Back to school
Call it the K-12 primer, RN&R writers look at the issues that impact students in the Washoe County School District
Students and teachers work to establish a learning habit in the earliest grades
“All right kids. Single file. Hands behind back. Bubble in mouth and off we go!” sings kindergarten teacher Richard Squailia as he rounds up his students from the playground. It’s Squailia’s first month teaching at Bernice Mathews Elementary School, but to the casual observer, he appears to be a veteran educator.
As the children walk and run toward the classroom, Squailia stops the line at the door while holding a stack of flash cards.
“How many?” he rapidly asks the first student in line while revealing a card with two blue dots and then quickly hiding it.
“Two!” the student shouts.
Squailia nods and produces a card with four dots.
“How many?” he asks again.
“Four!” the student replies after a brief pause.
The correct answer allows passage for the first student. The second student steps up.
“How many?” the question is asked with a card showing three dots.
“Two!” is the student’s initial reply.
After a bit of counting, the answer is revealed, and the second student passes through. One by one the students give their answers until all 21 sit down for roll call.
“Kids are always willing to learn,” says Squailia. “It’s just a challenge to find the best way to teach each individual student.”
Katie Haacker, one of the school’s volunteers, follows the children into the room. The students use their free time to draw some pictures. “Grandma Kate,” as she is called by the students, aids them by selecting crayon colors and shapes to use for their drawings. Haacker is one of three “grandmas” at Mathews who assist the kindergarten teachers with their students in association with the Foster Grandparents Program.
“I love helping kids with their letters, numbers and pictures,” says Haacker. “I always get a lot of hugs in the hall.”
To signal the end of drawing time, Squailia plays a song on the computer. As he rushes to help clean the tables, he explains that the songs keep him from getting sidetracked and lets students know what to expect next. The kids proceed to the carpet and story time begins.
As Squailia reads The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, he pauses at times to explain surprisingly deep philosophical concepts. He places a bag of unattended cookies on a shelf. If the students would want to eat them, he then relates how eating the cookies is similar to the wolf eating the pigs, which were already dead in the story. He also explains where McNuggets and hamburgers come from.
After the story, the antsy students stand up and start spelling with hand movements. “Go,” “Me,” and other words are spelled while students jump around and swing their arms.
“Kids can’t just sit down to read a story or spell words,” says Squailia. “They need to move around to stay engaged. That’s why I keep them moving around the class.”
Squailia taught kindergarten at Roger Corbett Elementary for two years before transferring to Mathews. During his first two years, he says he was still discovering the best teaching methods for himself.
New teachers go through years of training before they even begin teaching, and they continue to train for years even after stepping into the classroom. Squailia is currently enrolled in Kindergarten Cadre, a five-year program that groups new teachers with veteran kindergarten teachers.
[Kindergarten Cadre] “is a favorite of mine because the teachers have provided a wealth of knowledge that I’ve used in the classroom,” Squailia says.
After verbal exercises, the students follow Squailia outside as they are released for recess. Volunteers monitor the playground which allows teachers time to prep for their next session.
Volunteers are especially important at Mathews due to the large numbers of Spanish-speaking students enrolled. Eighty percent of students attending Mathews are Hispanic, and volunteers are there to assist teachers who are not fully bilingual.
Mathews is one of 13 Title 1 elementary schools in Washoe County, and the top Title 1 elementary in Northern Nevada for the 2009-2010 school year. This means the majority of students come from lower-income households. The school is also certified as an English as a Second Language school, which assists students who come from non-English-speaking households.
Squailia’s class is a full-day kindergarten class, and after gathering up his students from recess once more they head back for drawing time. It’s now the students’ turn to draw their own stories.
“The biggest problem I’ve faced is that I’m not good at drawing,” says Squailia laughing. “The children replicate what I draw, which isn’t ideal.”
The middle road:
The transition between elementary and high schools can be the difference between failure and success
Parents and teachers fear the moment. They closely examine the faces of their little scholars for signs that the moment has come. Generally, although there are as many exceptions as there are rules, the moment comes in middle school.
The parents and teachers see details—a stray whisker, the blemish of acne, or a growing bosom—that says the horror of puberty has arrived. It’s cliché among teachers that the students’ profound changes—physical, emotional, intellectual, social—make the middle school years a difficult time. In some students, those difficulties can derail a student’s educational train, turning that student’s remaining years into one long pileup, ending with drop-out.
The Washoe County School District is also well aware of the phenomenon, although the district takes a holistic approach, hoping to establish a firm footing in educational basics in grade school so that those hormone-drenched years are less likely to cause a crash in middle school.
Pedro Martinez, WCSD deputy superintendent, who came from the Chicago public school district, says that different school systems deal with the middle school issue in different ways.
“This is a nationwide problem; many districts are dealing with this problem,” Martinez said. “What we did in Chicago was we eliminated many of the middle schools and made the elementary K-8s. That didn’t solve the problem completely, that’s just one way to go at it. You always have the transition in middle schools, of course.”
The transition can be very rough, and some students who need more individual attention have a difficult time going from low to high student-to-teacher ratios and from single teacher to multiple teachers with class changes.
“The other part is that our children are not proficient when they leave our elementary schools,” he said. “We’re playing catch-up in the middle schools. That to me is the root of the problem.”
The long-term strategy in Washoe County is to ensure success in middle school by preparing students better in elementary schools. Martinez says the district has developed a K-12 pathway: a certain level at kindergarten, another at third grade. By fifth grade, he said, they should be taking advance courses in reading, writing and math so that they’re better prepared when they get to middle school and beyond.
“One of the things research has shown is that if students are ready, and they have access to algebra in eighth grade—most children take algebra in high school—but if they’re ready, those students tend to do a lot better in high school. Algebra is one of those classes that tends to—nationwide—drive dropouts. Algebra and English. Many districts have seen that if students can be successful at algebra and English in their freshman year, their probability of graduation goes up significantly.”
Martinez says the district is trying to become smarter regarding student data and what it shows about who graduates. One recent study examined how the success of students in middle school related to their graduation from high school. WCSD students take four state assessments a year—reading, math, science and writing: “If our eighth graders are proficient in all four of their tests, they found that the probability of those students graduating from our high schools was 82 percent. … Children who only passed two out of four of those tests had a 49 percent probability of graduation.”
Using that kind of individualized information in a pilot program for fourth-year high school students in conjunction with parental involvement, the most successful teachers, tutoring and counseling before and after school and on Saturdays, the school district was able to intercede with some students who were at risk of not graduating.
“The results were phenomenal,” the deputy superintendent said. “If we can also start helping our eighth graders who are coming in this fall, that will also start reducing the issues in ninth grade.”
Closer to the front lines, Ken Cervantes, principal at Billinghurst Middle School, favors a multi-pronged approach that combines social pressure with academics to help students through the middle school years. Cervantes was named the Nevada 2011 Middle School Principal of the Year by the Secondary School Principals Association
“When you look at middle school and K-12 overall, there is no silver bullet, there is no one thing that you can do in education,” he said. “You can be highly effective at several little things. One thing we do in middle school is to have a really strong school culture to make students value education. Like with any other corporation or professional team, that’s where it starts. You have to have a culture that everybody buys into, a belief system, and a foundation to grow from. That’s really where we start when we start talking to the fifth graders that are coming into our school.”
Billinghurst also devotes time teaching the students how to go to school. Students have an advisory teacher that they’ll have for two years. Sixth graders coming in learn the school culture, the value system, expectations, organization, pride in the physical surroundings.
“The district works to make transitions better for the kids,” he said. “We’re bringing sixth graders into the middle schools. Instead of starting with seven teachers, they move into a middle school where they have two core teachers and two elective teachers. In seventh grade, they have four core teachers and three elective teachers.
“It’s like a family. The teachers know their learning styles, the kids do interdisciplinary units with those teachers. They do student-led instruction. It’s all research-based strategies in the middle schools.”
—D. Brian Burghart
As parents and students consider the future beyond high school, charter schools are part of the equation
High school students now have a lot of choices. It used to be that students simply attended the high school that was closest to home. But with a diversity of charter schools, career track schools, and private schools available to students in Washoe County, attending a high school is now a matter of making an informed decision.
In addition to its traditional, comprehensive district high schools, the Washoe County School District also maintains The Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology, a district school that gives students opportunities to follow a career-minded curriculum and even earn college credits in fields like business and finance, engineering and manufacturing, and agriculture and veterinary medicine. The career focus means that AACT eschews some high school traditions, like athletics and pep rallies.
“Those big assemblies to get behind the football or basketball team—that does bring together a lot of the kids, but it also really alienates some of the kids,” says AACT English teacher Greg Burge. “I felt like that a lot—like, man, do I really have to sit through another 45 minutes of this? … I feel like AACT is a much more inclusive school, like everybody gets behind what everybody else is doing.”
Some area charter schools, like Coral Academy of Science and Academy for Career Education also focus on career development.
“We pride ourselves on being high tech,” says ACE’s director Leigh Berdrow. “These kids are learning really amazing things.”
The focus at ACE is for students to learn skills along three career paths: diesel engine technology, architectural drafting, and building trades. Students in the building trades program actually build a single family home every year, which is then sold in the community, with the money going back into the school.
“If you’re serious about pursuing a career in one of these areas, then you’re a great candidate for our school,” says Berdrow.
Other charter schools, like Rainshadow Community Charter High School and I Can Do Anything Charter High School focus on providing a place specifically for students who aren’t meshing with the traditional high school experience—for one reason or another.
“ICDA was originally chartered to serve at-risk students, those who probably aren’t going to graduate unless something different happens in their lives,” says Toni Arell, executive assistant at ICDA. “So, for the last 12 years, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Arell says that many of the ICDA students were previously struggling with attendance problems because the traditional high school format was not attracting their attention. The school connects with those students through the arts, including dance, media studios, such as video editing, and fine arts.
“We use the arts … because many of the at-risk kids are very creative, very imaginative, very round-peg-square-hole-ish,” she says. “The arts are a really big deal here.”
Other options for local high school-aged students include private schools, like preparatory school Sage Ridge and Catholic school Bishop Manogue.
“We’re faith-based, and we’re not afraid to mention that,” says Manogue president Jim Toner. Toner says students are attracted to Manogue for its high academic standards as well as its religious study, and he says a third of the students aren’t Catholic.
“You don’t have to be a Catholic to come here,” he says. “But that’s part of who we are.”
The school was founded in 1948—long before the local charter schools, most of which opened around the turn of the millennium. However, unlike charter schools, private schools like Manogue and Sage Ridge are tuition-based.
“We don’t want to be a school just for the wealthy,” says Toner. “We do try to provide financial help for the economically disadvantaged.”
With such a wide range of schools in the region, there’s no longer a singular high school experience. If you’re currently a high school student, and you hate school, chances are it’s because you’re not attending the one that’s best for you.
Beyond reading and writing, relationships can teach difficult lessons
Ah, high school—pep rallies and class elections, school sports and cheerleaders, school plays and proms.
And dating abuse.
It may be the most hidden domestic violence situation there is. While strides have been made in publicizing family and partner abuse and getting victims to deal with the problem, there is still a reluctance to see the innocence of school days publicized as a forum for abuse.
A 2007 Centers for Disease Control study found that about “10 percent of students nationwide report being physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past 12 months.”
To those not familiar with the situation, it can seem unbelievable—why would someone romancing someone use violence?
Just as puzzling, why would anyone stay in such a dating relationship? They’re not married. They’re not financially dependent.
“I didn’t see it coming,” said Sharon, describing the first time it happened to her.
She is 24 now. At 16, her mother was the family breadwinner, raising her children alone and working both an evening job and a weekend job.
“I have a better understanding now of what my mother did then, but at the time I just knew I didn’t have much of a home life anymore, and I really missed it. My boyfriend’s family really gave that to me. His parents were so wonderful.”
But there was a problem.
“We were arguing about nothing,” she said. “It was a class play, and one of my best friends was in it. I was going to see it, and I hoped he would come along. Somehow it just got more and more heated. Then out of nowhere I felt something on my mouth. I didn’t even see him do it. He smacked me with the back of his hand.”
Today, she says she should have walked away.
“I didn’t see it coming. But I didn’t stay with it long, either.”
He promised it wouldn’t happen again, but it did.
“I got out then,” she said. “But man, did I cry. I cried for a week. The warmth I had in his household was out of reach for me now. I wanted to go back.”
That incident did not come out of nowhere.
“Looking back, I can see the warning signs. He was really good at a sort of mind war. I mean, I was kind of browbeaten even before it got physical.”
Joni Kaiser of the Committee to Aid Abused Women said there are all kinds of reasons people stay in relationships, and they can include status in a high school environment. Otherwise, it’s mostly “love and fear.”
“If you leave me, I’ll—.”
Amy Saathoff, also with CAAW, has given talks to high school groups to raise their awareness early in their high school careers. The groups are first year students, and are still feeling their way with dating. These sessions are not just about abuse, but about healthy relationships and the tools that are available to get back on track if a relationship veers from the healthy.
Saathoff said something new has developed in recent years—a technology that allows teens to monitor each other’s activities, useful in controlling a partner.
“That constant texting, constant ways of checking in to make sure this person is doing what you want them to do. You know—where they are, what are they doing. At first, when you’re young and you’re trying to figure out who you are and what you look like in the dating world, I think that comes across as flattering. … When you start to look at it—‘Maybe this is a little more than I was [expecting].’ You know, it’s a constant barrage.”
Kareen Prentice of the Nevada Attorney General’s office said that in 2007 that office developed a curriculum and teaching materials for this topic which were then approved by the Nevada Board of Education and distributed to the school districts statewide. That left it up to those districts to carry through, including finding someone who would provide the instruction. Prentice said it is not known how completely that happened.
Saathoff said students trying to deal with this problem who aren’t ready to go to a school counselor or outside agency can check out the National Teen Dating Violence helpline and website,1-866-331-9474 and loveisrespect.org.
Teen dating violence can have terrible effects that last through lifetimes. Health declines. Performance and grades can drop, undercutting the ability to get scholarships and college admission, with long term effect on earnings. If the pattern of violence is not broken in high school, it can continue in college and real life.