Noe Valley Voice October 2007

Alvarado School Determined Not to Leave Any Child Behind

By Bob Oaks

When Todd David and Tiffany Loewenberg finished researching where to send their son Noah to kindergarten, they chose Alvarado Elementary School on Douglass Street. They considered private, religious, and other district elementary schools, but they were especially attracted to Alvarado's award-winning Spanish-language immersion program. They also wanted Noah to attend a school that reflected San Francisco's cultural diversity.

Noah has only been an Alvarado student for a couple of months, but his parents are convinced they made the right choice. The school is "outstanding," says David. Noah eagerly goes off each morning and willingly does the five to ten minutes of homework he gets each day.

Besides having a head start in Spanish, Noah will get to take part in the Alvarado Arts Program, a legacy of renowned Noe Valley artist Ruth Asawa. The school's playground murals, created by the students and supported by several foundation grants, have received wide attention over the years.

Why then did this school--with a solid reputation for excellence--find itself this year on the "needing improvement" list, under criteria established by the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act?

Principal Robert Broecker, brand new to his job in 2007 (though a teacher at Alvarado for several years before that), insists that Alvarado is a "thriving, successful school," and that the No Child Left Behind law does not adequately measure those successes. Even the state of California, Broecker points out, recognizes Alvarado as a school of distinction, on the basis of its having surpassed the magical 800 mark on the state's Academic Performance Index (API) two years in a row.

No Child Left Behind, passed by Congress in 2001, relies on annual California Standards Tests to measure success. Alvarado succeeded in 22 out of 23 areas, but because the school's English learners did not achieve "Adequate Yearly Progress" on the English Language Arts test for two years in a row, Broecker and his teachers are now under Program Improvement requirements. They have two years to improve their scores. If that does not happen, the school district will impose additional requirements each year that could ultimately lead to the restructuring or even closing of the school.

To some extent, the school's immersion program itself may contribute to the problem, Broecker says. The school's philosophy is that students learn academic subjects best in their primary language. Once they know the basics of a subject, it is relatively easy for students to later translate those concepts into English.

Beginning with kindergarten, Alvarado offers parallel classes in both English and Spanish. In the Spanish-immersion program, 80 to 90 percent of the kindergarten instruction is in Spanish. This percentage decreases each year, so that by the third, fourth, and fifth grades, only about 50 percent of instruction is in Spanish. However, the achievement tests that NCLB requires these third- through fifth-graders to take are all in English.

No one seems to question the underlying principles of No Child Left Behind. They agree that high expectations and accountability can improve students' performance. The challenge, Broecker says, is to find a way to do well enough on the tests so that the school can keep teaching in the way it thinks is best. Right now, there is a mismatch between the way Alvarado teaches and the way in which its students are tested.

PTA President Gabriela Tinoco says that a few concerned parents of English learners have questioned the wisdom of enrolling their children in the Spanish-immersion program rather than in English-only classes. Tinoco, herself, however, whose first-grade son Nick is in the immersion program, is convinced of the program's worthiness. Nick, she believes, is getting an "excellent" education.

Tim Danison, chairman of the school's Site Council, which consists of the principal, faculty members, and community representatives, has three children currently enrolled (and in the immersion program) and one who has recently graduated. Like the other parents, he is a strong supporter of Alvarado and its "dedicated staff." And like most, he supports the NCLB concept of getting all students to perform at grade level. Yet, the way the program is implemented, he says, "tends to penalize schools that otherwise serve minority students well."

To meet the challenge, Broecker, his faculty, and many parents are embarking on a series of measures to ensure that no child is left behind and that the school's language-immersion program will result in children proficient in both English and Spanish.

The first step will be to identify students who need extra help with English, based on their test scores. To provide this extra help, teachers are being trained in ways to improve the delivery of English language development during the day. Additionally, Broecker, working with the Site Council, is setting up after-school programs to provide writers' workshops to boost literacy skills.

Parents are an integral part of Program Improvement, the principal says. Todd David and others are actively recruiting parents to mentor students in the after-school program, called ExCel. Some volunteers will work for 60 to 90 minutes one afternoon a week to help students increase English and math scores. Others will provide child care for parents who want to participate in the mentoring program. Alvarado will also hold Family Learning Nights, where teachers will help parents understand ways in which they can extend the school curriculum to their homes.

Parents do have the opportunity to transfer their children to another school, but Broecker does not know a single parent contemplating such a move.

And the students? Largely unaware of the issues of NCLB, they are having fun learning. Just ask them!