Op-Ed: How schools succeed

Index-Tribune editor David Bolling accurately points out in his Sept. 6 editorial, “El Verano, the school with the lowest API score, has the highest percentage of both economically disadvantaged and English-language learner students” and he is absolutely correct in stating that, as a district and as a community, we must address the demographic profiles of our school populations, which is challenging work.

I am convinced that, step-by-step, we are making progress toward meeting the needs of all students in the district through rigorous classroom instruction and innovative program implementation, and this is exemplified by the work taking place at El Verano School itself.

El Verano School is a leader in innovative programs that engage both children and families. More than four years ago, El Verano School actively pursued preschool opportunities for its students and now has two preschool classes offering the very best intervention we have for our youngest learners. Students entering kindergarten are more prepared than ever to learn, while parents better understand how to support their children in school. The El Sistema-based music program, Valley Vibes Orchestra, has also found a home at El Verano School, teaching students music as well as the rigors of learning, while deeply engaging parents in their school community.

El Verano School is where the Exploratorium’s Integrated English Language Development and Science Program began. Because of the effort of the El Verano School community, a very competitive Investing In Innovations grant was awarded by the federal government to the school district and the Exploratorium, totaling more than $3.2 million. This work continues today at all our elementary schools.

District wide, since the adoption of this program, the percentage of students who score at the Advanced or Proficient Level on the California Standards Test (CST) in fifth-grade science has increased. This is true for both “English Only” (EO) and “English Learner” (EL) students. Based on the 2012 STAR results, the percentage of EL students at advanced or proficient levels increased from 20 percent to 32 percent. More than 90 percent of our EO students now score advanced or proficient.

We still have a long way to go to close the gap between the performance of EL and EO students, but we are on the right track.

Our progress has not gone unnoticed. Teachers at El Verano are being recognized beyond our own district. Just this past year, two El Verano School teachers received the prestigious Circle of Excellence Award at Sonoma State University. El Verano teachers have also been given the Amgen Award for Excellence in Science Teaching, the President’s Environmental Youth Award, and numerous teacher of the year recognitions.

Schools succeed when the following factors are in place: Principal leadership, effective teachers, clear student outcomes, parent engagement and community support – the five pillars of our strategic plan.

El Verano School exemplifies strengths in each of these pillars, including strong principal leadership from Maite Iturri. Ms. Iturri has rallied her staff to give above and beyond what is required by any educator to meet the needs of their students. She has brought in education experts who regularly work with her staff on improving their classroom expertise. Teachers have embraced Common Core State Standards and participate in professional development opportunities to hone their craft.

El Verano parents are some of the most active in the district in finding creative ways to prepare their children for college and career options.

Finally, the community-at-large has engaged with El Verano School through programs such as the Schools of Hope First Grade Tutoring Program and the Todd Trust Team-funded Third Grade Summer Reading Academy.

While I’ve shared the successes of El Verano School, the same could be said for each and every school in our Valley. Each school brings together a wealth of resources for its students and families. I look forward to every school accepting the Index-Tribune’s open invitation to share their stories, as Dunbar principal Melanie Blake did just this week on the paper’s Our Schools Page.

The demographic shifts addressed in David Bolling’s editorial can pose difficult challenges for any school district. We also know that more meaningful standardized tests are on the horizon, with Smarter Balanced assessments. But our ability to address these issues is improving year-by-year and day-by-day.

We are focused on what really matters for making progress. It matters that principals set a school-wide culture of engagement and success. It matters that teachers are given the tools they need to reach the range of learners they have in their classrooms. It matters that parents understand what is expected of their children and that they participate in their children’s education from a young age. And, it makes a huge difference when a community steps in to support all of these efforts..

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  Louann Carlomagno is a former classroom teacher and the superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.