College is everywhere at Sonora Elementary

COSTA MESA — Anyone walking around Sonora Elementary School this year would notice the changes.

University flags hang outside classrooms. Teachers and students wear different college T-shirts. Words like graduate, dormitory and dean's list have entered the student lexicon.

College is everywhere.

Sonora was recently accepted into the No Excuses University, a network of elementary, middle and high schools across the U.S. dedicated to exposing students to collegiate symbolism and preparing them for college.

"We drum it into them because the theory of No Excuses University is if you wait until high school to start talking about college, it's too late," said Principal Christine Anderson.

Sonora is one of only two Orange County schools in the network, the other being Killybrooke Elementary.

But being part of the network is more about a philosophy than just a new program, said Anderson. She added that she doesn't think some of her school's families would have talked to their children about college if it weren't for No Excuses.

"It's about a change of thinking," she said. "And really, the philosophy is that all children in elementary school deserve the right to be prepared for any college they choose to attend."

Sonora's new philosophy revolves around telling all students that they are college bound, and having them buy into the idea and take ownership of their education.

"We are excited to have kids believe in themselves that they are college bound starting in kindergarten," said sixth-grade teacher Debra Muniz.

No Excuses doesn't extend to just good grades and going to college. The motto is used in all aspects of school, from being late and not doing homework to student discipline and having poor character.

When students are sent to her office, the first question Anderson asks them is if they are going to college. The second question is if their actions are helping them get a better education and go to college.

The philosophy is kept in the students' minds through visuals of college symbolism.

Sonora's mascot, the Eagle, is now clad is a graduation cap and gown, University of Notre Dame's "Win like a champion" signs are placed around the school, and each classroom has adopted a university and memorized a chant.

"Want to be a winner? Want to be a star? Harvard will take you far, far, far," sang the second-grader of Judith Chambers' class.

Becoming a No Excuses school solidified Sonora's emphasis on giving its students information about exactly where they stand academically and where they need to improve.

"We have one goal to get all of our kids at proficient and advanced at reading, writing and math, which is a very lofty goal," Anderson said. "But I believe that every year that we've raised the bar for ourselves, our kids have done better. They may not make that goal, but they do better than if we hadn't aimed so high."

Each student below grade level is given diagnostic tests to see exactly where he or she is deficient. Those results, along with test scores, are kept in a portfolio for the students.

Teachers individually go over the students' test data with them to set goals and plan on how to reach them. The goal sheets are headed with "future college student's name," "future college goals" and "future career goals."

"I think it's a great idea to tell the kids where they are — and where they're going — to make them a part of their learning," Anderson said.

"I think it makes them aware," she added.

Parents are also involved in No Excuses and are encouraged to take family field trips once a year to a university.

Anderson tells parents they need to attend conferences, back-to-school night and open house; if they don't know English, they need to learn to help their children with school. She says if they don't have a high school diploma, they need to get one and take a class at a community college to be a model for their children.

"Because we've raised the expectations of ourselves and our students, we've also raised the expectations of our parents," she said. "It's really changed the whole culture of our school, from the staff, students, parents — everybody."

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

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