Belle Air making educational stridesBy Nanette Asimov
Like many California schools, Belle Aire Elementary in San Bruno has a lot of kids learning to speak English. It has more than its share of students from poor families, and not many whose parents went to college.
But unlike most schools, Belle Aire's scores on the latest California Standards Test went up dramatically this year -- as did those of its poor kids, who are 68 percent of enrollment.
All Bay Area results are shown on the accompanying charts.
"I am very pleased," Principal Angela Addiego said of Belle Aire's triumph. "I have one of the best faculties in California."
Her teachers come from the same pool of instructors as those at other schools. But a close look at why Belle Aire children succeeded against the odds reveals that their teachers do things differently.
Their task, like that of all teachers these days, has shifted from the general goal of producing well-educated students to a mandate to coax every child -- rich and poor -- to improve test scores each year.
And the California Standards Test is no bonehead exam. Its questions are derived from a long list of academic expectations, called standards, that the state has set for every grade and subject.
"They are very challenging," state Superintendent Jack O'Connell said when he announced the latest test results this week. He said he recently spoke to a group of Rotarians and heard they were going to criticize the test. So he brought along some test questions for them to try.
"They didn't do very well," O'Connell chuckled.
After three years of improvement, California students didn't do very well this year, either.
Nearly 4.8 million students in grades 2 through 11 took the test last spring. In nearly every grade and subject, proficiency either slipped, stayed the same, or crept up by an insignificant amount.
The brightest spot was fifth-grade students, who improved by a healthy margin, increasing proficiency on the English test by 4 percentage points to 40 percent.
Statewide, 36 percent of students were proficient in English, up from 35 percent. In math, proficiency inched up from 41 to 42 percent of students in grades 2 through 7. Older students slipped in algebra and geometry.
But at Belle Air, students improved math proficiency by 9 points to 43 percent -- higher than the state average. Proficiency on the English test rose by 6 points to 34 percent. Low-income students raised their math proficiency by 8 points to 40 percent and improved on the English portion by 6 points to 29 percent.
Addiego was not surprised. When she became principal in 1996, rowdy students and a scattershot curriculum ruled. Things changed with the help of a group called the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, whose function is to help close the achievement gap between rich and poor.
Today, here is what Belle Aire does that most schools do not:
- Curriculum is consistent throughout the school.
- Teachers act as a team, working together like doctors to diagnose each student's needs.
- Students take diagnostic tests weekly. Teachers use the results to decide what each child needs.
- Each child has a learning plan; teachers welcome coaching.
- The staff meets weekly to tackle problems, study new research together, and decide what methods to abandon or adopt.
- Good attendance and behavior are encouraged by publicly rewarding one student each week.
"This is a scientific way of looking at school reform," Addiego said.
But for the principal, that's only half of the formula.
"You have to make human connections -- teachers with teachers, with myself, with students and parents," she said. "Everyone wants to be protected and safe and loved. All schools need to pay attention to that."
To get 2004 STAR test results for any California school, go to http://sfgate.greatschools.net/catestscores.
Copyright ©2004 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 08/19/2004.