With restructuring, uneasiness at Belle AirBy Martin Ricard
With his students sitting attentively on a checkered rug made of primary colors in a corner of the classroom, kindergarten teacher George Ellis took a seat on his blue chair and began his lesson for the day-the same way he does pretty much every day.
He pulled out a flash card with the name Walter on it, with all the letters spelled out in black except for the a and e, which were in red. Ellis then put his hand over the last half of the word, asking the class to sound out what they saw while clapping.
"Wal," all the kids said, clapping once.
Ellis moved his hand over and asked the students to sound out the other part of the word.
"Ter," they said, clapping once again.
This is mostly how the rest of the lesson would continue for the day. Only Ellis's class isn't like most classes in the city. In fact, Belle Air Elementary School isn't like most schools in the city.
The school's population is 75 percent Latino, and two-thirds of the school's students are learning English as a second language-the highest proportion in the San Bruno Park School District. This means that in addition to teaching kids syllables, Ellis's lesson for the day, he had to teach his students their vowels-the a and e spelled out in red-and how to use the words in a complete sentence, something that most of his students are still struggling to learn.
This is a common situation at Belle Air as the school prepares to be restructured next year. Despite seeing its API score increase by 31 points in the latest statewide test results, Belle Air still moved to the next phase of Program Improvement because the English language learners at the school scored below expectations in the English and language arts section of the state test scores.
More involvement from district expected
The result is that the school district will now get more involved in the oversight of the school and prepare a restructuring plan for the school that could involve firing staff, turning it into a charter school or having an outside management team take over school operations.
Dr. David Hutt, the district's superintendent, said he isn't leaning toward any particular option right now. That decision will eventually be made collectively by a team of people organized by the district, he said, including Hutt, district board President Kevin Martinez, a former teacher and principal, and two Belle Air parents. Whatever decision is made, Hutt said, it will be one that takes into consideration what is best for the entire school.
For those at Belle Air, the sentiment is wariness. Most of the staff feel they've been exceeding expectations for the last several years but that no one has been noticing, not even those at the district office.
For now, their main focus remains on trying to keep morale high while planning for the inevitable.
Despite setbacks, school tries to make strides
Belle Air Principal Claire Beltrami said she feels the school's predicament is a little unfair, primarily because she inherited the school when it was already two years into PI (under No Child Left Behind, a school typically has three years to move out of PI before corrective action is taken). The school's test scores were invalidated two years before she arrived in 2007 because the school didn't meet the participation rate set by the state. The tests were allowed to be read to students in special education, which discounted the school's overall numbers for how many students took the tests.
However, Beltrami said, the school has been making a number of strides ever since she got on board, including having more professional development training for staff, monitoring test data for students falling behind and hiring a literacy coach.
Unfortunately, all of those efforts don't seem to have made a difference where it counts: raising the test scores past a certain level in English and language arts for the school's students who are non-native English speakers.
"It's sad that restructuring is going to take place because we've got good momentum going," Beltrami said.
No child left behind?
Meanwhile, teachers like Ellis are juggling more students-he now has 31 students in his kindergarten class as opposed to 26 the year before, and all but three are learning English. Teachers are also trying to tweak their lessons plans more to make sure their students have the best chances of succeeding.
What this often means for Ellis is that he is coupling subjects in his lesson plan with an extra English lesson. If the class is supposed to be learning about math for the day, for example, he teaches the kids how to use their verbs. If they're learning about animals, he takes the extra time to get pictures of the animals to help reinforce the point.
This is all time-consuming, Ellis explained, but he does it because of his passion for the craft.
On the other hand, Ellis said, he, like most public school teachers, have to deal with another, sometime conflicting, reality: that, no matter how good a job he does with his students, it's always going to be difficult to save them all because expectations are often set too high.
"I definitely hope we're going to meet our test scores," Ellis said, looking toward next year. "At the same time, those expectations are unrealistic. There's always going to be those students who are not going to rise to that level."
Copyright ©2010 San Bruno Patch. Published 11/22/2010.