Eliot Elementary a soaring success

Rudy Gonzales assists students from left, Bobbie Wallace, Jose

At Eliot Elementary, it’s never business as usual. With a
constant flow of new ideas, cutting edge technology and a
collaborative spirit, Eliot has stunned educators with academic
growth unparalleled in the Gilroy Unified School District.
amp;A with Eliot Principal James Dent
At Eliot Elementary, it’s never business as usual. With a constant flow of new ideas, cutting edge technology and a collaborative spirit, Eliot has stunned educators with academic growth unparalleled in the Gilroy Unified School District.

In three years – the same amount of time Principal James Dent has held tenure – he and his students, teachers and parents have tacked an unprecedented 168 points onto the school’s score on the Academic Performance Index, a statewide measure of academic improvement on a 1,000-point scale.

Despite having the highest percentage of poor and English as a second language students in the district, the school went from being the lowest achieving elementary school to almost the highest second only to Luigi Aprea Elementary – which sits in one of the district’s wealthiest neighborhoods and educates a decidedly more affluent population.

Dent came to Eliot in 2007 from the Pajaro Valley Unified School District at a time when the school was experiencing low-student achievement and even lower morale. Only a few weeks on the job, Dent received the results of his new school’s performance on the state’s 2007 standardized test. They were the worst results in the district. Not only was the school the lowest scoring of all the elementary schools, it had actually lost 13 points on the API since the previous year.

“You can imagine how discouraging that is when you’re pouring your heart and soul into something and not getting the results,” he said.

A renewed focus on the state academic standards, combined with an infusion of new technology and a willingness of teachers and the district’s administration to try a fresh approach turned the school on its end.

“It was a perfect storm,” Dent said.

The next time he received a round of test results for Eliot, it was an undeniably different experience from the first. The school added 89 points to its API score, the most of any school in the entire county. The next year saw a 23-point jump. Though it’s not official yet, the district estimates Eliot will see significant growth again when last spring’s scores are released in a few weeks – 56 points, to be exact. Now the third elementary school to surpass the statewide API goal of 800, Eliot’s score is 836, compared to 852 at Luigi Aprea.

“Luigi better be watching out for them,” Superintendent Deborah Flores joked during an Aug. 26 awards ceremony recognizing the staff and students at Eliot for their success.

What sets Eliot apart is a dogged drive toward improvement, Dent said.

At Eliot, “there is no downtime,” he said. Teachers make use of every minute of the school day, and then some.

“We just bombard them with learning and high expectations,” Dent said. “They have to perform.”

If students don’t meet their daily academic goals, they spend extra time in the classroom.

“There are a lot of adults that think we’re too intense in that way, but the kids absolutely love it,” Dent said. “They love the success that they get when they achieve what we expect them to achieve, and it’s just created a total change in how the students see themselves. They totally believe.”

So do parents and teachers.

“I had no doubts,” said Maria Zendejas, the mother of fourth-grade triplets. “I knew from the beginning that it was going to succeed. I had faith.”

The strength and dedication of the teachers made the difference, Zendejas said. Classroom time is interspersed with time in the computer lab, working on programs such as Successmaker, Accelerated Reader and ST Math.

When students are in the class, it’s not the typical classroom scene of a teacher at the chalkboard with students only partially paying attention to a lesson.

Instead, it’s all eyes on a lesson that’s projected on the board, with a teacher constantly circulating through the desks with a remote device – called a Mobi – in hand. As the teacher works a problem on the Mobi, the solution is projected onto a screen. Eliot teachers strive for 100 percent engagement and, often, they achieve it.

But getting there wasn’t always easy, said fifth-grade teacher Nancy Hewitt. After more than a decade on the job, she had to completely revamp her teaching method.

Faced with learning a new curriculum and how to incorporate the new technology, Hewitt said teachers went through a lot of changes. But Dent’s support and the end result have made it worth their while.

“I didn’t believe it,” Hewitt said of the test scores. “I cried.”

Not one to hole up in his office, Dent can often be found co-teaching with his staff during the school day. Still ironing the wrinkles out of a new curriculum, he and Hewitt teamed up for a math lesson last week. When one forgot to execute a certain step in the lesson, the other adult, and sometimes even the children, caught on quickly and pointed out the missed step.

“He’s made it so it’s not a scary thing,” Hewitt said of the new teaching style.

And since all the strategies are basically borrowed from other successful schools Dent and his teachers have visited, their success is “absolutely” replicable at Gilroy’s other schools, Dent said.

The school has created a culture of accountability, where excuses are unacceptable and, frankly, unnecessary.

One of the first aspects educators point to when a school founders is its demographics.

Three out of four Eliot students are classified as English learners and all but about a dozen students at the school qualify for free or reduced lunch. But to Dent and his staff, those statistics are inconsequential.

“Those students are as capable of learning as anyone else,” Dent said. “The issue is really to change the mindset of the adults. When they begin to believe, that creates a positive feedback cycle. It just gets better and better every year.”

As a parent, Zendejas said Eliot’s mission is refreshing.

“You hear that a lot – that there’s no hope for these kids,” she said, bouncing her youngest on her knee. “That they can’t do it. Yeah, they could, if they have the right teachers, the right motivation. They certainly can do it. These kids are living proof that it can be done.”

Eliot’s API score is just a symbol of what its students are capable of, parents and teachers said.

“Even though it’s just a number, it represents a better future for all of these kids,” Dent said. “Their lives are being turned around because they’re doing so well. College is a realistic expectation and possibility for these students and every student we can get on that path is going to have a much better life.”