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Struggling schools get boost with extra funds.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

In the Howard Elementary School computer lab last week, Chris Evans' fourth- and fifth-graders were getting their first peek at Web pages they'd built themselves, which Evans had posted on the Internet the night before.

The students didn't miss a beat as Evans rattled off directions, tossing out such terms as "html" and "QuickTime video" and "iTunes soundtrack."

"It's fun, but it can be a little frustrating sometimes," fourth-grader Bemnia Lathan said of designing her page, which features, among other things, exquisite alternating drawings - all done through AppleWorks Paint and Draw - of a single landscape, first bathed in sunshine, then in a thunderstorm. "I had to start over a couple of times."

It's complicated, sophisticated work, Evans said - and the skills these children are mastering now will give them an edge as they move through school and beyond.

Evans wants to make Howard a technology powerhouse, unrivaled among local elementary schools. It's a goal many of his colleagues and boss, Principal Kim Finch, share - and one that suddenly seems within the realm of possibility.

Howard, in the River Road area of north Eugene, was one of four neighborhood elementary schools - all with high percentages of low-income students - that will receive $200,000 over the next two years to bolster academics, close the achievement gap and design sustainable programs aimed at attracting more students. The Eugene School Board designated these schools and one other, south Eugene's Harris, which will receive $150,000, "academy" schools, and pledged the funds during budget deliberations.

Finch, who believes that technology and achievement are closely entwined, called the planning that is under way now "the most exciting thing I've done in nine years of administration."

"I think initially last spring our staff was probably a little bit cautious, not exactly sure what it would mean," she said of the school board's decision - based on one in a long list of recommendations by Superintendent George Russell - to single out the five schools. "But after the site visits (to other schools), I think our staff has just caught fire with the potential we have."

Three of the academy schools - Howard, River Road/El Camino del Rio and Cesar Chavez in southwest Eugene - serve large numbers of Latino students, some of whom are learning English. In recent years, these schools have struggled the most with state test scores and the so-called "achievement gap" that separates students by socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity.

All five schools - the fifth is Adams, in south Eugene - receive federal Title I money, which is meant to enhance reading and math instruction at high-poverty schools. Each school has a poverty rate - gauged by the percentage of students in the free- and reduced-price lunch program - of at least 63 percent.

The academy schools share another characteristic: All lose large numbers of children in their attendance areas to other schools.

That's true with other neighborhood schools, too, and the phenomenon has sparked a sometimes bitter community debate in recent years over the district's system of open school choice and alternative, or magnet, elementary schools. Most of the nine alternative schools, and a few affluent neighborhood schools, enroll disproportionately low numbers of low-income, minority and special education students. The academy schools, meanwhile, serve disproportionately high numbers of students who fit those descriptions.

Russell's recommendations came in response to a report by the Access and Options Committee, which studied the school choice issue. Strengthening neighborhood schools, especially those that are struggling most, was key among the committee's suggestions.

Some staff members and parents at the academy schools had misgivings early on, wondering if being labeled and highlighted as a struggling school would further erode interest among the middle-class families they wish to attract.

But principals say that's largely been outweighed by a realization of the opportunities the funding and attention could bring.

Howard first-grade teacher Linda Kirk, who's taught at the school for a decade, said she was energized by a recent visit to Beaver Acres Elementary in Beaverton, a school with similar demographics and strong student test scores. Beaver Acres was one of five Oregon schools given awards by Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo for its success in closing the achievement gap. (Bethel's Fairfield Elementary School was also one of those, and several academy school teachers and principals have visited there, too.)

The visit reinforced Kirk's confidence in some of the tools and strategies Howard already uses, but also gave her new ideas, she said. For instance, she said, Beaver Acres uses small, child-sized books for reading instruction, offered in escalating skill levels, rather than a single text, she said.

"I think our whole staff is really excited about the opportunity we have to make some changes," she said.

Staff members at nearly all the academy schools have used funds for similar site visits. On Monday, River Road Principal Paco Furlan and four of his teachers will spend the day at Oak Grove Elementary in Medford, observing in classrooms and talking with staff.

"They've got really, really good results with ELL (English Language Learner) kids," Furlan told the group during a quick meeting Tuesday. "Their statistics are just amazing."

River Road Title I coordinator Carissa Boyce, who is also filling a new "student achievement coordinator" position paid for with academy funds, said the money came at a time when the school was already aggressively embracing new strategies. For instance, the school this year launched a new reading program and a new assessment system that closely monitors each student's reading progress and prescribes interventions.

It also stepped up the academic focus of its after-school program, offering a full hour of small-group instruction before enrichment activities.

Boyce likes the idea of year-round school, as do staff members at several of the other schools. Such a schedule would keep students in class the same number of days, but shorten the summer break.

"All the things we're offering, like the extra doses of reading and the after-school program, can only do so much if it's lost over the summer," she said.

As for creating some kind of magnet programs to entice more middle class students, that must come second to focusing on student achievement, Boyce said. In fact, River Road had been considering a dual-language program, offering intensive Spanish and English instruction. While the school eventually may offer some elements of that, staff decided a full-fledged version would be difficult to sustain, given River Road's high turnover rate.

"We want our neighborhood schools to be at our school, but we also don't want to lose sight of the students we have here now," she said.

Finch and Evans believe cutting-edge technology can help close the achievement gap. The two were part of a team of staff members who visited Springfield Middle School, which last year launched a partnership with Apple Computer to place laptops in the hands of every student; some staff also visited other Apple-affiliated schools in Fullerton, Calif.

"It seemed to me to be the perfect way to motivate kids and get them doing high-level stuff and using a lot of skills," Evans said.

Furlan, like the principals of all five schools, said the No. 1 priority is zeroing in on student achievement - adopting the best available curriculum, honing teaching strategies and ensuring that all students are hitting the necessary benchmarks.

"We believe that by having high-powered academic schools, that's going to be attractive in itself," he said.

ACADEMY SCHOOLS

Five Eugene neighborhood elementary schools will receive as much as $200,000 each over the next two years to boost academics, close the achievement gap and implement programs aimed at attracting more students. Here's what they've done so far:

Adams Elementary: The school has added a quarter-time student achievement coordinator and a quarter-time counselor. The funds also have paid to send staff members to a conference, and for professional books and staff planning and training time. Besides sharpening its focus on curriculum and teaching strategies, Adams also has kicked around the possibility of full-day kindergarten, a year-round calendar and some kind of "attraction" program with a multicultural theme.

Cesar Chavez Elementary: The school has added a half-time student achievement coordinator. Its primary aim is improving student achievement, with an emphasis on curriculum, progress monitoring and extra reading and math time. The funds are paying for staff planning and training time through the Reading First initiative and some curriculum materials, and will pay for future visits to other schools. While there's been talk of implementing a year-round calendar, Chavez hasn't gotten too far along in planning programs that might distinguish it from other schools, partly because the school is only in its second year.

Harris Elementary: Because it has a lower poverty rate, Harris will receive a bit less - $150,000 over two years - than the other four schools, which will all get $200,000. Harris has added a quarter-time counselor and a quarter-time student achievement coordinator. The funds have also paid for some planning and training time for staff members.

Howard Elementary: The school has added a half-time student achievement coordinator. Howard's initial focus will be on implementing a rigorous curriculum that extends across grades, but the staff also is exploring incorporating technology, including providing individual laptops for students. Funds have paid for visits to other schools and planning and training time.

River Road/El Camino del Rio Elementary: The school has added a part-time counselor position and a part-time student achievement coordinator position. Improving student achievement is the school's top priority. The school had been considering implementing a dual-language immersion program, but cooled on the idea after further consideration and visits to other schools. The school still might offer some native-language literacy to Spanish speakers and some Spanish teaching for non-Spanish speakers, however. The funds have allowed staff to visit other schools, attend training and build on grant-funded initiatives, including an after-school program with an academic focus and a Reading First pilot program.

CAPTION(S):

Chris Evans answers questions while his students build Web pages in his fourth- and fifth-grade class at Howard Elementary School.
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Title Annotation:Schools; Five `academies' hope to improve academics and bolster flagging enrollment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 25, 2005
Words:1672
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