Pulling out of a nose dive

Brandon Cook, right, helps fellow classmate Rowan Briggs hold

While the majority of the country focuses on boosting the test
scores of the nation’s lowest achieving students, Brownell Middle
School staff refuses to neglect its highest performers.
While the majority of the country focuses on boosting the test scores of the nation’s lowest achieving students, Brownell Middle School staff refuses to neglect its highest performers.

Wrapping up its first year as the only Gilroy middle school that offers a self-contained Gifted and Talented Education program, Brownell has seen enormous success, said GATE teacher Jackie Stevens, who came to Brownell after about 15 years in the Morgan Hill Unified School District. The school resurrected the program, which used to be offered at Brownell when Stevens’ own children attended about 10 years ago. This year, 35 sixth grade students are enrolled in the program, which will expand to a sixth and seventh grade class next year.

“The entire educational establishment is hysterical over a certain population of kids that are not proficient on a certain test,” Stevens said. “The truth is that in the meantime, the rest of us who are actually in the classroom are just trying to provide a quality educational experience for all students, including the ones who are already proficient and advanced.”

Brownell is in its fifth year of Program Improvement, a designation given to schools that do not make federal growth targets on standardized tests. This school year, federal legislation mandates that schools must have 56 percent of students at or above proficiency on state standardized tests. The goal is to have 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math by 2014 – a goal many critics say is unattainable.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which was signed into law by former President George Bush, families may transfer their children from a PI designated school to one that has made federal growth targets. For that reason, Brownell, which once housed as many as 900 students, has only about 630 students, said Principal Greg Camacho-Light. South Valley Middle School is also in its fifth year of Program Improvement and has also seen its population dwindle

Because of transfers from these schools, Ascencion Solorsano Middle School, the district’s only non-PI middle school, will have a population of almost 1,200 next year and will require nearly $650,000 for new classrooms and restrooms.

“It’s a dysfunctional system,” Stevens said. “The law had good intentions but it’s resulted in unintended negative consequences. The irony is that we built Solorsano because the other two junior highs were overcrowded. Now we have Solorsano, which is overflowing, and we’re spending extra facilities money to accommodate that overflow.”

Like all PI schools, Brownell is working to pull its lowest performers out of the bottom ranks of academic achievement. But at the same time, schools can’t forget about the needs of their top performers, Stevens said.

“Without appropriate programs designed to meet their needs, the gifted and talented student will often be the student that will learn the least,” she said. “The goal of every student should be to grow and learn every year. That’s not going to happen if we’re teaching them things they already know how to do.”

Seventy-five percent of the students Brownell has lost to Solorsano from transfers are proficient and advanced in math and reading, Stevens said. Brownell wants to lure those students back with its GATE program.

“If those kids were here, perhaps we would be out of PI,” she said.

About 10 years ago, when Stevens’ own children attended Brownell, the school was known for its strong staff, leadership and academic offerings, including a model GATE program, she said. When Solorsano opened in August 2003, taking many of the district’s strongest teachers with it, Brownell began to struggle, Stevens said. A series of principals who came and left after only a short time compounded the problem.

But with a stable administration – Camacho-Light and Assistant Principal Kristen Shouse are both wrapping up their second year at the school – and some strong additions to the school’s staff, Stevens said she’s confident the school will continue to see improved results.

“The recipe is the same: strong administrators; experienced, stable staff; and supportive, involved parents,” she said.

Sherri Laveroni is one parent who received a letter in the mail from the school district notifying her that she had the option of sending her sixth grade daughter to Solorsano. Yet she chose the GATE program at Brownell.

“I didn’t even consider sending her to Solorsano,” Laveroni said. “Absolutely not. I’m very, very happy with the quality of education she’s receiving. So many people I know didn’t even give Brownell a chance.”

Laveroni’s son also attended Brownell. The school’s PI status doesn’t bother her, she said, and she tells her friends that when they ask.

“I don’t think it’s totally the PI situation,” she said. “A lot of people also go for the facilities, whether they want to admit it or not.”

Solorsano Principal Sal Tomasello said he urges parents who want to transfer their children to his school to speak with the principals of their neighborhood schools before making a decision.

“All I can do is encourage them to give the two schools a chance,” he said.

Though Stevens admitted Brownell “cannot compete with that shiny, new campus,” she stood by the academics. “I’m confident that what we’re offering here is competitive with any school.”

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