By Mike Myslinski
Fifth-grade teacher Yukendra Harris at Miraloma Elementary.
Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Howard remembers when Miraloma Elementary in San Francisco was not such a successful “school in demand.” Four or five years ago, classes were crowded and supplies and professional development lacking, the nine-year veteran educator says.
When parent Leslie Acosta-Bhattacharya moved nearby seven years ago, neighbors told her Miraloma “had problems” and that she should look at other options.
Today, there is a waiting list to get in, the teachers and the principal are collaborating in creative ways that have caused test scores to soar, and parents are thrilled with the inventive learning and smaller class sizes.
After winning a lottery of sorts to get her son into kindergarten, Acosta-Bhattacharya, an attorney, is overjoyed she chose Miraloma for her boy, now a first-grader. “The teachers are fabulous,” she says. “They work together. It was the best decision I ever made.”
Many Miraloma stakeholders point to a CTA-sponsored law for sparking much of the positive transformation at this 370-student campus, where about 20 percent of students meet federal poverty guidelines to receive free or reduced-priced lunches.
Miraloma is one of 501 lower-performing public schools receiving extra state funding from the Quality Education Investment Act of 2006, authored by Assembly Member Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch). QEIA schools will share nearly $3 billion over eight years for proven reforms such as smaller class sizes, extra teachers, more counselors, and better staff training. Miraloma gets about $210,000 a year from QEIA to invest in students and teachers.
“It’s making such a difference here,” teacher Jennifer Howard says of the positive impacts of the landmark law. “The school has changed tremendously since I’ve been here.”
Parent Acosta-Bhattacharya co-chairs the Miraloma School Site Council of parents, teachers and administrators, which oversees QEIA funding, making sure the requirements of the law, such as smaller classes, are met. “It’s a platform for people to feel comfortable,” she says of the council’s camaraderie. “Our focus remains on taking each individual student and giving them the resources to take them wherever they can go.”
Of the QEIA-enriched schools in California, Miraloma had the highest state Academic Performance Index score for the 2008-09 school year at 851. It was one of seven QEIA schools that exceeded the 800 API benchmark score recommended for all public schools by the California Department of Education. Many factors go into a school’s success, but on average, QEIA schools scored five points higher on the API than similar schools last school year, the first full year of extra QEIA funding.
As many schools face severe cutbacks, QEIA funding — and devoted parents who raised about $165,000 for the school last year — mean that Miraloma enjoys many extra resources. They include two half-time academic intervention teachers, cutting-edge professional development training for teachers, individualized math and reading programs, high-tech Internet-connected whiteboards in classrooms, a poetry instructor, a garden expert, and a hands-on garden where students raise and study vegetables.
Fourth-grade teacher Rebecca Stewart raves about the small class sizes — with only 23 students in her classroom.
“It’s made a huge difference,” she says. “When you have a smaller class size, children get more attention from the teacher. Studies show kids work better in small groups. With 23 students we actually have enough space to move around, to have diverse instruction. I can diversify my teaching a lot more because I have a little bit more time with each child.”
More attention builds confidence, Stewart noted. “Inevitably, they feel more important when they get more attention, and they get more attention when there are fewer students in the class.”
Time to collaborate
She treasures the half day a month that her colleagues get to meet and collaborate, finding ways to be more creative and effective. “Teaching is a very lonely job if you don’t have that time to collaborate. You get in the classroom and often you don’t see another teacher again, it seems. We’ve managed to share some of the burdens.”
Fifth-grade teacher Yukendra Harris has only 21 students in her classes, and uses that wonderful situation to build relationships with students.
“I feel very, very lucky,” Harris says of the chance to bond with so many students. “I remember so many things about them. I am able to remember their interests.”
A former art teacher at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, Harris also appreciates that the school’s art supply closet is fully stocked — without teachers having to pay money out of pocket to stock it. Like all Miraloma classrooms, hers is adorned with the latest art assignments, having to do with earthquakes and other themes.
She grows as a teacher during staff collaboration meetings. “We share lessons, we share students’ work. We get to flush things out. We say to each other, ‘Why don’t you try this, why don’t you try that.’”
Principal Ron Machado fought to get Miraloma on the QEIA list, and credits the law with raising the school’s test-driven API score by roughly 150 points. He attributes a team effort by teachers and parents for the school’s stellar score of 851.
“What QEIA has helped us do is reach that goal without having to sap money from other programs,” says Machado, who has been at the school for four years now. “Our kids are happy, they are really happy.”
How well-regarded is Miraloma today? Last fall, the school had 33 kindergarten student openings — and 480 parents rating the school as one of their top choices, Machado says.
Trouble may loom on the horizon
Only two of the 900 preliminary teacher pink slips issued this spring by San Francisco Unified were to Miraloma teachers. But the district is facing a deficit of $113 million over the next two years, and Machado fears its financial crisis my result in Miraloma being dropped from QEIA because smaller class sizes will become too expensive for the district to subsidize and maintain.
For now, the law is working as designed, showing that proven reforms and teacher-driven programs help student learning.
Teacher Howard recalls how the extra remedial classes helped one boy last year who could barely speak English. “Now he’s communicating. He’s really keeping up in class.”
She is proud of getting her kindergarten students to “publish” a story in one classroom exercise. Howard holds an “authors brunch” and invites parents to class to hear excited students proudly read their works.
“It’s just an incredible moment in their lives.”
Thanks to Miraloma’s teachers, parents and administrators all working together, the promise of extra resources and smaller class sizes from CTA’s QEIA law is being kept at this school and hundreds more across California.
To view a video of Miraloma teachers talking about the difference QEIA is making at their school — as well as a video of educators at another successful QEIA school, Martin Elementary in Santa Ana — visit www.cta.org/Issues-and-Action/QEIA/QEIA.