School Performance Goes Beyond School

April 21, 2013

The progress at Campo Bello Elementary School in Phoenix can’t be missed.  The writing is on the walls.

That’s two walls of a teachers’ conference room.  They’re festooned with multi-color sticky notes, two for each student.   Red sticky notes, clustered at the bottom, are bad.  Yellows in the middle are cautionary.  Greens at the top are good.

The visual picture left to right, first grade to sixth grade, shows the same vivid pattern in both math and reading.   Most first graders are reds in the lower left.   The sticky notes then gradually shift upward from one grade to the next, marked particularly by a transformation in third grade.  By sixth grade, most students are greens in the upper right.

This pattern of progress earned Campo Bello an A from the state in 2012.

The miraculous thing about it is that Campo Bello isn’t just a school.  It’s darn near as much a community center and full-service social service agency.  Principal Janice Moore is master educator, master motivator and – legislators, you may want to close your eyes for this – master social worker.

Therein lays a tale about what Thinking Arizona has termed the Education Divide.  Previous education coverage.

On one side of the Divide are well-off schools that tend to perform well. They validate the belief that to improve school performance, all the state needs to do is lay down the law.  On the other side are poor schools such as Campo Bello.  Unlike Campo Bello, most perform poorly.  Their overall record indicates that schools in difficult circumstances cannot achieve what the state wants without more help than the state is willing to give.

Campo Bello is Exhibit A both for the prosecution and for the defense.

In the first instance, Campo Bello is evidence that, yes indeed, a school can rise above its circumstances.  Here’s a disadvantaged school, one of a small minority in 2012, to which the state awarded an A.

That’s a noteworthy achievement, but now comes the dirty little secret the state doesn’t want to acknowledge.  Campo Bello is also evidence that for those in lowly circumstances, school performance involves much more than just their performance as schools.

Take, for instance, Friday mornings at Campo Bello.

As students begin class, “school” is also open to their parents.  They come not for the purpose of education, at least not directly, but to buy shirts, jeans and other garments for themselves and their children at 50 cents or maybe a buck per item.

Campo Bello needs plenty of assistance for this project, although the help doesn’t come from the state.  Thankfully the school belongs to the Paradise Valley Unified School District.  The district, which shouldn’t be confused with the nearby town of the same name, encompasses both the lowest- and highest-income of neighborhoods in an area that stretches from the northeast side of Phoenix into northern-most Scottsdale.  Some of the more fortunate lend a hand to the less fortunate.

La Casa de Cristo volunteer coordinator Sharon Wayne and school parent liaison Miriam Martinez in the Eagle's Nest

Part of the benevolence of parishioners at La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church and parents at well-to-do Wildfire Elementary School is evident in a Campo Bello schoolroom that is named, in a nod to the school mascot, the “Eagle’s Nest.”

If visitors can forget for a moment they’re in a school building, the room looks every bit a clothing store.  An array of apparel is fashionably displayed on circular racks in a scene right out of Target or Dillard’s.  Attendants bustle about as shoppers browse the racks in search of whatever suits their needs.

Never mind that the clothing on the racks is donated, the attendants are volunteers, and most of the shoppers live barely a stone’s throw away.

The Eagle’s Nest serves three purposes.  The revenue, at 50 cents or a dollar an item, buys loose-leaf planners that students use to inform their parents of test dates and homework assignments.  It provides clothes for families who can’t afford visits to Target or Dillard’s.  And as important as any to Moore, it gets parents into the school.

Parental involvement is one of the critical differences that separate disadvantaged schools like Campo Bello from the well-off schools.

Parents at the well-off schools generally can’t do enough for the education of their children, both inside and outside school.   Well-meaning moms and dads reach in to the schools in every way they can.

It’s a far different equation for schools such as Campo Bello.  Parents or other caregivers are so caught up with the problems of life that there’s little time or energy to be education boosters.  That creates the opposite situation.  These schools, rather than having parents reaching in, must reach out to them in every way they can.

In these circumstances, running a successful school isn’t just about educating children.  It’s also about supporting them.

As spring break approached this year, Moore said, “Kids aren’t as happy about that as you’d think. A lot of times we’re their stability. Here they’re in a stable environment regardless of what happens to their parents.”

As she sees it, that means schools also must help, and educate, parents.

Helping Parents However They Can

The Eagle’s Nest is just one of the forms of assistance.  Campo Bello offers evening classes in English, basic computer skills, and parenting. With Title I money from the federal government, Moore has hired two liaisons, one of them a social worker, to provide access to food, clothing and other types of aid.  Parents stand in line to get counseling if, for instance, they’ve lost their jobs or need financial help during the holidays.  Plus, Campo Bello sends 75 students home with a “dinner pack” for the weekends.

Those who believe education should be meted out with a switch will regard most or all of these activities as nonsense. Moore argues instead that they are necessary.  If anything, she would do even more. Her overriding philosophy goes like this:  “The more resources we share, the more successful we are.”

But that’s the question, isn’t it?

Those on one side of the fault line believe strenuously and rather narrowly in accountability.  Lay down the law, and schools will perform.  In their view, education is solely about what happens between teacher and students.  School reforms focus entirely on what happens within the classroom.

Those on the other side believe education is something of a 360-degree experience.  Students are the product of their entire environment . . . their home, their immediate community, as well as their school.  In this view, education is a collective responsibility.  Teachers play a major role, but their efforts need to be enhanced by others.

The importance of this gets overlooked because it happens in the normal course of events in well-off schools.  As a result, school reforms ignore what happens outside the classroom.  Then when those same positive influences aren’t forthcoming from disadvantaged neighborhoods, the state points its finger at the schools.   It’s solely on the schools to somehow make up the gap – or not.

The two views reflect different perspectives, different politics, different cultures.   Those of self-sufficiency versus collective effort.  Father Rule versus Mother Hen.

“We only have the kids six and a half hours a day,” Moore reasons.  “Parents have much more impact.  Why shouldn’t we work collaboratively to provide resources to make it easier for them to help their kids?  We should be setting up parents for success.”

It’s hard to argue with her results, particularly given the difficulties that are involved.

Principal Janice Moore tracks progress on the 'data wall'

Campo Bello is one of just 42 schools – out of 1,462 across the state for which all the comparative data is available – that rise above lowly circumstances to receive an “A” from the state Dept. of Education.   “Lowly” in this case are those schools with more than the median percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.  A more insightful way to grade schools.

The top-performing disadvantaged schools tend not to excel in composite test scores as much as they do in the measures of how much their students have improved.  On that dimension, Campo Bello ranks among the Top 100 of all schools in the state.

In this age of accountability, educators obsess about the progress of students.  At disadvantaged schools, embattled principals and teachers have to obsess even more.   Teachers at Campo Bello, helped along by the recommendations and coaching of a consultant, obsess about how to move each student from a red sticky note to a yellow one and then to a green one.

Doing so is a difficult proposition.  Moore must wisely use the resources available to her.  Teachers are totally tuned into teaching the state standards for each grade level. Teachers learn from, and compete with, each other as they endeavor to move students up the ladder.  When improvement isn’t forthcoming, they will sometimes implement an entirely new approach to teaching a subject.  At all times they go to bat for their students.

The bywords at Campo Bello could well be repetition and encouragement.

Many students don’t learn lessons on the first try.  Teachers use whatever methods they can dream up in their sometimes desperate “interventions” to move them forward.  Moore refers instead to “scoops.”

Scoop 1 is the original lesson.  Scoop 2 is re-teaching the lesson to all who need it.  Scoop 3 is adding an extra push from one of the school’s five Title I specialists.  Scoop 4, for the really slow learners, is special ed.

The staff creates a rah-rah environment to encourage students as much as they can.

Every student with perfect attendance gets a medal, an ice cream sandwich, and a chance to win a bicycle.

Every student who passes the statewide AIMS achievement test gets a moment in the spotlight.  In Campo Bello’s best imitation of the pre-game introductions at a Phoenix Suns basketball game, the lights are darkened at a school-wide assembly.  With a drum roll, each successful student steps into the spotlight to get a medal.

Many honorees wear their past medal or medals as lucky charms when they’re taking subsequent AIMS tests.  Moore reports they give the hardware hanging around their necks a little rub each time they need extra inspiration.

Lessons Learned

Right now the state could also use a little extra inspiration.

We should begin by recognizing that school performance varies with socio-economic circumstances.  Then we can ask ourselves a multiple-choice question about how Campo Bello manages to beat the odds.  A) Does it do so simply because of its teachers’ efforts in the classroom?  B) Or is it because of the school’s equally dedicated efforts outside the classroom?  C) Or is it a combination of the two?

This is not to suggest that the answer to education is welfare.  It does suggest that if education is a collective responsibility, we as a state have to find the method for engaging all parents and all communities.

The stakes are high.  One of the primary reasons that Arizona falls below the national Education Divide is that so many of our students, schools and school districts are like Campo Bello in their lowly socio-economic circumstances.

As a result, education in the state will rise or fall depending on the approach we take to the question.  We should give our badge of honor a little rub before we answer.

– Richard Gilman



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