The Turnaround Job
How McKinley Elementary Beat No Child Left Behind
Thursday, May 31, 2012
One of the best views of Santa Barbara can be seen from the balcony of the McKinley Elementary School library. Look ahead, and you see the foothills spread out in a mosaic of red-tile roofs dotting the Riviera. Look down, however, below your feet, and you see a jumble of colorless, high-density apartment houses stacked on top of each other, satellite dishes jutting out like prosthetics. Those apartments make up Santa Barbara’s poorest neighborhood, the lower Westside, and that is where most of McKinley’s students live. Every morning, you can see the young children heading “up the hill” to go to school.
The 80-year-old, stately, arcaded building, one of the most beautiful in the district, sits on a picturesque perch across the street from Santa Barbara City College. Originally intended to serve the pleasant, middle-class neighborhoods on the Mesa, McKinley is now attended by few if any of the children living in those homes. Today, 98 percent of the students are Hispanic, and 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Brooks, who grew up on the Mesa and attended McKinley when it was “lily-white,” explained, “Now I have kids who have never held a pair of scissors and don’t know how to hold a book.”
With such a challenging demographic, it’s no wonder that in the 2004-05 school year, McKinley fell into Program Improvement (PI), the federal designation for underperforming schools. The PI label is a bit like quicksand. Every year, more schools get caught up in it, but few can ever escape. In the 10 years since the No Child Left Behind legislation went into effect and troubled schools began to be identified as PI, only one in Santa Barbara County — Isla Vista Elementary — had ever been able to remove the stigma. Currently seven elementary schools of the 13 in the district have been declared PI. But something surprising happened. When tests scores were released this fall, the California Department of Education informed McKinley that its students had improved so much that it was no longer categorized as PI. While nobody was looking, the school had turned itself around.
Much of the credit for this unexpected accomplishment has gone to McKinley’s principal, Emilio Handall. As a senior at UCLA, Handall volunteered at the East L.A. high school where the hero of the film Stand and Deliver, Jaime Escalante, taught calculus. There, Handall became convinced that teachers were still ignoring Latino students’ true potential. Fueled with a sense of mission, Handall has spent the better part of his 13 years in education developing methods that work effectively with a Latino student body. Though he brought this conviction to McKinley, what really made the school a success was not just one principal who had something to prove, but teachers who rolled up their sleeves and worked very hard.
By Paul Wellman
Anne Chenowith takes a turn at a daylong literacy celebration and read-in that McKinley students earned with outstanding citizenship and academic progress.
Handall had not been a good student when growing up in Carpinteria. His home life wasn’t ideal, and school was not a comfortable place for him, especially because there were no Latino teachers. But in high school, he bonded with his football coach and math teacher Lou Panizzon, who grew up poor but made something of himself. (Today, Panizzon is a member of the Carpinteria school board.) A Vietnam vet, Panizzon inspired the young Handall to join the army. “For me,” recalled Handall — “college was like Disneyland. … That’s not where I belonged.”
Principal Emilio Handall, 41, stressed that McKinley’s students need teachers with “a sense of urgency.” He has been promoted to the district office.
Handall finally did get a college degree, and after working as a school substitute, he decided to pursue a teaching credential. He felt he could make the most difference on the elementary level because grade schools employed so few Hispanic male teachers. And that’s where he began, first in Oxnard, where he had success as a teacher. But later in Port Hueneme, when he advanced into administration, he began to find it was more difficult changing an entire school culture. Since then, he has learned that to make significant change, the problem must be approached from two directions: Both the parents and the teachers have to make substantial shifts in their current thinking. The whole school and all the families must work together to make academic culture a vital factor in the life of the child.
First, Hispanic families have to be familiarized with how American schools work and what is expected of both parent and student. At McKinley, Handall implemented programs that were able to accomplish both. To help the families, he brought to the school two effective initiatives with substantial funding from regional nonprofits, particularly the J.S. Bower Foundation: AVANCE, a Texas-based program that has had great success helping parents prepare their infants and toddlers for kindergarten, and Padres Adelante, which helps parents navigate the American educational system.
Mirabel Canales, mother of two students and Adelante volunteer, believes these programs have been remarkably helpful for the parent body. Parents are already learning about practical matters essential to their children’s future, such as how the college application process works. Illustrating this shift, the hallways at McKinley are now lined with university pennants, and longtime teacher Deidre Bluitt said, “The climate’s changed. Kids want to go to college.”
Handall’s next task was to bring his teachers together as a team to hone more effective classroom techniques.
By Paul Wellman
Fifth graders learned fractions by severing their arms, only virtually of course.
Changing a teaching culture isn’t always smooth sailing, though. And at first, Handall attracted scrutiny from the union and even drove off some teachers. One of his goals, however, was to persuade those who stayed to work as a team.
Take, for instance, the 1st grade instructors whose kids come in barely literate and — if McKinley’s educators reach their goal — leave reading 80 words per minute. (The state standard is 60 words per minute.) At McKinley, where 86 percent of the students are English-language learners, that is a tall order.
This was the challenge a group of 1st grade teachers discussed one March morning as they sat in a semicircle on children’s tiny chairs. In overwrought bureaucratese, this meeting is called a Professional Learning Community (PLC). The idea behind it is that teachers work as a team responsible for every student in their grade, not just those in their own classrooms. Thus, when they meet, teachers are expected to calibrate their lessons, making sure that their students are all on the same page. This is fairly standard practice in the district now, but it wasn’t when Handall came on in 2008. In an act of scheduling jujitsu, he freed up one-and-a-half hours every week so that all the teachers from each grade level could meet during a school day as a team.
It’s this sort of rigorous data collection that has played a large role in bringing McKinley’s students up to grade level. This isn’t to say that nothing had changed inside of the classroom. As Handall, who loves to turn a metaphor, put it, McKinley was filled with “islands of excellence” when he arrived, and he wanted them to form a “Pangaea.” In other words, it was a free-for-all in which each teacher did his or her own thing. Handall was determined to install an overarching educational theory.
Fifth grade teacher Heather Young.