ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Teaching Alice's Kids

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.

[photo of Teddie Lyons]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 so far.

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.

What's cool?

"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 forest.

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."

[photo of Mrs. Crnich and Markis Shirley]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.

[photo of Michael Chan]

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 computer skills.

"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 next year."

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.

[photo of kids] 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' lunches.

"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 income.

"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) adds $17,000.

"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 categorical money.

"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 amount."

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 campaign.

"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 factories."

Chappelle said another factor in the shifting numbers is CalWorks, the state's welfare-to-work program.

[photo of Marie chappelle]"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 Birney?

"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 for them.

"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, `Okay.'

"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 get creative."

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 school day.

"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 here.

"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 afternoon."

The result?

"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 doubt.

"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."

[photo of Alice Birney and daughters]
Who was
Alice Birney?

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 PTA.
Alice Birney is pictured here with two of her three children.



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