Bessemer Elementary Rises to Success After Testing Trials

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When Colorado released the results of its first state assessments in 1996, Bessemer Elementary School was ranked dead last in the state.

Only 2 percent of its 4th graders had mastered basic writing skills, and only 12 percent showed basic reading skills. "In retrospect, that was the best thing that could've happened," said "literacy leader" Rita Marquez, who admitted in a recent interview that she was embarrassed to wear her Bessemer Elementary T-shirt in public for months afterward.

After an intensive rethinking of curriculum and a rise in assessment scores, this 1930s-era brick-and-stucco school has become something of a shrine to success in the Title I program. Title I, an $8 billion federal initiative focused on helping disadvantaged students learn, has been criticized in recent years as having failed to fulfill its mission.

Backed by the school board in Pueblo District 60—the district within the city's borders—Bessemer's teachers agreed to replace their schoolwide curriculum with an intensive academic and remedial courseload. The class day was reorganized, cutting out extracurricular activities and wasted time between classes. A veteran principal, Gary L. Trujillo, was reassigned to the school in 1997, and Ms. Marquez became a literacy leader in the last school year. That job title means she helps train and work with teachers on implementing new programs to teach reading.

Bessemer's 277 students have shown impressive—some say astounding—gains in state and local assessments. In the 1998-99 school year, 74 percent passed the reading exam, and 47 percent passed the writing portion.

Now, Bessemer's staff is overwhelmed by praise, and its members are proud to wear denim shirts embroidered with the school logo. Some say other successful Title I schools across the country should also be given attention for their efforts.

"The unique thing about Bessemer is, it's being held up" as an example, said Amy Wilkins, a senior associate with the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for disadvantaged children that has worked with Bessemer Elementary. "Educators tend to bury their successes."

In the Spotlight

Bessemer has been honored by the state legislature, and officials from neighboring districts and even foreign countries have asked to visit it in hopes of replicating the school's successes back home. It's also attracted about $25,000 in grants from private corporations and foundations.

"It's really powerful what they were able to do," said Pueblo District 60's interim superintendent, Joyce Ford Bales. "They've gotten a lot of attention because they were at the bottom, and people were interested in their dramatic gains."

Balancing the demands of popularity with staying focused on the school's mission has turned the staff into public relations experts. They estimate that they receive five calls a week requesting visits; students here have learned to expect outsiders stopping by their classes.

Ms. Wilkins says there are hundreds of other success stories in the Title I program. But often, she points out, the media focus on the schools that do the most to promote themselves.

Across town, in a similar, well-built 1930s building, Carlile Elementary School also has shown remarkable gains in its test scores. Unlike Bessemer, it has received just one, $1,000 grant to help implement its reading and writing programs.

Now, though, it's beginning to gain attention as well.

"It seems like more and more people's interests are becoming piqued," said Carol Avalos, the principal at Carlile. "But we don't want troops of people coming in."

Meanwhile, the Education Trust has released a handbook surveying more than 300 high- performing, high-poverty schools on their strategies for teaching Title I students. The survey results are available on the Trust's World Wide Web site at

"It's up to all of us to find success stories and share them," Ms. Wilkins said.

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Page 26

Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Bessemer Elementary Rises to Success After Testing Trials
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