No monkey business: Despite several straight years of less-than-thrilling test scores, things are looking up at Harding Elementary School as students and teachers alike prepare for a major academic shift next year.
Against Long Odds, Harding School Revamps, Restructures, and Re-imagines its Future
Thursday, June 4, 2009
As of this week, school’s out for summer in the Santa Barbara School Districts.
But while the sun-soaked months of June, July, and August will once again provide a much-needed respite from the grind of education for teachers and students alike, things won’t be quite so “livin’ easy” for the faculty and staff of Harding Elementary School on Santa Barbara’s Westside. Mired in flat-lined, far-from-proficient test results and facing federal sanctions for the fourth straight year from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program-President George W. Bush’s widely despised, test-score-dependent public education plan-the school has no choice but to drastically overhaul its approach to educating children. And fast.
For good or bad, by the time kids return to the classrooms at 1625 Robbins Street in late August, the school -led by polarizing principal Dr. Sally Kingston-will be both philosophically and structurally different. When the school bell rings, the incoming students will find themselves the subjects of a grand teaching adventure, with their classrooms as educational “labs,” more individual attention from their instructors, and an army of student-teachers from UCSB on hand to help. The credentialed staff teachers, meanwhile, will be facing their own challenges: Nearly half of them will be teaching a new grade and every one of them, whether they like it or not, will be facilitating an internationally developed paradigm shift in their approach to the curriculum as well as taking part in an innovative-though labor-intensive-weekly assessment of each student’s progress.
In short, as Kate Parker-president of the S.B. School Board, which unanimously supported the new Harding vision earlier this spring-put it recently, “It exciting, it’s dramatic, and it is going to be a radical change.”
By Paul Wellman
A world of colors: As hard-hit as any S.B. school by the nastiness of “white flight,” Harding is hoping that scenes like this one-preschoolers Salvador Dorantes and Jackie Grigor having fun while learning-will continue to blossom after a new restructuring plan takes hold next year.
School Yard SnapShot
Founded in 1927, Harding is Santa Barbara’s oldest elementary school. But in its 82-year history, times may have never been harder than now for the nearly 580-student school that teaches preschool up through 6th grade. As hard hit by “white flight” as any school in the district, Harding has been struggling to maintain any shred of positive momentum in recent years. There’ve been leadership changes, the campus has been plagued by crime and vandalism, test scores have slipped well below both state and district averages, suspensions have been among the highest around, the PTA has disbanded, and the racism-loaded reality of being abandoned by families that live within walking distance of the school’s front doors have all contributed to the storm cloud that’s hanging over Harding’s culture.
By the numbers, as it stands today, Harding is nearly 95-percent Hispanic, more than 90-percent economically disadvantaged, and more than 70 percent of its pupils are considered English-as-second-language learners. Add to that an annual Academic Performance Index, based on state-standardized tests, that for years has been well below other California elementary schools with similar demographics, and you get one of Santa Barbara School District’s seven “Program Improvement” schools as mandated by NCLB. “The school has just been going nowhere for years,” said Parker. “And that is simply not fair for the students. Something has to give.”
Harding preschoolers Haven Wennerstrom & Pearl Stadler
When a school enters its fourth year of NCLB sanctions, as Harding is about to do, one of four things must happen: (1) It must close and reopen as a charter school; (2) the district must replace most, if not all, of its staff, including the principal; (3) an outside entity must be contracted to run the show; or (4) the school must undergo a drastic redesign. On April 28, the Santa Barbara School Board approved the last, a two-pronged approach that partners Harding with UCSB’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education while also implementing an International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years program for all the school’s students, which, if succcessful, would make Harding the South Coast’s first IB World School. (It should be noted, however, that Dos Pueblos High School has operated a successful IB school-within-a-school program since 1997.)
It is, according to Principal Kingston, “nothing short of a whole-school reform.” And, according to UCSB’s Gevirtz School Dean Jane Conoley, who is involved intimately in the revamp, it’s rather revolutionary for a suffering school. Conoley explained, “This is something you would typically see started in a community of rich white kids.”
“Going IB,” as they say, is an ambitious, genre-bending approach to education. Developed in Switzerland in the late 1960s, the program-which traditionally has been used for high school kids and only in recent years was adapted for younger students-aims to develop globally minded citizens via an inquiry-based classroom. In general, it’s not about teaching specific lessons in the traditional sense, but instead is focused on getting students interested in a subject and prompting them to ask questions so they discover the lessons on their own. Explained Kingston, “It is a lot more asking than telling.”
Specifically, the curriculum works to transcend the borders of such traditional subjects as math, science, social studies, and reading by making six “themes” of learning paramount to all students, no matter what subject or grade they are in: (1) who we are; (2) where we are in time and place; (3) how we express ourselves; (4) how the world works; (5) how we organize ourselves; and (6) how we share the planet. Furthermore, the program requires extensive and deliberate teacher cooperation, both horizontally-so that a 5th grader’s science class will have more in common with her history class each day-and vertically-so that an incoming 4th grader will pick up where he left off in 3rd grade. The program is designed to prevent needless overlap and give students more continuity throughout their days and years. A final calling card of the IB program is a mandatory foreign language component for all students, regardless of achievement levels.
By Paul Wellman
Visionary or dictator? Principal Sally Kingston, pictured in her office, has ruffled more than a few feathers since taking the helm at Harding four years ago. Only time will tell if her ambitious and innovative designs will help the embattled school bounce back or simply set it back.
To that end, for the past two summers, she has been facilitating informal “summer institutes” for Harding teachers that have focused specifically on integrating curriculum and continuation. And, falling in step with the globally conscious goals of IB, Harding recently has ramped up its recycling efforts, started an organic and zero-waste cafeteria, buffed out the technology department, and secured funding for a large-scale garden to be planted later this summer. As a result, Lindsay sees the hopeful IB transition as more of an evolution to something that Harding already has started rather than a world-changing overhaul. “It really just gives us the structure to pull everything together,” she explained.