Distinguishing Patterns of Success
At first glance, Commonwealth Avenue School seems to fit the profile that predicts failure in Los Angeles: an overcrowded, inner-city campus in a high-crime area where 98% of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.
Truth is, 52% of its third-graders read at grade level, which is far above the Los Angeles Unified School District average of 29%. Its standardized test scores improved by an impressive 9 points in 1997 over the previous year. The students look upbeat and teachers gush about their close working relationship with the principal.
“Our principal absorbs the baloney dished out by the district bureaucracy and lets us do our job,” kindergarten teacher Jane Stavish said. “We have all the resources we need except decent coffee.”
Given that two-thirds of the 697,000 students in the district cannot read at grade level, educators are anxious to know why the Wilshire Corridor school’s impoverished Latino, Asian and African American children are doing so well.
Commonwealth is among about two dozen schools the district is studying to determine why their reading test scores are high compared with other campuses in their socioeconomic range. The goal is to identify “patterns of success” and then share them with schools struggling to improve their own reading programs.
“We want to go beyond test scores,” said Associate Supt. Carmen Schroeder. “We’re taking a close look at the schools that are doing well in reading in the face of great challenges and asking, can they be emulated?”
Development of programs based on reading success--not ideology--is a matter of interest to educators everywhere.
“It’s a laudable goal,” said Barbara Haxby, a director of Success for All Foundation, an organization that has helped 1,100 schools nationwide to improve literacy skills. “There will be a real interest at schools across the nation in what the Los Angeles district finds--even more if it can replicate what it finds.”
A Unique Blend of Parents and Teachers
Results of the study will not be available until later this month. But Commonwealth administrators and teachers attribute their achievements to a unique blend of teacher training, parent involvement, stabilizing working-class neighborhoods, after-school intervention programs, emphasis on the basics--reading, writing, math, science and history--and high expectations.
“We spend a lot of time talking about and selecting the best practices, and making sure there’s a continuity of what’s taught at each grade level,” said Principal Evelyn Peter, an educator for 30 years. “And we don’t stop at basic expectations. We’re always raising the bar.”
Take the kindergarten classroom that Peter has come to call “our little factory.”
After four months at the year-round school, a third of the 60 children in the combined bilingual classroom are reading and writing simple sentences in Spanish. (The class is among a few in the district not scheduled to switch to the English-immersion curriculum mandated by Proposition 227 until later this year.)
Peter attributes the accomplishment to the students’ energetic teachers--Elizabeth Melendez, Ondina Lim and Angie Perez--all of them former first-grade instructors on a new mission to see how much kindergartners can learn.
“Some teachers think they are too babyish to learn to read and write,” Melendez said. “We don’t think that way. We think they are capable. We prove it.”
“There’s too much at stake not to take them as far as they can go,” added Melendez, a former counselor at a juvenile detention facility. “If they aren’t reading by third grade, we’ve built a jail cell around their lives because we’ve closed all their doors of opportunity.”
No Homework, No Recess
Failure to complete daily homework assignments can mean losing recess, even prompt a parent-teacher conference during which mothers and fathers are likely to be handed an unforgiving bar graph showing how their child compares with classmates in reading skills.
“It makes them competitive and involved in a hurry,” Perez said.
There’s more. Students get two report cards. One is the standard district version showing whether a student is excellent, satisfactory, good or needs improvement in a given subject.
The other is far more detailed and modeled after one the kindergarten teachers noticed being passed around at a teachers conference a few years ago. It grades 13 categories of reading skills from “recognizes lowercase letters” to “matches sounds with letters.”
Two years ago, Melendez, Lim and Perez helped launch a reading intervention program designed to identify at-risk students in the first and second grades. This year, the program is assisting 75 second-graders.
In a nearby classroom, second-grade teacher Elizabeth Montes, who attended Commonwealth as a child, was preparing a reading lesson for her class of Spanish speakers who only a week ago entered an English-immersion curriculum.
Nearly all of her students read at grade level in Spanish. Her goal is to have them reading at grade level in English by the end of the school year.
“I’m going to work my tail off to make sure that happens--my belief in these kids and myself is that strong,” she said. “It sounds corny, but I never forget that I work for the parents of LAUSD. That’s an honor and a huge responsibility.”
Although almost all of the teachers at Commonwealth exude that kind of enthusiasm and compassion, the question remains: Are the school’s techniques and strategies, spirit and dedication portable?
Commonwealth’s teachers expressed mixed feelings.
Veteran second-grade teacher Chris Francis attributes much of the school’s recent success to Peter--her vision, flexibility, open-door policy and commitment to nurturing the culture of innovation that spawned the “little factory” and its two report cards.
Perez believes that a lot of the credit should go to the teachers.
“Can what we’re doing be packaged and transferred? Yes,” Perez said. “But this didn’t happen overnight.”