On the cover North Coast Journal

March 24, 2005


Reading, writing, reality: A day in Room 9 at Jefferson School

Reading, writing, reality: a day in Room 9 of Jefferson School

On the cover: Jefferson School teacher Kristi Puzz
leads a discussion with her first/second grade class.
Photo by Emily Gurnon


story & photos by EMILY GURNON

Editor's note: The Journal got the approval of the parents of three Jefferson School children to talk about their lives. Those three are identified by their first and last names. Children introduced in the story with just a first name have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities.

[front of Jefferson School]IT'S 8 O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING, AND most of the kids in Kristi Puzz's first/second grade class are in the Jefferson School cafeteria eating breakfast.

Six-year-old Ashley Slupinski has finished, so she comes back to say a last goodbye to her mom and dad, who are talking with a visitor near the office.

"How was breakfast?" her mother asks.

"Good," Ashley says.

"What did you have?"

Ashley smiles. "Goldfish crackers!"

"That's not breakfast!" her mom protests. "Didn't you have cereal or milk or something, too?"

"I had milk," Ashley says. After kisses and hugs, she hikes her backpack on her back and makes her way down the hall to Puzz's classroom, Room 9.

[Teacher and students reading handouts in classroom]
Teacher Kristi Puzz with some of her first- and second-grade students.

A questionable meal notwithstanding, Ashley -- a warm, sweet child with long brown hair and dark eyes -- is doing better than most of the kids in Room 9. She lives in a stable home with both parents, a luxury shared by only four others in the class of 19. Neither parent is in jail. She is reading well. She gets along with the other students and doesn't cause disruptions. [photo below left: First-grader Ashley Slupinski]

Jefferson, located on B Street near downtown Eureka, is Eureka City Unified's poorest school. According to school statistics, 98 percent of its families qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts because of low income. Its students scored an average of 676 on the state Academic Performance Index, giving it a statewide ranking of only 3 on a scale of 10, according to 2004 figures released from the Department of Education last week.

Statistics often reflect what's going on outside of school, as well as inside, but numbers can't tell the stories of children's lives. To get a glimpse of who Jefferson's first and second-graders are, I decided to visit for a day.

Kristi Puzz, 34, is a serious-looking woman who seems to have a knack for keeping an even keel in her classroom. A mother of three, she has worked in Eureka schools for nine years, including four at Jefferson. On the day of my visit, she is dressed comfortably in baggy pants and a loose, blue button-down shirt, her blond hair clipped up.

A classical music tape is playing as the kids file into the room from breakfast. Puzz tells them to get a book to read at their table (they don't have individual desks) for the few minutes prior to "morning meeting."

Miguel's day is not starting off well.

Instead of choosing a book, he's busy inspecting the paper cups on the windowsill that contain seeds the kids have planted. Some have sprouted a tiny green shoot. Miguel's reveals nothing but dirt.

"Miguel, I told you to get a book," Puzz says. Most of the other children are sitting at their tables, reading or simply looking at the pictures. A couple more minutes go by.

After another warning goes unheeded, Puzz tells Miguel he must go to the principal's office. She picks up her classroom phone. "Miguel's coming for five minutes," she says. No further explanation seems necessary, as if this kind of thing happens a lot.

It turns out that Miguel's mother forgot to give him his attention-deficit medication this morning -- something that Principal Catalina Nocon manages to figure out. He stays in the office until his mother can bring it to him.

First-grader Dylan Roberts has chosen The 3 Bears Pop-Up Book, a version of the Goldilocks story, but it sits on his table unopened. Dylan rubs his eyes and yawns.

Puzz blows a train whistle to signal the end of reading time. "One!" she says loudly to get the students' attention. "Two. Three. Four. Five. Ears listening. Eyes on me. Mouth quiet. Hands still. Feet not moving."

As their teacher counts, the kids slowly come to attention. She tells them to put their books away and go to the carpet for morning meeting. The kids sit on the floor in front of her.

The "meeting" starts with a taped song to which the kids sing along. "The world is a rainbow with many kinds of people," they sing, reading the words from brightly painted posters they've made to illustrate the song. "The world is a mixing cup, just look what happens when we stir it up." It's an apt tune for the group, which includes two African American kids, three Latinos, two or three Native Americans and several whites.

Puzz takes attendance and notes that two of the kids are missing. Then she calls on Ashley, who has something she desperately wants to share.

"My tooth is really loose, and I'm wiggling it and wiggling it, and I'm not sure if it's gonna come out today or tomorrow or April!" Ashley says with a big smile, demonstrating the movement with one finger. She's never lost one before. "This is your first tooth?!" a little girl next to her asks. Ashley nods proudly.

The class reads a poem about spring together, then Puzz goes over the week's spelling words; they will have a test later. The words all end in "er," like brother, mother, after and over.

Justin is having trouble paying attention. He's a wiry kid with an athletic shirt and jeans worn to holes at the knees. Puzz tells him to get up off the carpet and sit in a brown chair behind him. He chooses a blue one on the other side of the group instead. At first, Puzz seems not to notice this, continuing with the group discussion. Then it's apparent that what she is doing is giving Justin a chance to cooperate. He doesn't.

"Justin, I asked you to sit in that chair and I'd like you to sit there right now. I'm going to count to three," she says.

He moves in the direction of the brown chair, slowly. "I can sit in any chair I want," he says softly to himself. He gets to the brown chair, but does not sit in it. He stands in front of it and leans against it backwards.

Puzz has not given up, nor has she lost her temper.

"I'd like you to put your bottom on the chair, Justin," she says. He claims a few more seconds of victorious recalcitrance, then gives in and sits.

Some such disruptions are normal for any classroom with young children, but Puzz says it's especially difficult to keep her kids "on task" and focused on their learning.

"We've had houses burning down, mom-and-dad issues, fights -- just a lot of things you wouldn't want your first-grader worrying about. Whether or not they're going to have dinner that night, whether or not they're going to have a place to sleep, or who's going to pick them up, those kinds of issues.

"Kids are pretty resilient," she continues, "but sometimes if things are really hard, then they're acting out, then I notice. Then it does get in the way of their learning."

Over the years she's seen "more and more kids who are in crisis" -- moving from place to place, or living in a motel, or with a parent in jail -- "more than I've ever seen."


Puzz reads a story aloud to the first-graders while the second-graders move to a table to do their spelling test with an aide, or more accurately a "reading tech" who spends an hour a day in the classroom. Another reading specialist works individually throughout the week with the four kids who are having the most difficulty. (The extra staff are wonderful to have, Puzz says, but she wishes she also had a full-time aide, as many schools outside of Eureka do.)

Most of the kids listen attentively to the story, but there is constant fidgeting. Carrie, who lives with her grandmother, pulls up her right pant leg to inspect a scraped knee, lifting the Band-Aid to peer at the wound, then sticking it back down. Justin, who's now back on the carpet, taps a pencil on the floor. Without interrupting the story, Puzz reaches out her hand for it.

Next on the agenda is a student "interview" of Terry, a new kid in class. He is the fourth child to join Puzz's cadre since the start of the school year -- and four or five others who were there at the beginning have left. The transiency rate at a school like Jefferson is enormous; Nocon estimates that an average of 25 or 30 percent of a classroom will turn over in the course of a year. Families get evicted from their apartments, or need to move to be closer to work, or lose their transportation, or the child is sent to live with a relative for some reason, Puzz says. "That's real common here," she says, "that revolving door."

"What's your favorite thing to eat?" one kids asks Terry.

"Pizza," Terry says, after someone suggests it. He speaks so softly Puzz doesn't hear him at first.

"What's your favorite TV show?"

"Dragonball Z."

After the interview, Puzz instructs the second-graders to write a sentence about something Terry likes to do. The first-graders are told to simply write Terry's name and draw a picture of him. Ashley draws a surprisingly good picture of Terry kicking a ball to another kid.

"She loves going to school," her mother, 29-year-old Mandi Slupinski, tells me later. The family has been so pleased with Jefferson, its small atmosphere (there are 200 kids), and its teachers that they continue to send Ashley and her brother there even though they moved to Fortuna last fall. Mandi Slupinski works as a preschool teacher in Eureka, so she drops the kids off on her way.

The Slupinskis moved to Eureka four years ago from Monterey for the cheaper rent. Though both she and her husband work, Mandi Slupinksi says times are tight. She makes $10 an hour.

"There's not much money left for having fun," she says. "Me and my husband haven't been on a date since we got married. They say money can't buy happiness, but it would sure make things a lot easier. That's why I want my kids to have a good education, because I don't want them to be in the same situation that my husband and me are in all the time. We get by, but it sure would be nice to not have to worry about having the money to buy enough gas to get yourself to work for the next two weeks."


[kids and teacher holding parachute in playground]

At 9:45, it's "motor-perception time," a fancy way of saying the kids get to go outside and play with a large, multicolored parachute that they lift up and down together. "The parachute's about working together and being a team," Puzz tells them. At 10, it's time for recess. It's also snack time. Several of the kids have saved parts of their breakfast to eat now: bananas, apples, the goldfish crackers. Some have brought snacks from home. Carrie sits on a bench, rips open a package of Top Ramen and eats it uncooked, chunk by chunk. Three other kids beg her for a piece. She shares.

Puzz says she buys snacks from Costco out of her own pocket to have for the kids who get hungry, "Saltines or graham crackers or something that will tide them over."

By 10:25, recess is over and the class reviews the spelling words once more. After the spelling test, the kids sit on the carpet again, and Puzz leads a discussion about days of the week, and the difference between "today," "yesterday" and "tomorrow." The kids count by fives to 100. Then, it's time for a math project involving jelly beans. Working in pairs, the students must sort a bag of 36 jelly beans by color, then make a tally of how many of each color there are. She demonstrates the sorting on a digital projector -- a machine that projects an enlarged image of anything placed on top of its screen.

"Do they all taste the same?" Ashley asks.

"I don't know," Puzz says, "but you'll be able to try them if you do a good job." This is a powerful incentive; the children get to work.

Trevor, a tough-looking kid who's been reprimanded a couple times this morning, blusters, "I don't want no partner `cause I can eat all these. I can eat all these on my own." Before he's finished tallying the candies, several disappear into his mouth.


At 11:45, after a post-jelly-bean sugar dance, it's time for lunch. The kids line up at their classroom door, then follow Puzz down the hall to the cafeteria, where they have the choice of any or all items on the menu today: a "taco pocket" (a sort of hot pie with taco filling inside), fruit, yogurt, fruit leather, carrots and raw broccoli with a tiny cup of dip, and a cookie. Two sets of crates at the end of the line hold chocolate and regular milk. Almost all of the kids choose chocolate.

One second-grader makes it to the end of the line with just a cookie. An alert playground monitor, an engaging 20-something guy named Cory Biondini, spies him.

"No way, Julio," he says good-naturedly. "Put the cookies back. You don't get junk food until you eat some real food today."

[Dylan Roberts reading a book][Photo at right: Dylan Roberts reads Bears on Wheels]

A kitchen worker overhears, and apologizes to Julio for not having a sandwich ready for him. "I'll see if I can get you one," she says. To me, she adds, "He doesn't eat hardly anything but peanut butter." She returns with the sandwich minutes later.

I sit down near Dylan and try to strike up a conversation. He has beautiful gray-blue eyes and he gazes at me, not really sure why this stranger is asking him questions. His favorite food is cereal, "except not the raisin kind." He's lost three teeth, two in kindergarten and one this year, and he doesn't remember how his two front teeth got chipped. His favorite part of school is working on the computers that they have in Puzz's classroom.

His mother, Michelle Moody, 28, tells me later that she's a single parent who has been trying to make some difficult changes in her life. She resists giving details. Things are better now than they were a couple of years ago, she says: She and her three boys (Douglas, 8, Dylan, 6, and 22-month-old Dustin) live in a two-bedroom apartment in Eureka, low-income housing for which she pays about $450 a month. She had a temporary job last year, but it ended in December, and now she's looking for work.

Dylan likes Jefferson, his mother says, and he's attended since kindergarten, so it's been a consistent part of his life. "He's doing pretty good," she said. "On the way home earlier, he was showing me how he could read, could sound out words and read them."

After lunch, it's recess again, and the kids run madly around the playground. Ashley and second-grader Ismael Orona sit to talk.

[Ismael Orona]Ismael [photo at left], a bright, active kid with dancing eyes, says he lives nearby with his father, who works at a cheese factory; his mother; and his two older brothers. Though he's classified as an "English learner," he seems perfectly at ease with his new language, and I don't hear him speaking Spanish even once during the day.

He holds my tape recorder as I ask the questions. He likes to play on the computer when he gets home from school, he says. "Like, I go to the Internet and go to Cartoon Network."

What's for supper?

"Um, I don't really do supper," he says. Instead, he eats "fruity snacks, the snacks that are Spiderman." Spiderman fruit chews. And juice. Before bed, he likes to watch cartoons.

Another little girl from Ismael's class eyes the tape recorder. "I wanna talk!" she says. She's a lovable, animated child with shoes so worn out that her feet slope inward when she walks. She tells the tape recorder where she lives.

Does her mom or dad work nearby?

"I don't have a dad," she says.

[girl's worn out shoes]"What happened to your dad?" Ismael wants to know.

"He -- went away."

Ashley talks about her loose tooth again, then Ismael says he's lost "like 10 of them!" He reaches inside his mouth to point back toward his molars. "This one, the doctor took it, and it hurted," he says. "It was broke in half. I ate too much candy!"

Puzz says she sees lots of dental problems among her kids, "and kids in critical need -- I've had kids in pain, and that's really hard." Poor families often cannot find a dentist who will treat their kids, because many will not accept Medi-Cal or Healthy Families insurance. Fortunately, the school will be visited next month by a dental van operated by Open Door Community Health Centers, which will offer free treatment for kids whose parents return a permission slip.


Back in the classroom, it's time for the kids to take out their seed journals. They are tracking the progress of little bean seeds they planted in their paper cups. Each cup is labeled with the child's name.

"Write about what you see happening," Puzz tells the students.

In careful lettering, Ismael writes: "Mine is starting to pop up And it is Amazing."

Writing projects are a great way for kids to learn to express themselves, and they often elicit deep feelings, Puzz says.

A class project displayed on a bulletin board consists of enlarged Xerox copies of $100 bills, with each child's school photo pasted over Benjamin Franklin's face. The assignment was for kids to describe how they would spend such a vast amount of money.

"If I had a 100 dollars I will get a Quad and a dirt bike. and a car and a ice cream," Dylan writes.

"If I had 100 dollars I would buy a house and stuff to go in it," writes one girl. "I would buy a fridge, and food."

Another girl writes, "If I had 100 dollars I would buy a mansion because my mom lives in a motel."

Principal Nocon said that educators can tell even at this early grade level which kids are going to have problems later on. "We can tell at kindergarten -- unless things get turned around -- just because of behavior."

Despite the low overall test scores, Jefferson was ranked 8 on a scale of 10 last week among "similar schools," meaning that it does well among schools that have similar demographics, and Nocon is happy about that.

But school can only go so far. "School isn't enough unless [learning] extends into the evening," she says. That can be as simple as talking with a child about what they did in school, or building something together, or reading the road signs as you drive home.

Puzz says she does what she can. "I try my best to make this be the safe haven. I want it to feel like home and family, because that's what they need."


The Family Advocate's office at Jefferson School helps provide shoes, clothing and medical referrals to its families who need them. For more information, call 441-2493, or contact a school near you to find out how you can help.




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