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Little School That Could

By David Ruenzel — January 22, 1997 9 min read

Every morning, 595 students who speak 26 native languages arrive at Clear View Elementary School here. More than 200 of the children are from low-income families; 10 are homeless.

In many schools with large number of low-income students, the signs of what sociologists refer to as the “culture of poverty"--such as children defiantly acting up--are visible. But here, at this school that opened its doors in 1991 as a “California restructured school,” there are no such signs. What you see instead is a flourishing culture of success, right down to the lush green school grounds, an anomaly in this dusty area six mile from the Mexican border.

To promote ownership, the school asks each family to maintain a piece of the property, a job most take seriously. When some children cut across one 5th grader’ parcel not long ago, the boy posted a flag on it the next day that read: “Don’t Tread On Me.”

Academically, Clear View’s success can be measured in student scores on standardized tests, which have gone from the bottom quartile to the top in five years. But there are other signs of success. Students use a fiber-optic video-conferencing system to communicate with historians and scientists, and they keep electronic portfolios to update their parents on their academic progress. High-tech wizardry aside, they also know the basics. By the end of 3rd grade, for example, all students can recite the multiplication tables.

Ginger Hovenic, an almost relentlessly energetic principal of 50 who won the National Distinguished Principal Award in 1994, believes that technology has become an essential basic skill that all students must master. So since Clear View opened in 1991, she has worked to secure grants for equipment. Now students do everything from editing videotape of their school debates to forecasting the weather with on-line meteorological data. Yet Ms. Hovenic insists that technology is “only one piece of the puzzle” when it comes to building a successful school. It’s no magic bullet and certainly no substitute for creating a vital school culture, which, she says, is the foundation for all the learning that takes place in the classroom.

But what exactly is a vital school culture? When Ms. Hovenic and her teachers--all of them veteran educators who voluntarily transferred to Clear View from other public schools--first met in the summer of 1991, they weren’t sure themselves. But their years of teaching had given them some ideas, so together they began drafting a blueprint. The task wasn’t easy. They were faced, after all, with the prospect of somehow unifying a student body that would be almost incomprehensibly diverse. As Ms. Hovenic remembers it, “We had three meetings that first summer before school started and asked ourselves, ‘How can we create a school environment where all will feel welcome? What kind of infrastructure can we build so no child will fall between the cracks?’ ”

For Ms. Hovenic, the answer to these questions was homerooms, which she knew something about from her years as a high school principal. In most high schools, the homeroom is merely a place where announcements are made and attendance taken. But Ms. Hovenic believed the homeroom could have great value if only it could be turned into something that was true to its name--a place where students felt a genuine sense of belonging. What would happen, the principal wondered, if the homeroom concept were expanded and applied to an elementary school? In the end, she and her teachers came up with a variation, something they now call “families,” and it has become the central feature of the school culture.

Each family consists of two dozen students drawn randomly from every grade in the K-6 school. Students remain in the same family and with the same teacher until they go on to middle school.

The families meet for an hour each week. They celebrate birthdays and holiday together, go on outings, and keep hefty family scrapbooks. But these gatherings are more than just feel-good sessions. The students also plan and take part in a number of social projects, such as collecting food and clothing for families across the border in Tijuana and helping out the needier children in the school.

The staff at the new school also discussed ways to handle the inevitable conflicts that break out between children and disrupt learning. How could these conflicts be prevented or quickly defused? One of the teachers, Eden Steele, came up with the idea for a “Peace Patrol,” which was put into place. Student volunteers trained in the art of negotiation, wearing blue jackets and carrying clipboards, patrol the school grounds, mediating disputes before they spiral out of control. Most of the time, the student can resolve conflict themselves, but occasionally adult assistance is needed. In these cases, a Peace Patrol “officer” consult with a teacher but almost never with the principal.

“Our kids don’t like to come to me for things like that,” Ms. Hovenic says. “Part of our school culture is that you get sent to the principal only for having done something positive. So kids will come here to read me a poem they have just discovered.”

While initiative such as the Peace Patrol minimize problems within the Clear View “family,” the school just as zealously strives to address the need of each child’s family at home. A concerted effort is made to involve parents, many of whom felt disenfranchised at their children’s previous schools, in all aspects of the students’ education. Some of what Clear View has done in this respect is relatively straightforward. At the beginning of each year, the faculty calls a kind of town meeting where parents are encouraged to pose questions and voice concerns. And during the school year, Ms. Hovenic hosts regular coffees in an attempt to keep parents up to date on the full range of school matters.

But some of what Clear View has done to promote parental involvement is highly irregular. The school is one of the few anywhere that allow parents to choose their children’s teachers. Each May, the school holds an open house, dubbed “shopping night,” for this very purpose. And routine parent conferences are not led by teachers but by the students, who present their work to their mothers and fathers.

In addition, Ms. Hovenic makes herself available to parents. Some seek her out for impromptu conference in the parking lot or hallway. She’s happy to oblige; fostering this kind of open communication, she says, is a principal’s most important work. Still, she expects some things from parents in return. “At the first meeting, I tell parents that we can’t succeed without a real partnership,” Ms. Hovenic says. “Then I say, ‘Oh, by the way, I know when you’re not here.’ The next day, I inevitably get a call saying, ‘Dr. Hovenic, I had a 104 temperature.’ I say, ‘Well, I noticed you weren’t here.’ Basically, I’m giving them the message that they need to be here at the school and that they can talk to me, which is important because parents are so often intimidated. It comes from the way they were treated when they were in public school.”

Innovative schools usually bring to mind young teachers out to conquer the world, but at Clear View, most of the teachers have, as one puts it, “been through the wars.”

“I like experience,” Ms. Hovenic says, “and at this school we like to say we have 476 year of it. Experience gives you a solid foundation in classroom management and in knowledge of the curriculum, which are absolutely essential to reform efforts.”

Experienced teachers can be entrusted with responsibilities that would overwhelm a new teacher just trying to survive. And at Clear View, teacher are given a great deal of responsibility. They control their own budgets for school materials. And while they must follow the state-recommended curriculum, they have substantial latitude in determining how they will present the content.

Ms. Hovenic has sought not only experienced teachers but also those who demonstrate a propensity for working with others.

“We all know schools where jealousy and insecurity cause some teachers to close their doors,” says Sheila LeCompte, who has a combined 5th and 6th grade class and was the 1995 San Diego County Teacher of the Year. “Well, there’s none of that here. Ginger seeks staff members with some kind of expertise, and she expects that those people will pass on their knowledge to others. The teachers at this school are all leader types, and we’re all dreaming and scheming together about new things we can try.”

A few of the teachers quite literally did not know how to turn on a computer when they arrived at Clear View. While this might seem unthinkable at a school with a professed technological bent, Ms. Hovenic was unconcerned. They would learn, she believed, under the tutelage of technologically savvy colleagues. And they did, to the extent that all teachers now teach a summer course for adults in multimedia technology.

Of course, collaboration takes time. So every Thursday afternoon, two hours are set aside for teachers to discuss everything from books they have read to workshops they are thinking of taking. They also discuss students who need academic help. This is made easier by computer-generated spreadsheets that provide a statistical picture of each student’s performance in areas as specific as writing mechanics and long division.

Even teacher evaluation is a collaborative effort, undertaken not by the principal in the course of a single perfunctory visit, as is usually the case, but by a group of teachers. Interestingly, the teachers being evaluated participate in their own evaluations. They videotape themselves teaching, view the tape, and then write a two-page critique of their efforts. While teachers do not necessarily give their performances rave reviews, they all praise the evaluation method.

“Watching yourself teach is a kind of revelation,” says kindergarten teacher Pam Olson. “You feel like you’re seeing yourself for the first time--how you repeat certain words, how you could have phrased something so much better.”

In 1994, Clear View applied for and received charter school status, which freed it from many state and district regulations. The educators say the autonomy has made it easier for them to implement new approaches and recruit new staff. But they point out that Clear View was becoming a recognized success long before it became a charter school and that there is no reason why other schools cannot accomplish what they have.

“A district like this can have more than one Clear View--if we can just find more principals like Ginger to lead the way,” says Ms. LeCompte.

This is a common refrain among the faculty: You can have strong teachers and curricula, but you need a key leader with vision to create a vibrant school culture that will endure over time. Ms. Hovenic, Clear View teacher say, has encouraged them to take risks. What’s more, she support them when those risks occasionally fail, as some inevitably must. “Ginger knows how to get the backing of the parents and community,” Ms. LeCompte says. “And while she expects you to work hard, she never demands more of you than she demands of herself.”

About her own work at Clear View, Ms. Hovenic is characteristically modest, insisting that she has primarily been a catalyst who has taken teachers out of their comfort zones. “Basically, what I’ve done is challenge them, and they’ve taken on the challenge,” she says. “We’ve lighted the fire within ourselves, and we’ve given ourselves permission to do as we think best. We loved teaching when we came into the field. We were on fire. We knew that through our hands, our eyes, our lips, our ears, we could make a difference, and now, at Clear View, we are doing just that.”


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