A school finds a singular road to academic success

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.

A similar pacing was proceeding next door under math teacher Anne Mills, 26.

In almost the same breath, she calmly explained reducing fractions while also telling a slouching student to sit up and admonishing them all:

“I hope you’re feeling more comfortable than you’re showing. Once again, this is on your test tomorrow.”


There’s a sense that the staff knows it’s playing catch-up. Solomon Davis recounted a recent discussion with the principal of Vista Grande Elementary in Rancho Palos Verdes -- where parents assume and demand academic excellence.

“There ‘the machine’ pushes her,” said Solomon Davis. “Here, you have to push it.”

And that means pushing parents, who adjusted to a principal who in her first year issued more than 100 suspensions in a school of 467 students.

“There was such an issue with discipline that you couldn’t teach. Disrespect for teachers and adults was the norm,” said Solomon Davis. When parents confront her over a suspension, “I begin by saying, ‘Our goal is college for your child. We’re not here to punish,’ ” Solomon Davis said.


But would parents in a prosperous neighborhood accept such a discipline-heavy school? There also has been little room for arts and physical education, which suburban parents typically expect and raise funds to get more of.

The formula works for Kimberly Bush, who moved her children to Bunche from a Catholic school, where it didn’t seem to her that the staff had college expectations for students.

Church bookkeeper Aneteria White said she checked out the school’s test scores on the Internet before signing up 9-year-old Benjamin.

The fourth-grader said his previous public school was dirtier and gang members sometimes would jump the fence, which scared him.


“I’m learning more here,” he said.

But if the school’s rising reputation is attracting motivated parents, is that responsible for some of the improved achievement? Some researchers believe in this effect, especially at some charter schools, and say that it can skew a comparison with other schools.

Alejandra, 11, always was a strong student but has progressed from speaking limited English to testing as “advanced” in English as well as in math.

“What I like best is that we have high academics,” said Alejandra, the editor of the school newspaper. “I like that our teachers are very wonderful and they try to challenge our minds.”


Fifth-grader Mykayla Rowley entered the school in second grade testing “below basic.” In last year’s fourth-grade state tests, she earned a “proficient” in English and an “advanced” in math.

Solomon Davis hasn’t taken part in either of the two recent state intervention programs -- so she hasn’t had the benefit of as much as $400 extra per student per year. But she does get the state and federal money that has, for years, been provided to schools that serve limited English-speaking students and those from low-income families. At her school, that’s added up to about $240,000 a year.

“The way we spend our money is a huge part of what we do,” said Solomon Davis. “We really use every dollar and try to spend it in the classroom and on the students.”

Much of the funding went to reduce class sizes and to pay teachers to tutor after school. Until recently, she handled the extra administrative work for these programs herself to make the money go further. Solomon Davis is currently on extended maternity leave and relying on interim Principal Amber Young, 27, a Teach For America hire who stayed to become the principal’s protege.


If the Bunche success story can be readily emulated, then the federal goal of having all students quickly at grade level lies within reach. But many academics and state education officials -- who insist that they support high standards -- say the federal 2014 timetable is unrealistic, especially for middle and high schools and also because more money is needed to do the job.

Lanich’s honor roll lists 262 elementary schools, but only seven middle schools. Among some 900 L.A. Unified schools, 13 elementary schools are on the list and no middle schools.

Keeping Bunche on the trajectory to 100% proficiency requires constant vigilance, said Solomon Davis -- and she’s ever on the hunt for new ideas to help her students learn: “It will always be a challenge to keep it going.”

When it comes to the real Harvard, she doesn’t want Alejandra and her classmates to miss out.




The debate


Here’s a look at the research on California’s school intervention programs.

The question

Have the state’s school intervention efforts worked?



The state’s recent reform push began in 1999. Since then, there have been two programs specifically for low-achieving schools. The Immediate Intervention Underperforming Schools Program was funded through the 2004-05 school year. Participating schools received a $50,000 planning grant and then $200 per student per year for up to three years.

Since 2001, the major initiative to help low-achieving schools has been the High-Priority Schools Grant Program, which tries to address shortcomings of the first effort. Schools receive longer funding, get twice as much per student and must adhere to more exact requirements.

The debate

* Report: “Failing Our Future: The Holes in California’s School Accountability System and How to Fix Them” (January 2007)


Conclusion: The state’s two major school intervention programs have spent more than $1.3 billion and made little or no difference in improving academic achievement.

Evidence: For the most part, schools that participated in intervention programs did no better than schools that did not participate.

Quote: Schools “did what they were asked to do, but we’ve not asked them to do much of anything.”

-- Coauthor James S. Lanich


Links: www.cbee.organd html


* Reports: State-funded evaluations of intervention programs (September 2005 and September 2006)

Conclusion: The state’s reform efforts have made a significant positive difference overall. The achievement gap persists. Intervention programs are getting better, with promising results.


Evidence: On state measures, achievement scores overall are up substantially since 1999.

Quote: “From a policy standpoint, it’s more important to find where this did work in some places and why -- and where it didn’t work and why.”

-- Wendy Harris, the state’s assistant superintendent for school improvement

Links: To see links to reports on the first and second interventions, go to



* Report: Crucial Issues in California Education, 2006: Rekindling Reform” (November 2006)

Conclusion: The state’s reform record is mixed. Promising early progress is at risk. Educators need fewer get-tough sanctions and more resources, money that must be spent with better focus and consistency.

Evidence: Test scores are up but with some signs of leveling off and even wider achievement gaps in middle school. Progress in lower grades has not been replicated in upper grades.


Quote: “Rules and penalties hitting many schools don’t motivate educators and students in the long run.” What’s needed is “accountability with crisp incentives for growth, freeing up school principals from layers of regulation and stronger resources overall.”

-- UC Berkeley Professor Bruce Fuller of Policy Analysis for California Education


Source: Times staff reports