Focus on Self-Esteem, Achievement Turns School Into Showcase

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SAN FRANCISCO--Standing in a schoolyard here on a foggy autumn Friday morning, Willie B. Santamaria, principal of Daniel Webster Elementary School, is handing out "student of the week" awards.

Holding a microphone as parents and other guests look on, she reads citations and announces the names of the winners from each class.

"She is learning how to listen and follow directions," the principal says, in both English and Spanish, of one student. "He remembers to do homework, and is improving in math," she says of another. "He is eager to learn, and got 100 percent on his spelling test," she says of a third, adding: "He dresses up like an executive. He is going to be at I.B.M."

The weekly celebration is one of the most popular features of the school, according to Julietta Johnson, whose two children, Nicole and Marcus--the future I.B.M. executive--attend Webster.

"The kids love it," she says. "They're excited. They try to do their best [to win the awards]."

The ceremony is also a perfect embodiment of the school's two goals: "Develop a positive sense of self and school community" and "Improve learning and student achievement."

By hewing to those twin objectives, school officials say, Webster Elementary, the first pilot school for the "accelerated schools" project, a Stanford University-based experiment in improving schooling for disadvantaged youths, has been able to turn its academic fortunes around.

After years of being plagued with discipline problems and low test scores, the school--some 80 percent of whose pupils come from families receiving welfare--last year registered the largest gains on standardized tests of all 72 elementary schools in the city. And other measures, including parental involvement and student and teacher attendance, have also improved dramatically, the officials point out.

These impressive results have turned Daniel Webster into a national showcase for the closely watched accelerated-schools project. ('See related story, page 1.)

In the past month alone, at least three national media outlets and the deputy U.S. secretary of education, David T. Kearns, have visited the school to learn the secret of its success.

To Ms. Santamaria, though, there is no secret. The school has turned around, she says, because the entire school community is now focused on improving every aspect of the [email protected] curriculum to the cafeteria.

"If you begin to think that way, it dominoes the kids," she says. "if you achieve as a staff, kids achieve."

A 340-pupil school serving children in kindergarten through grade 5 in the Potrero Hill District--a mix of housing projects, restored Victorian houses, and factories--Daniel Webster was in many ways a typical urban elementary school when it joined up with Stanford researchers in 1986.

'Willie, You Have a Project'

The school had a high concentration of low-income pupils from minority backgrounds, mostly Latin American, Chinese, and African-American. Because many students came to the school by bus from other parts of the city, few parents participated in school activities. And most of its students were performing well below grade level.

"I was burned out, not feeling that the job had some success," recalls Ms. Santamaria. "It was very discouraging and frustrating. Year after year after year, the kids were not moving [academically]."

She took her frustrations to the superintendent of schools' office,just after the superintendent had met with Henry M. Levin, the Stanford education professor who is the architect of accelerated schools. He was about to put his plan into practice, and had asked San Francisco officials if one of their elementary schools could serve as a test site.

"To pacify me and appease me," Ms. Santamaria says, "[the district officials] said, 'Willie, you have a project.'"

Because the project demands participation by the entire school staff, however, Ms. Santamaria then had the task of persuading her faculty to go along. After a semester of cajolery and persuasion, the faculty members voted--on her birthday in 1987--unanimously, by secret ballot, to adopt the project. "It was a nice birthday present," she says.

Not Crossing Every T

Putting the project into practice also proved troublesome, Camilla Schneider, a 3rd-grade teacher, says.

Faculty members took several missteps before coming up with a novel solution to allow teachers to meet regularly for committee meetings, she notes. A crucial element of the project is the involvement of the entire school community--teachers, parents, and students, as well as administrators--in school decisions.

Instead of using substitute teachers or holding the sessions after school, Ms. Santamaria elected to set aside time for a daily school-wide aerobics class--an unorthodox scheduling move that frees teachers so that all committees could meet at a fixed time each week.

The solution bent district rules on instructional time. But it drew an understanding response from district officials, who have worked hard to support the project, according to Hal J. Solin, an assistant superintendent of schools.

'I try to look at it as positively as possible," he says. 'I try not to worry about crossing every T and dotting every I when their motives are pure."

Mr. Solin also recalls that he helped smooth relations between Webster Elementary and Stanford when the university researchers complained that school officials were neglecting to document their every move.

'A school is still a school, whether it's got something like this or not," Mr. Solin says. 'They are still accountable for everything everybody else is doing."

In carrying out the accelerated schools process over the past four years, the school has changed almost every aspect of the way it does business. And all the changes have contributed to raising student achievement.

Parent, Community Role

Adopting Mr. Levin's guiding idea that disadvantaged students deserve the same type of instruction gifted pupils have traditionally received, the teachers raised expectations for students and shifted from an emphasis on lectures and worksheets to more active, hands-on learning. They have also organized lessons around themes that link instruction across subject areas.

Much of the instruction also relates to students' everyday lives, Ms. Santamaria says. For example, instead of assigning arithmetic worksheets for homework, teachers might ask students to analyze commercials on "The Cosby Show."

Such shifts have come about more easily than they otherwise might have because the structure of the program demands that teachers adopt changes in unison, Ms. Schneider, the 3rd-grade teacher, observes.

"This process brings the school together flowing in the same direction," she says. "Since I'm not riding against the current, I can make changes a lot faster."

The school has also stepped up relations with parents and with other members of the community; they have responded by volunteering at the school and by vastly increasing their participation in school events.

Part of this increased involvement stems from the tireless efforts of Jesse Tollo, the head of the parent-teacher association. A Mexican immigrant with a 5th-grade education, Mr. Tello was left unable to work because of an accident. He now devotes almost every day to helping out at Daniel Webster.

The Biggest Test

Mr. Tello says the school deserves much of the credit for making parents feel welcome. In addition to inviting parents to school meetings, the school helps them work toward high-school equivalency diplomas and has even hired some of them as paraprofessionals.

'The [school] secretary has to make the first move," Mr. Tello says. 'If you're received with a smile, you'll come back. If you don't, you won't."

Besides helping to boost student achievement, the parental involvement has contributed tea dramatic reduction in disciplinary problems, Mr. Tello says.

"That's not to say we don't have problems," adds Ms. Schneider. "But they seem to be able to work through problems better than before, and we don't have problems as often as before."

"That means," she says, "that I can spend less time on disciplinary issues, and more time on teaching."

Despite the improvements, Webster is not perfect, even the school's boosters concede. Ms. Johnson, the mother of the award-winning pupil, notes that class sizes--some as high as 30 pupils per teacher--are too large, as in many California schools, and that there is a lack of black male teachers who can serve as role models for her son.

But to Mr. Levin, the Stanford professor who started the project, Daniel Webster has met perhaps the most important test a school can have: It must be a place where an educator would want to send his or her own child.

And, he says, his only granddaughter is about to enroll.

Vol. 11, Issue 09, Page 14

Published in Print: October 30, 1991, as Focus on Serf-Esteem, Achievement Turns School Into Showcase
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