.

After every assessment, teachers meet to go over the test scores of every child. "We compare the scores to try to figure out, 'Is it the student, or is it the instruction?'" Barrett said. "We're not afraid to ask ourselves that."

They are also not afraid to share that data with students.

Fourth-graders have their scores on the California Standards Test glued to the inside of their red pencil boxes. Every time they open the box on their desk, they know how far from the goal of 600 they are.

And they don't seem shy about sharing that. "Four-seventy-five," one boy says proudly, when I ask how he is doing in reading class. That's up from last year, he tells me. When I peek inside his pencil box, I see "MATH, 549."

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