• IDRA Newsletter • June- July 1997
Editor’s note: Mary Hull Elementary School in San Antonio is one of 262 schools nationwide that has been named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. The high poverty, high minority school has seen dramatic improvements over the last four years. In 1993, the Texas Education Agency warned the school that if significant improvements were not made, the school would be closed. Led by principal Roberto Zarate, MA, staff members were already collaborating to reform the school even before the warning. As a result, students at Mary Hull last year increased their TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) passing rates to 74 percent in math and 75 percent in reading. In an interview by IDRA staff member, Christie L. Goodman, APR (C.G.), Mr. Zarate (R.Z.) describes how the school improved so dramatically. The following is the text of that conversation, which took place just before the national awards were announced.
C.G.: Why don’t we start off with you describing the school and the students here?
R.Z.: There are 522 students at Mary Hull this year, with grade levels from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Our school is approximately 92 percent minority, predominately Hispanic. About 88 percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunches.
We have been working on many goals, and a major one is parental involvement. We are very proud of our parental involvement program. Extremely high participation numbers have shown us that our parents care and have a lot of pride in the school.
Mary Hull is very technologically oriented. We have at least three computers in every classroom, and are about to be networked.
We are in a process of redefining the school overall. When I first became principal here, this school was basically a remedial school. It was very low-achieving. Students were not attaining the type of success that they, their parents and their teachers wanted. Everything was based on a remedial model. Soon after I started, we accelerated the curriculum in order to challenge the students. Staff members and teachers decided to reject the status quo instead of perpetuating it. We created new methods to replace the old ways of learning.
For example, one of the traditional methods of instruction through Title I is to hire reading specialists to tutor the students. Instead, we developed and implemented a technology lab, where students are able to utilize higher thinking skills and work interactively in a sort of logic problem-solving environment. For instance in math, instead of requiring students to practice routine math operations over and over, we challenge the student’s ability to think by requiring him or her to use different processes to reach solutions. In doing this, the student’s level of intelligence and ability to interact with everyday math increases. So far, this method has proven to be very successful.
In reading also, instead of constantly hammering away at isolated skills, we decided to implement a balanced reading program. Teachers use a lot of stories and fairy tales in elementary school, and that is wonderful because children need that. But children also need the expository instruction that teaches them to read for information, to retrieve information, and so on. We also incorporated phonics into our reading programs. We found that many of the problems resulted from the children having a lack of decoding skills, not having the proper skills to attack words, sound them out and so on. With the added attention to phonics, we have a nice balance now. Our bilingual program works in a similar manner. A substantial part of the bilingual program deals with literature of all genres, and it has incorporated a strong phonetics program. Basically, Mary Hull re-tooled everything and raised its expectations. The result has been all the awards we have received this year.
C.G.: What are those awards?
R.Z.: First we were designated as a “recognized” school in the state of Texas. With the accountability system that Texas has through TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills] testing, there are four levels a school can reach. The two highest are “recognized” and “exemplary.” If all of your students – including all of your subgroups like Hispanics, Blacks and economically disadvantaged students – score above the 70th percentile on the test, your school is considered a “recognized” school. Mary Hull achieved this last year, which was a big departure from where we were about five years ago. Then we were at about 19 percent mastery in math and 30 percent mastery in reading. So we have gained 40 or 50 points from where we were before. Last year our whole school was at 74 percent mastery both in reading and math. I realize that 74 percent mastery does not sound real exciting to schools that are scoring in the 90s and 80s, but for us this increase marks a huge improvement achieved in little time and with a lot of determination.
Then we were designated as a Title I commended school, which means that the service delivery to Title I children is exceptional. The Texas Education Agency awarded us this distinction based on our TAAS scores.
Not long after that we got involved with the Blue Ribbon campaign. Every school that has any kind of achievement to document is encouraged to send in an application to the Texas Education Agency [TEA]. Our district suggested that we submit an application, along with six other schools in the Northside school district. TEA selected 28 elementary schools throughout the state, and we were one of them. We were the only one selected in San Antonio and South Texas. After receiving that award at the state level, TEA sent the application to the US Department of Education to be judged along with a pool of over 500 national applicants. From this pool, a national panel selected about 300 schools for visitations. The national panel visited our school in April, and now we are expecting notification any minute. If we are selected, we will be recognized as a national school of excellence in the Blue Ribbon program, and we will travel to Washington to receive our award from President Clinton. It is real exciting.
C.G.: How do you create high expectations for your students?
R.Z.: That is a very difficult question. I think what you need to do is stop judging and making excuses. For instance, if you have a group of students who are from a low-income environment and have all the demographic factors working against them, you do not say, “These kids cannot do it so I am going to dumb down the curriculum.” You consciously have to say, “There is a challenge here, and I have got a lot of work to do. I am going to make sure I give you guys more because you are already behind.” You have to give these students a variety of experiences, stimulation, inspiration and motivation instead of saying, “I know these kids cannot do it, I will just sit here and shoot the curriculum to them and if they make it, fine, if they do not, well what can you expect from this kind of kid.” This “sitting back with low expectations” is a common syndrome in schools like Mary Hull, but it is not what we are doing here now.
Another way to create high expectations is to add excitement to what they are doing. If you think this is just a job and you clock-in at 7:30 and leave at 4:00, you are not going to get much out of it. And other people and students are going to pick up on that signal. But if the school is vibrant, exciting, and there is always a spirit of renewal and contemplation, then you are going to get a lot of positive things out of it.
I have a third grade section right now that is very low in terms of achievement. The students are having trouble with their math and reading. We have marshaled as many resources as we can to that grade level to assist those teachers and reduce the teacher/pupil ratio. Once you do that, you have won it all. But when you fail to provide any assistance and simply keep the ratios at the same levels, then you end up with a teacher who is very frustrated and a class that is not productive. So we have worked very hard to develop a team feeling. When you do that, the expectation level goes up.
C.G.: How do you address the quality of teaching?
R.Z.: We allow the teachers to make decisions about what we are going to teach. Once they become committed to it, then the quality is there. We also value teamwork. Teachers work with each other to develop better units and to continue evolving. An evaluation system comprises one component of the teamwork system, but a larger issue is staff development – trusting each other and believing in creativity. A lot of people do not believe in creativity. They think it is just a flash in the pan. It is not. It is vital to achieving the results we are having. You will see all kinds of creativity on our campus.
C.G.: How have you brought resources to bear?
R.Z.: Well, you do not need a lot of resources. I understand that computers and software will cost money, and we have put those resources in good places. But the teachers are the key, not resources. If their attitudes are, “I am going to do the best I can, I am going to be creative, I am going to be caring, and I am going to have high expectations,” then you do not need a lot of resources. A lot of times it is the teacher’s enthusiasm and ability to carry the day that is vital. I am more concerned about what we do with what we have and how we maximize that.
Another key factor in maximizing resources is staying focused and maintaining specific goals. If someone comes in with a request that is not based on our goals, we are not going to consider it very seriously. I do not provide sole approval either. For example, one of my teachers brought a proposal to buy some new reading material to our school advisory team which is comprised of parents, myself, teachers and community members. The teacher developed and presented a rationale for the proposal, the advisory team approved the proposal, and now we are looking for ways to raise the needed money. It is that kind of involvement and reciprocity that is important here.
C.G.: You mentioned the school advisory team. Tell me about that.
R.Z.: The state requires all schools to set up a school advisory team, and the team has turned out to be a viable tool at our campus. I serve as the chairman of the team, along with elected teachers to represent all disciplines, four parents and two community members. The advisory team sets the organizational tone for the school. We discuss budgets, set priorities, establish goals and determine activities. There have been other suggestions that we have brought to them, and they have said no because they did not fit our goals. The advisory team at Mary Hull is a decision-making group that remains very strong and viable.
C.G.: Are there other examples of shared decision making?
R.Z.: We have day-long collaboration meetings. In these meetings, for instance, we will discuss that a certain student is having a problem in the classroom. Every teacher who affects that student sits down to discuss the student’s problem. So instead of each classroom teacher having to deal with it by themselves, they receive input from each other. Before you know it, a plan of action is determined and there is a lot of communication between the staff in terms of that particular child. During our collaboration meetings, we review a whole list of children to see how they are doing.
We also have team leaders who come together from each grade level and meet with me about everyday operational decisions and concerns. Each team leader has autonomy with his or her own team. For example, the first grade team leader meets with the first grade team and they make decisions about their schedule, trips, curricula and anything else that is happening. I do not get involved in the process other than to listen and make sure the decisions are within our goal structure.
I allot each grade-level team a set amount of money to spend in any manner they decide – which is unusual because in most cases the principal maintains control over such decisions. I do not believe in that. To me, teacher empowerment is critical, especially in an environment like this. If I am in a school where the population is mostly upper- or middle-class families, the students come equipped with a lot of learning, and you do not have to work as hard. Teachers here at Mary Hull have to cover more ground within each year. So in order for teachers to feel that they have got the power to make that type of change, you have got to give them that power. We are going to have a retreat next month, and they will formulate our approach for next year. But that will come from the teachers, it will not come from me.
C.G.: Tell me more about how you are involving families and parents.
R.Z.: It is real tough to involve families at this level because the parents are working. Some of my parents are working two jobs, so you do not see the “little ladies” running around with aprons making things for teachers or doing things for the principal and his office staff. Every once in a while we will get a mother who can dedicate that kind of time. On special days here when we have a certain activity planned, you will see a lot of parents helping out teachers and working in classrooms for brief periods of time, the time that they can give us. We have had special things like Family Math nights and Family Literacy nights, where there are standing room only crowds. We have also had the dies y seis de septiembre and cinco de mayo celebrations, where every parent who we have asked to come up here has come and dedicated a lot of time.
The thing we ask of them that is more important is to take part in their child’s daily homework and what is happening at school. We send home things like what our “right choice objective” of the week is, which is our discipline program. Parents also get folders every day discussing student progress, homework or related issues, and we ask the parents to sit down and review the material with their child. We want them to know what is happening with their child at school.
We also have tried to help our parents become more literate. We have the Even Start program on campus, and through that the parents can come up here and take GED [General Education Diploma], ESL [English as a second language] or computer classes during the week. Then we have the Fast Family Program, an eight-week program that helps to build stronger family networks that tie into the school. We have had more than 60 families complete the program. When you multiply that by at least two children per family, we have affected more than 120 kids and a lot of aunts, uncles and grandparents. It has really made a difference here in the tone of the school.
In terms of the GED program, for example, one of our moms just graduated, and she is already attending nursing school. We have another mom who earned her GED and is going to beauty college. She plans to start her own business. So we are starting to get some success stories out of the program. The most exciting thing to see is when they come in for the computer classes. Those classes are not about how to use a computer, they are literacy classes. They have to do with reading and writing and keyboarding, so the parents are becoming more literate.
The kids see their parents up here at school all the time learning – not volunteering – but learning. And so it clicks for them, and they say, “Well, hey, if Momma wants to learn, I am going to learn.” The kids settle down and get serious about learning, and then they achieve positive results.
C.G.: What are some other ways that you have changed the curriculum?
R.Z.: We did a math alignment. We talked to each other to see what each grade level was doing in math. For instance, the first grade would talk to kindergarten and then turn around and talk to the second grade, and the second grade would talk to the third grade, and so on and so forth. We found out that we had gaps and had made assumptions about what we were teaching. We were teaching some things too much and some things not enough. So we aligned our curriculum and got a staff development program to go along with that.
In reading, we realized that, based on disaggregating our test data, we had some problems (everybody does) with main ideas and sequencing. As a result, we worked on units with those topics.
We also found out that comprehension was our main problem. So we took all the comprehension skills and identified teaching strategies that would promote the learning of that particular skill. For instance, we are using KWL (a process where kids take what they know, what they want to know and what they learned), with kindergarten through fifth grade students. If you are going to use KWL for comprehension, then you need to use it in all grade levels.
We also have a process called SQ3R that involves taking a reading sample apart and analyzing it for comprehension. Everybody in our school from second grade to fifth grade knows that method. They know exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. It is a thinking process that they can apply not only now but later. One of our teachers is trying to become a bilingual teacher and had to take her exit exam the other day. She said, “I used the SQ3R, and it works!” So, it is having other benefits.
The strategies are valid and they are lifelong. If we can get those strategies built into our students’ minds, they are going to be thinkers, and they are not going to be just sitting there waiting to have content dumped on them at the secondary level. They will be able to take the content, organize it, take it apart and find whatever the teacher wants them to find.
So we have aligned the curriculum, developed consistency in application, and introduced strategies that the kids can use, not only for testing, but for thinking. That, again, has been very successful for us.
C.G.: What would you say to schools that are trying to think of ways to become high performing, particularly high poverty schools?
R.Z.: Get excited about what you are doing. And let the teachers take the lead. I do not know of any school that will move unless the teachers are working together, making decisions and feeling like they have ownership of whatever the conditions are. My role here is to be a giant cheerleader and to try to stay a little ahead of the teachers in terms of new methodology, etc., and to try to be astute in terms of when we are doing too much and when we are not doing enough. A lot of schools try to do too much sometimes. They just keep adding things instead of taking what they have, examining it and restructuring like we did. So, if the teachers can examine and restructure, and if the teachers can feel like it is their plan and not just the principal’s plan, or the central office’s plan, or the state’s plan, then they are going to be more effective and committed to make it happen.
The other issue, too, is that we have got to quit judging. It is very easy for me to pick you apart as a human being, while I am sitting here with all of these faults of my own. We cannot do that. All judging does is destroy whatever positive element there is on the campus. So instead of wondering why your teammate is doing something, you have got to look at what she is producing. If her result is positive, then that is her style, and you have got to let that happen. And we have to quit judging the parents. Their condition has nothing to do with your ability to teach those kids. Also, when those kids come to school, their condition has nothing to do with what you are going to teach them. You have got to quit judging and just do your job, do it to the best of your ability, be creative and quit suffering. A lot of teachers working in schools like ours “suffer” a lot. They say things like, “Oh I wish I could teach kids that can learn to read, and if I wanted to talk about Shakespeare they would not go, ‘Huh?'” If your students do not know about Shakespeare, expose them to it.
We have a benefactor who offered to take us to see the musical My Fair Lady. As soon as I mentioned the offer, some of the staff said, “There is no way. These kids are not used to this, it is just not going to happen.” But my staff rented the video, showed the video, discussed the story line and listened to the music enough so that by the time the kids got to the theater, they were eager to see the show because they had it memorized. The children sat for three hours, all of them – third, fourth and fifth graders – three hours without moving or begging to go to the bathroom. They sat through a beautiful presentation at the Josephine Theater, and now the kids are begging the teachers to play the soundtrack while they do their work in class. So you walk down the hall, and you hear CD playing “I Could’ve Danced All Night.” But if my staff had insisted, “No, they cannot do that, we do not want to do that because we are worried about the way they are going to behave” (judging, judging, judging), we would not have had that beautiful experience.
I think that is the thing that schools need to do – quit being judgmental, get pro-active and enjoy what you have. These little guys are fun to play with. They may not have some of the advantages that other people have, but they have their own experiences that are just as valid. And they can learn.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]