WITH DROPPING ENROLLMENT
AND A NEW
ADMINISTRATION IN WASHINGTON, BUDGETING
FOR THE NEXT SCHOOL YEAR IS ANYTHING BUT CERTAIN --
ESPECIALLY AT A SCHOOL LIKE
Story & photos by BOB DORAN
ALICE BIRNEY ELEMENTARY, LOCATED
AMID THE HOUSING PROJECTS south of the Eureka Mall, is one of
the socioeconomically poorest in the Eureka School District.
A number of students come from homes where English is the second
language. Not many of the parents have a college education. Few
students have computers at home. But Principal Teddie Lyons (in
photo below) has a goal: to level the playing field. She wants
the students who pass through Alice Birney to have the same skills,
the same chance for success in life, as those who attend the
schools across town.
And if success is judged by the
school's Academic Performance Index, Alice Birney is a certified
winner. It doesn't have the highest Stanford 9 "STAR"
test scores in Eureka -- Washington holds that honor. But Alice
Birney is the only school in the district with a "similar
schools" rating of 10. That means it is ranked in the top
10 percentile compared to schools that draw from a similar socioeconomic
profile. In fact in its demographic band, the school ranks No.
4 in the entire state.
The fact that the school is
in a disadvantaged area actually gives it some extra advantages
-- at least it did this year. Extra funding targeting low-income
schools -- plus a lot of hard work by students, teachers, staff
and parents -- have resulted in some innovative programs and
improved test scores.
The bad news? Uncertainty about
the future of some program funding and declining enrollment are
threatening to undermine the success the school has achieved
W hen the Journal visited Stephanie
Crnich's third grade class at Alice Birney, the 19 students were
divided into small groups. In the back of the room Crnich worked
with a group discussing a book the kids recently finished, How
to Be Cool in the Third Grade. Crnich sat to the side with
a marking pen and a large pad jotting down the students' ideas
on coolness. Markis Shirley was first with his hand up.
"Having cool hair,"
he said with a smile, sporting his own cool haircut. Another
student suggested, "Having a cool teacher."
In another part of the room
a math group worked quietly at their desks. Other students were
clustered around computers spread along a wall. Michael Chan,
8, was exploring the jungle, navigating his way through a computer
program with information about the flora and fauna of the rain
Every classroom at Alice Birney
has at least one computer. "It's up to each teacher whether
they want to integrate the computers or not," explained
Crnich later. She has four computers, including an iBook laptop.
"And I'd like to have more. If I had seven, the kids wouldn't
have to double up."
Crnich has a collection of computer
programs that parallel the curriculum to reinforce skills students
are learning in class.
"We do some word processing
and some reports. But mostly it's reinforcement.
"I go to websites like
Kid's Domain (www.kidsdomain.com) looking for free software to
download. I'd like to get more CD-ROMs but I understand money
is going to be cut next year, so I don't know what will happen.
I always have a wish list of things I want. Sometimes you get
it, sometimes you don't."
Markis Shirley reads a book and Michael
Chan explores the jungle on a laptop in Mrs. Crnich`s third grade
class. Principal Lyons told the Journal that Crnich will
get her wish. She has lined up ten new iBook laptops for the
class to use next year. The computers will be equiped with a
wireless hub that will allow students to work anywhere in the
room, even outside.
Janet Lopez runs the school's
computer lab, a small building in the corner of the campus that
holds 28 computers -- enough for any class in the school. Lopez
brings in one class at a time to work on keyboarding and other
"Our focus for the last
year or two has been on information literacy," she said.
"We do a lot of Internet research projects. Right now they're
doing a research project on biomes ecosystems. They work in teams
dividing up responsibilities. One will research the plants, one
will look into the animals, another the physical landscape and
another the human influences on the biome."
Grades 4-6 use the lab on a
daily basis. Grade 3 comes in once a week and other primary grades
come on a regular basis. The separate computer lab got its start
seven years ago with a partial grant -- $15,000.
"But most of this is new,"
said Lopez with a sweeping gesture. The iMacs and iBooks were
purchased with Title 1 funds. "We used Title 1 and SIP (School
Improvement Program). And one-time block grants have paid for
a little of it."
She says giving the students
access to computers at school is important particularly since
most of the kids do not have computers at home. "Some do,
but not very many. If you go across town to Washington, probably
most of the kids have computers at home, but not here. That's
why we really value what we have here."
"Janet has been wonderful,"
Lyons interjected. "She keeps the lab open in the afternoons
on her own time so kids can come in and finish their reports."
How long has she been at Alice
Birney? "Seven years," said Lopez.
"And we don't want to think
about next year," adds Lyons.
"I'm being reassigned,"
Lopez explains. "There are a lot of budget things going
on in Eureka City Schools. I'm going to Zane [as part of] the
sixth grade move."
With Lopez gone, the computer
lab will be converted into a science lab and the computers will
be dispersed to classrooms.
"It boils down to funding,"
said Lyons. "Janet is a half-time teacher. She teaches full
time, but since she's not a [regular] classroom teacher the funding
that pays her salary only covers half. We have to fund the other
half out of `site' money, and site money is going down. Our enrollment
is dropping so we're losing funding. Our Title 1 is being cut
The largest portion of the budget
of Alice Birney -- and all the Eureka elementary schools, for
that matter -- is beyond the principal's control. Regular salaries
for teachers and staff -- funded primarily by the $4,806 a year
per student from the state based on "average daily attendance"
or ADA -- are administered by the district office.
It is the categorical or "site"
funds that have made school improvement a reality and those funds
come from many different sources.
Emily Simoni, Anissa Williams and Jasmine Phiengsai from Mrs.
Hawkins' second grade class line up at the end of recess.
"Title 1 is the federal
program that is supposed to level the playing field," Lyons
explained. "It goes to the LEA (Local Educational Agency)
based on the number of students who qualify for `free and reduced-price'
"Although it's a federal
program, the money comes through the state and it's given to
almost every district in the state. It's apportioned to the schools,
again based on free and reduced numbers.
"We are a school-wide Title
1 program. If you have over 50 percent of your students on free
or reduced, you can apply to become school-wide. That allows
you to use your Title 1 money to help everybody in the school
rather than using it just for certain students who fall below
a specific test score."
Three other Eureka schools --
Jefferson, Lincoln and Marshall -- are designated school-wide
Title 1. Before she became a principal, Lyons worked for five
years coordinating the Title 1 programs at three schools.
Title 1 accounts for more than
$200,000 out of Alice Birney's $630,000 worth of that type of
"It's the largest of the
categorical funds," said Lyons. "Then there's Title
6, Title 2, SIP there's a 21st Century Community Learning Center
grant, IMF (Instructional Materials Fund), Schiff-Bustmante.
All have strings attached"
In addition to categorical income,
this year the school received performance bonuses totalling $45,000
based on improved API (Academic Performance Index). The state-supplied
block grant (lottery money) based on ADA (Average Daily Attendance)
"That's all that the state
gives me to run the school for the whole year," said Lyons.
Lyons leads a team of staff,
parents and teachers that decides the best way to spend the critical
"All of us make the decisions
about what we want to do," Lyons said. "Certain funding
sources can only be used certain ways, and because our enrollment
is dropping, funds are dropping for next year. We're going to
have to make cuts because some of the budget categories pay salaries.
"What we get from the state
covers teachers' salaries -- pretty much all of it goes to classroom
teachers. Then any auxiliary teachers, the reading intervention
teacher and the lit techs (literacy technicians), for example,
are funded out of other sources. Everything is being cut at the
federal level. And [President] Bush hasn't decided what he's
going to do with Title 1, the largest entitlement."
Congress is still debating the
education portion of the federal budget and Lyons has been keeping
her eye on the process with apprehension.
"The Bush administration
has a very different opinion of the way Title 1 should work than
the Clinton administration had. There is pervasive talk about
an interest in education, but I haven't seen too many proposals
that do anything to improve education."
The proposal that worries her
most is one that would turn Title 1 funding into a block grant
distributed to the states.
"The state has talked about
distributing all of the money to large urban areas that have
huge pockets of poverty. The rural areas that have fewer children
and don't exhibit the same extreme poverty could be left out.
We might not get any Title 1 money or we would get a very reduced
The impact of the energy crisis
on California's budget means there is no longer talk about what
to do with a surplus.
"It also means that they
would probably be very happy to get the federal education money
in a block grant to do with as they choose," said Lyons.
"And that's scary because many of the programs that are
helping my kids would go.
"We have one more year
of grant funding for our after-school program and we've been
told by the state that there is a very, very small likelihood
that we will get it renewed. It costs about $100,000 a year to
run it. If we don't receive funding we won't have it."
It looks like Alice Birney's
"free and reduced" lunch program numbers will actually
dip below 90 percent next year. While that might be good news
-- fewer students are living in poverty -- when it comes to the
budget, it's more bad news. Combined with the drop in enrollment
it will mean less revenue from that categorical source -- and
looming staff cuts.
"We're losing one of our
lit techs, the paraprofessionals who work teaching one-on-one
in the classrooms," Lyons said. "If we lost all of
Title 1, that would mean no reading intervention teacher, no
lit techs at all."
Schools all over the county
are struggling with a decline in population of those under 18
years of age. (See census story, "The Changing Face of Humboldt,"
in last week's Journal.) However, Alice Birney's kindergarten
numbers are temporarily up, thanks in part to an aggressive recruitment
"I sent letters to everybody
who lives close to us but perhaps goes to a different district,
personal letters, inviting them to come and visit us," said
Lyons. "I think if people see how good we are and when they
see the kindergartens, they will come. And that has happened.
We currently have full kindergartens for next year. We might
even need to have four kindergarten classes."
One attraction is the fact that
Alice Birney offers full-day kindergarten classes. This school
year there were two full-day programs and one half-day. Next
year all of the kindergartens will run all day.
Budget tightening spurred by
a district-wide decline in enrollment led to the decision to
close Marshall School and expand the junior high to a sixth to
eighth grade middle school. What does that mean for Alice Birney?
That means 54 of its fifth graders who normally would have moved
up to sixth will attend either Zane or Winship middle schools.
And fewer students means less ADA money.
"That's a teacher and a
half," said Lyons. "But it looks like the kindergarten
enrollment is so good it might balance out. I won't really know
until September when the students come back."
According to Eureka City Schools
statistics, a minority of the school's 350 students, 43 percent,
identify their family background as Caucasian. The rest draw
from a variety of cultures: 27 percent are Native American, 12
percent Hispanic, 12 percent Asian. The rest are African-American,
Pacific Islander or Filipino.
"We used to have more Laotian
and Hmong children than we have now," said Marie Chappelle
(in photo below), who has taught at the school for 12 years.
"A lot of the families have moved to other places to get
a job, to Minnesota, Iowa and Alabama. They've gone to work in
Chappelle said another factor
in the shifting numbers is CalWorks, the state's welfare-to-work
"People have to get a job
-- and if there are no jobs, you have to go where the jobs are."
Chappelle teaches a combined
fifth and sixth grade class. Last year she taught a kindergarten
and first grade combo. And next year?
"It's unsure because of
all the changes with the sixth grade. I had the opportunity to
go to the middle school, but I wasn't ready to leave Birney.
"I really love it here
and didn't want to leave. But I love teaching sixth grade, so
I was definitely torn. I'm going to go back to primary but I'm
not sure exactly which class. I've taught every grade so I'm
ready for anything."
Why did she want to stay at
"Alice Birney is an incredible
place. If you want to make a difference, this is the place you
can do it. The kids really need us. They have a lot of baggage.
They have a lot of stuff going on and we can be a safe place
"Some places you can just
be a facilitator because the kids have a lot of outside influences
and you really just have to guide them. These kids really need
someone to stay on them about their homework, to dog them constantly.
They don't have a lot of outside support. A lot of our kids come
here without language skills, without books. They come without
knowing the alphabet. So we have to start from zero."
A conscious decision was made
in strategic planning for the school six years ago. It was decided
that there would be a shift toward a year-round focus on reading,
writing and math.
"Our kids weren't where
we wanted them to be and a lot of our primary teachers went and
took extra classes -- Wright Books, Math Their Way, Rigby --
all classes designed specifically for primary. So when the governor
said he wanted every kid reading by the third grade, we said,
"We decided that the majority
of our day, especially in primary, would be spent with reading,
writing and math. Not that we didn't go to P.E. or we didn't
sing. But maybe we would sing on the way to P.E. We got creative
fitting science in. We read about science and wrote about science
and integrated it that way.
"In the upper grades we
talked about the fact that we don't have as much music and things
like that. It's hard to get it all into a day. What do you give
up? If you need to take an hour to do a science project and you
need an hour in math to talk about coordinate planes and an hour
of reading -- something's got to give. If the day was longer
I could fit more in. I could teach longer. Again you have to
The fact is that for many students
at Alice Birney the day is longer. About 160 students
use an afterschool program funded by a 21st Century Community
Learning Center grant. It runs five days a week until 5:30 p.m.,
very convenient for working parents.
"The CLC is another thing
that came out of our strategic plan," said Lyons. "It's
something the community wanted. They said they needed it.
"The school is becoming
a focus in the community. I think that's a change. Before, the
home was the center of everything. We have more and more going
on at school. Many of the children spend from 10 minutes to 8
until 5:30 here every day. We are a huge part of their day.
"The program provides a
safe environment, one that's an extension of the learning time.
We have homework support so kids can do a lot of things here
that they ordinarily would be expected to do at home. They do
their home reading here and we have adults who help them do that,
who listen to them read. We have people who work with them in
math. We have reading intervention and English language learning
going on in small groups after school, after what is the traditional
"That's a huge change from
when I went to school. We went to school in the morning. We went
home in the afternoon and did everything else at home. At least
half of my day was spent at home. That's not true any more. When
I get here in the morning at 7:30 there are already children
"A classroom may be a classroom
during the day," said Lyons, "but after school the
teacher moves out and someone comes in, perhaps to do a math
class or supply homework support. That means we're using the
school facilities from 10 to 8 in the morning to 5:30 in the
"Our scores went up. A
lot of that has to do with the fact that we have individual learning
plans for every child working below grade level.
"But next year is the last
year of our grant," Lyons added wistfully. Without the grant
the future of the after school learning center program is in
"In many of the homes in
this community there isn't a lot of supervision. Children don't
always find positive things to do when they're left on their
own. That's something the community needs to be aware of, that
it really benefits everyone students and everyone who lives in
the community have a safe program and a place to go after school."
In 1897 Alice McLellan Birney
and Phoebe Apperson Hearst met in Washington, D.C., and founded
the National Congress of Mothers. The organization would later
be known as the National Parents and Teachers Association the
Alice Birney is pictured
here with two of her three children.
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