Categories
Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Is Grade 8 Too Early for Algebra?

Is Grade 8 Too Early for Algebra?

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District boasts the third-highest test scores in the state of California. So it would be natural to assume that a relatively large share of its eighth-graders are on the accelerated track in mathematics.

Conversely, the Lennox school district has the highest rate of poverty in the South Bay. One might assume that a disproportionate number of its eighth-graders take it slower in math.

But the opposite is true.

In affluent Manhattan Beach, 44 percent of eighth- graders took algebra I or higher in 2009-10, the latest available data from the California Department of Education. The corresponding figure in Lennox was 94 percent.

The comparison of Manhattan Beach and Lennox mirrors an odd trend that is happening statewide. While the overall rate of eighth-graders taking algebra is skyrocketing, the change is most dramatic among low-income school districts serving disadvantaged minorities, according to a February study by EdSource, a nonprofit research group.

“If you’re a student from a disadvantaged background – and are African-American or Hispanic – you are more likely to be placed in an algebra class in eighth grade than if you are a white suburban kid in an affluent district,” said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, and a critic of California’s algebra rush. “The schools in the suburbs still have standards for entrants.”

The phenomenon is partly the result of a 2008 decision by the state Board of Education mandating algebra in the eighth grade.

This was at the urging of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who drew parallels between universal eighth- grade algebra and putting a man on the moon.

The policy was later challenged successfully in court, and so is not currently law. But it nonetheless added encouragement to a trend that had already begun: More and more eighth-graders in California are taking algebra I or higher, regardless of whether they are ready for it.

In just seven years beginning in 2002-03, the statewide percentage of such students has nearly doubled, from 34percent to 62 percent.

As for Loveless, he conducted a widely reported study three years ago looking at the bottom 10th percentile of U.S. eighth-graders in mathematics. About a third of these low scorers on a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress were enrolled in algebra I or higher.

“A large percentage are functioning at the second- to third-grade level,” Loveless told the Daily Breeze. “For instance, they don’t know fractions.”

Closer to home, EdSource this year released a study examining how the push has affected California students.

The study concluded that while taking algebra in eighth grade serves the most prepared students well, it also has set many students up to fail.

The study found, for instance, that a third of students who performed poorly in regular seventh-grade math were nonetheless placed into algebra I in eighth grade, “with almost no chance for success.”

Loveless credited Manhattan Beach’s approach as sensible. There, a large chunk of students – about a third – take algebra in two parts, the first in eighth grade, the second in ninth.

Here, too, the number of students completing algebra I in eighth grade is slowly rising. But Manhattan Beach administrators say they are more concerned that students have a solid grasp of the material.

“Are all kids ready for that level of abstraction and complexity by eighth grade?” district spokeswoman Carolyn Seaton said. “Many (experts) say no.”

As it happens, school districts with low numbers of eighth-graders completing algebra I actually get dinged by the state on test scores. But this doesn’t concern John Jackson, principal of Manhattan Beach Middle School.

“Our job is to get them ready for high school, and that’s what we do really well,” he said.

(It could be argued that Manhattan Beach Middle School, with its off-the-charts API of 941, has a few points to spare.)

As for Lennox, its eighth- graders have struggled in recent years to master the algebra class in which they were placed. In 2009-10, a disappointing 27 percent scored proficient or better on the Algebra I California Standards Test.

But Joann Isken, the Lennox district’s assistant superintendent of instructional services, said the district three years ago launched an initiative to boost performance in the elementary grades, with an eye toward the ultimate goal: that all eighth-graders not only take algebra I, but also succeed.

She said the effort is beginning to pay off: Last year, it produced a class of students so advanced they were able to take algebra in seventh grade.

“We’re very excited about the progress we’re seeing,” she said. Administrators, she added, are waiting with bated breath for the release later this summer of the latest California Standards Test results.

Math problem

There were 90 employees in a company last year. This year the number of employees increased by 10 percent. How many employees are in the company this year?

A) 9

B) 81

C) 91

D) 99

E) 100

The answer is D.

A report by the Brookings Institution found that only 49 percent of eighth-graders taking algebra knew the correct answer.

Categories
Pacific Standard Magazine

What Are American Schools Doing Right?

Amid the hand-wringing over the parlous state of U.S. education, experts suggest that successes demonstrate that lasting reform will require constellations of effort, not just stars.

What Are American Schools Doing Right?

We hear it over and over again: The public education system in the United States is broken. Smart teachers burn out and leave early. The achievement gap between poor minority students and their affluent white peers won’t budge. America is losing ground to other developed nations on test scores.

By now, anyone who has ever read a newspaper — assuming, alarmists may add, that you can read at all — understands that the American public education system is rife with problems. But, surely, some practices work. Isn’t there a way to look at examples of success and replicate them?

With these questions in mind, Miller-McCune.com talked to a handful of leading education experts. Some say the American public education system is ripe for a re-boot and should emulate European countries like Finland, where students don’t take standardized tests, and where local teachers and administrators — not the government — design the curriculum. Others point to the early success of a program in Chicago in which every new teacher receives an instructional coach for two years. Still others argue that while there is always room for improvement, schools in the United States remain the world’s finest and are performing at peak levels.

Whatever the case, there are, of course, plenty of success stories. Often, they center on the innovative efforts of an inspiring, charismatic individual who is able to single-handedly boost the test scores and overall learning experiences of hundreds of students.

Take the story of a 35-year-old teacher in California named Alex Kajitani, now known as “The Rappin’ Mathematician.”

The Rappin’ Mathematician
By 2006, Kajitani had been teaching for a couple years and was on the verge of burnout. It’s a typical scenario: Half of the nation’s new teachers quit the profession by their fifth year.

Raised in Boulder, Colo., Kajitani had landed his first job as an educator teaching eighth-grade algebra in one of the poorest parts of the San Diego metropolitan area. At Mission Middle School in Escondido, 9 in 10 students are Latino, and just as many are categorized as poor. More than half are still learning English, and two-thirds of their parents never finished high school.

What’s more, the neighborhood sees gang activity and violent crime thrive.

Needless to say, it was difficult to get the kids interested in learning their quadratics and polynomials.

“I couldn’t get them to pay attention or remember anything I was teaching,” Kajitani said. “Then I noticed a rap song came out on the radio on Monday, and by Tuesday, they pretty much had the whole thing memorized.”

Kajitani had an epiphany. He would write a rap song based on algebra. That night, he labored away on a song called “Itty Bitty Dot.” It was about decimals.

The next morning, a reinvigorated Kajitani came to school equipped with a large pair of sunglasses. At the beginning of the class, he put them on and performed his rap for the students. Their reaction wasn’t encouraging.

“It was just an absolute disaster,” he said. “I got completely laughed at.”

Kajitani figured he was finished. Dejected, he trudged off to lunch. Then, a funny thing happened. While walking past a table in the cafeteria, he heard kids singing the “Itty Bitty Dot” song. The next day, the students ran into his room, eager to be there, asking if he had plans to appear on MTV.

Kajitani wrote more songs. The test scores of his students soared. He cut a professional CD with the help of a music producer and gave himself a catchy, if endearingly nerdy, moniker: “The Rappin’ Mathematician.”

Later, Kajitani began bringing a boombox into the classroom. His unorthodox method caught the attention of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Kajitani was nominated to become the teacher of the year in the Escondido Union School District. He won, putting him in the running for 2009 teacher of the year in San Diego County. Again, he won, making him a candidate for the California’s Teacher of the Year award.

Once again, the Rappin’ Mathematician prevailed, earning him the praise of California’s superintendent of public instruction, Jack O’Connell.

Now, Kajatani is one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award. (The winner will be announced in April.) His CD is sold to teachers around the country, and his students are scoring “proficient” in all algebraic categories, putting them just above the statewide average.

“Now that I look back on it, it wasn’t really about rapping, it was about connecting,” Kajitani said. “It’s connecting with my students on their level in a way that is actually culturally relevant to them.”

Like Robin Williams’s performance as a spirited, book-destroying teacher in the critically acclaimed movie Dead Poet’s Society, Kajitani’s story is inspiring. Upon hearing it, school districts everywhere might consider purchasing his CD by the dozen. Inner-city teachers might be tempted to write songs around their lessons, or at least figure out ways to become more culturally relevant to their students. Administrators might strive to make room in their budgets for boomboxes and sunglasses.

If only it were that easy.

After spending years researching successful education systems, Boston College professor Andrew Hargreaves likes to issue a warning that, at first blush, seems a little odd: Beware the educational innovators.

Beware of Innovators
It’s not that the results of people like Kajitani aren’t legitimate. It’s just that an innovator’s successes usually cannot be replicated and tend to fizzle in the wake of his or her departure, said Hargreaves, the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.

“You can always point to an interesting example of innovation; they always exist: a teacher here, a school there,” he said. “Our evidence is that most of those collapse over time and are not sustainable — because they are exceptions.”

Does this mean the quest for sustainable reform is fruitless? Absolutely not, says Hargreaves, author of the award-winning book Teaching In The Knowledge Society: Education in the Age of Insecurity.

According to Hargreaves, though educational innovators are beneficial, the best beacons of reform are not individual teachers, principals or schools but entire districts, cities and even nations.

Because every district, city and nation has its own unique history, what works for one might not work for all. In other words, successful system-wide reform comes in many shapes and sizes. But Hargreaves argues that the standouts share several underlying principles. It’s the principles, he says — not any specific practice — that must be internalized.

One of the key principles, Hargreaves said, is this: Successful reformers know how to build on the best aspects of their cultural past to take them into a prosperous future.

As an example, Hargreaves and many others point to Finland. The Nordic country of 5 million people is the world’s top performer on a global test called the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is given to students of every developed nation for comparative purposes.

The country’s economy is bustling, owing in large part to its technological creativity and corporate transparency. (Although in recent months, Finland’s economy has taken a hit like nearly all the others in the world.)
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, the country was considered a rural backwater. Its education system went unnoticed by most experts in the field. Through the 1970s and ’80s, Finland’s economy depended on trade with its neighbor, the Soviet Union. But the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 opened up trade to other parts of the world for Russia — Finland had lost its captive market.

A crisis ensued. Unemployment in Finland shot up to nearly 20 percent. The nation’s leaders convened in emergency meetings to brainstorm ways to reinvent themselves. As a small country covered in snow for half the year, Finland does not enjoy the luxury of easily accessible natural resources.

Eventually, the leaders concluded that the country’s most valuable resource was its own people. After all, it’s a creative population: The country boasts more musical composers and orchestras per capita than anywhere else in the world. The leaders decided to build an economy based on knowledge, which required providing its citizens with the finest public education anywhere.

The general idea, Hargreaves said, was to connect its cultural past of creativity to a future of economic innovation.

It worked.

In his research of Finland, Hargreaves made several key observations. There, it is not easy to become a teacher. Only 1 in 10 applicants get the job, which affords the position a certain cachet. In keeping with the country’s creative past, all students take performing and creative arts until they graduate high school. With an eye toward the country’s economic future, students are also exposed to a rigorous math and science curriculum.

On a policy level, the standards and expectations are clear but broad: Local educators enjoy a good deal of professional flexibility. The details of the curricula are decided not by the government but the local teachers themselves, who hammer it out together in a culture of trust and cooperation, Hargreaves said.

“They feel responsible for all the children, not just the ones in their grade or department,” he said. The teachers, in other words, feel like they are a part of something large and important.

Moreover, there is no standardized testing. Every year a random sample of students is assessed but only to decipher how well any given school is performing. This discourages instructors from “teaching to the test,” because they don’t know who will be tested.

Hargreaves notes that critics of looking at Finland as an educational paragon often point out that the small, homogenous country can’t be compared to large, diverse nations such as the United States.

But he said many of the same principles are at play in other miracle-story school systems, with entirely different student populations.

The Story of Tower Hamlets
Hargreaves cites Tower Hamlets, an impoverished borough of London filled with Bangladeshi immigrants.

In 1997, of all the local school districts across England, the district in Tower Hamlets fared dead last based on test scores. By 2007, the district, which includes about 100 schools, was scoring at or above the national average in every subject while the demographics of the system remained the same.
What had changed?

In this case, it started with a strong leader who sought to re-configure the system in a way that would outlast her tenure, Hargreaves said.

As in the United States, the United Kingdom sets the improvement targets for all the nation’s school districts. But the new leader decided that in order to spur reform, new standards and targets had to be crafted for Tower Hamlets that were more ambitious than those given to them by the government.

Similar to what has been done in Finland, the district’s educators were brought in to set the new targets together.

Also, in 1997, teacher quality was often poor. This is because many teachers came from out of the country for the purpose of enjoying London for a couple years before moving on. More energy was devoted to attracting and retaining teachers who either hailed from the community or had designs to stay there.

In addition, in Tower Hamlets, the stronger schools band together to help the weak. A high-performing school may lend a struggling school extra resources — such as teachers or administrators — during tough times. When this occurs, the stronger school is reimbursed by the district.

Finally, Hargreaves said, in Tower Hamlets, the district makes a point to hire assistants for virtually every teacher. The assistants often are residents of the community, meaning many are Bangladeshi parents. In fact, about half of every school’s total number of paid employees are assistants from the community. This accomplishes two things: It frees up time for teachers to focus on instruction, and it fosters a relationship between the school staff and the parents, Hargreaves said.

Despite the radical differences between the Bangladeshi immigrants of the Tower Hamlets district and the largely homogenous population of Finland, Hargreaves argues that the two systems benefited from some of the same underpinning principles.

In both places, the professional educators were called upon to take ownership of an urgent mission, local educators were tasked with the responsibility of crafting their own set of standards, the school systems made conscious attempts to hire good teachers, and, rather than competing against one other, all the schools within each system rallied together, pooling resources and — in the case of Tower Hamlets — devoting extras to the laggards. (Hargreaves said the Finnish system doesn’t really have laggards.)

“What matters are the principles,” Hargreaves said. “What we have in most of America are principles that completely contradict everything I’ve just discussed, except for the sense of urgency.”

One thing Tower Hamlets didn’t do, in the face of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s national program, was farm out schools to the private sector.

One counterintuitive conclusion that Hargreaves touts is that school districts have a better shot at turning around weak schools when they are bigger. This flies in the face of the “smaller is better” ethos of many American public school educators.

“Some people want to put an end to districts, but I don’t think that is realistic,” he said. “Change that and you change one of the foundations in American democracy. But you can open your district up to learning from other districts.”

Hargreaves, however, allows that U.S. school-reform efforts are succeeding on one front: teacher training.

Chicago New Teacher Center
Over the past decade or so, a movement to pair new teachers with coaches or mentors has been growing in America. One such program, called the Chicago New Teacher Center, started three years ago. There, every new teacher in the schools serving the roughest areas of the city receives a coach for two years. The neighborhoods include some of the most violent in the country, including the one where the mother, brother and nephew of actress and singer Jennifer Hudson were killed in October.

As part of the program, the coach — typically a seasoned teacher, yet many years away from retirement — visits the classroom a couple times a week to act, at first, as a kind of assistant, helping to set up bulletin boards and decorate the classroom. As the weeks wear on, the coach assumes the role of confidant, asking the new teacher to talk about the most difficult aspects of the job.

Eventually, the coach provides feedback, which is expected to be non-threatening because the coaches are employed by the nonprofit New Teacher Center, not the school district. The idea is to objectively gauge how well a teacher is preparing his or her students to meet the state standards.

The coaches may offer pointers on handling some of the more delicate aspects of the job, such as parent-teacher conferences.

“Start with something positive,” advises Tamiko Clark, who taught elementary- and pre-school-aged kids in the Chicago area for 18 years before being recruited by the New Teacher Center. “Then you might get some information from the parents — ask what their concerns are.”

Only after making these efforts, she said, should teachers delve into their concerns about the child.

During the first two and a half years of the Chicago program, the retention rate of the roughly 90 teachers who received a coach the first year is 83 percent. So far, at least, the retention rate is on pace to significantly surpass the dismal national rate of 50 percent by the fifth year.

Also, early evidence suggests the test scores of the students are on the rise.

“School districts across America are starting to pay attention to this aspect of the work,” said Ellen Moir, executive director of the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which helped spearhead the Chicago project. “In the last few years, we’ve seen greater emphasis on teacher quality, instead of just letting them sink or swim.”

Middle School Success
Effective educational practices are especially vital when it comes to teaching what may be the most challenging age group: middle-schoolers. It’s an interesting and even difficult age as students learn to think abstractly.

Middle-school students, in their study of social-justice issues, develop an intellectual understanding of the concepts of fairness and egalitarianism. Yet when the bell rings, they don’t think twice about tormenting someone in the hallway.

“They can think about how, ‘Yeah, I know that’s the right thing to do,’ but they can’t always put it into practice,” said Debby Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.

Since 1999, the forum has identified nearly 200 exceptional middle schools and summarized the highlights of each school on its Web site.

Unlike the gold-star schools that have come to characterize the perennial lists of U.S. News & World Report, the forum’s exemplars tend to post test scores that are average. But average scores are often a major achievement for schools serving disadvantaged populations.

Take Torch Middle School in Los Angeles County’s City of Industry. Ninety-four percent of the students are Latino — a third are still learning English, and 86 percent are considered poor.

Torch’s test scores have skyrocketed in three years, and now not only hover around the state average but also fare in the top 10 percent when stacked against schools across California with similar demographics.

At Torch, students are required to wear uniforms, thereby discouraging social competition. To ease the transition from the elementary grades to high school, movement from class to class in minimized: Sixth-graders leave their classroom only for their elective and P.E., and seventh- and eighth-graders split their day into two main 104-minute periods.

As with many of the schools deemed successful by the forum, teachers at Torch meet with each other frequently and are good at sharing information on individual students. The students’ writing portfolios, for instance, are passed from one grade level to the next.

“Another thing we find is that the teachers and the administrators love being at these schools,” Kasak said. “They are great places to work. Over time, the culture has been built up.”

United States Still No. 1?
Not all education experts agree that American schools are on the wrong path.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that contrary to what we always hear, American schools have never been better.

“I happen to be one of those people that very much is convinced that in spite of the issues we have in public education in America, it’s still the best school system in the world,” he said. “We are the standard.”

Domenech said that partly due to the American education system’s constant push for improvement, it’s easy to view the data pessimistically.

“Yes, we can point to the fact that the graduation rate is only 70 percent and we should be doing better,” he said. But “it’s not like we dropped from 80 percent. The graduation rate continues to grow year after year. Fifty years ago, the percentage of kids graduating from high school was maybe 30 or 40 percent.”

Domenech concedes that the test scores of some countries have surpassed those of the United States, such as Singapore, New Zealand and, yes, Finland.

But these countries are small and homogenous, he said.

“Do we want to compare Finland to one of our rich suburbs? … Let’s face it, some of the finest schools in the world are in our suburbs.”

As an example, Domenech cites Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, Va., where he once served as superintendent. In December, for the second year in a row, U.S. News & World Report listed Jefferson High as the nation’s No. 1 public high school.

“Does Finland have a better high school than Thomas Jefferson? I doubt it,” he said.

What separates America from the rest of the world, Domenech said, is diversity.

“In Japan, all the students are Japanese,” he said. “In Fairfax, we had over 140 languages that were spoken. I didn’t even know that there were that many languages spoken in the world.”

Domenech said America’s educational success comes down largely to the country’s abundance of money.

With money, he said, American schools have been able to reduce class size, hire teachers at higher salaries, purchase sophisticated grading and attendance software and furnish classrooms with good computers.

Invariably, he said, the schools that fall behind are the ones filled with students who are poor.

“This isn’t brain surgery here,” he said. “The more wealth, the better the kids are going to do in school. If we want to close the achievement gap, we need to drive the money and the resources.”

Categories
Santa Barbara News Press Shifting Paradigms

Rich Kid, Poor Kid – and Few in Between

Note: To read the sidebar on the students in the photos, go to Class Divide: A Tale of 4 Families

Not long ago, when a Santa Barbara Junior High student missed the bus taking the water polo team to Los Angeles, he simply hopped on the family’s private jet and made the game in time. Another’s family is similarly wealthy – they’re looking at selling their home to Beanie Babies billionaire Ty Warner.

Conversely, a boy at the school lives in a three-bedroom apartment with his mother, five brothers, a couple who sleep in the living room and two men who sublease a bedroom. Last year, another student was among 22 relatives living in the same two-bedroom house.

Santa Barbara Junior High, at 721 E. Cota St., is a campus of contrasts like few others. And, like the city in which it’s located, the school appears to be becoming more so. With its plethora of both wealthy and poor students – and relatively few students in between – the school’s demographics mirror those of the South Coast, which experts say is losing its middle class.

Shane is an aspiring golfer who lives in Montecito and has a swimming pool, chipping green and a sand trap in his backyard.
Shane is an aspiring golfer who lives in Montecito and has a swimming pool, chipping green and a sand trap in his backyard.

Built in 1932, the campus is an architectural gem: red-tile roofing, soft-ivory facade, tiled walls and cherub-adorned bell tower. Equally striking is its demographic makeup. Located near Milpas Street, the school draws students from two worlds that, in some cases, are mere blocks apart.

About 200 of some 930 students hail from the moneyed hills of Montecito; most could afford their pick of local private schools.

David is among just a handful of the school’s students who are homeless. He and his father, Lee Haralson, share a tarp-covered RV in a parking lot at Dwight Murphy Field.
David is among just a handful of the school’s students who are homeless. He and his father, Lee Haralson, share a tarp-covered RV in a parking lot at Dwight Murphy Field.

Another 400 are officially poor, meaning they receive subsidized lunches. Most of them live just down the hill, on or around Milpas Street, home to Latino families, many of whom are housekeepers, busboys, gardeners and construction workers.

This leaves less than half in the so-called middle. In Santa Barbara, such kids live in unremarkable million-dollar homes, perhaps in the San Roque neighborhood, or in regular market-rate apartments, perhaps downtown.

Evidence suggests that the unusually large socioeconomic gap at Santa Barbara Junior High – which has long been, and still is, about two-thirds Latino and one-third white – is slowly growing.

A diverse student population can be a boon to a school, adding the benefit of high scores, not to mention eye-popping monetary donations. The generosity of parents at Santa Barbara Junior High is unparalleled: In 2001, led by former “ER” television star Anthony Edwards – who wasn’t a parent but a former student – volunteers raised most of the $3.6 million needed for a majestic renovation of the school’s theater.

Erika's family has lived all over the world: New York, Colorado, Sweden, Denmark.Through their professions and avocations, her parents have exposed her to a healthy mix of arts, sciences, athletics and languages.
Erika’s family has lived all over the world: New York, Colorado, Sweden, Denmark.Through their professions and avocations, her parents have exposed her to a healthy mix of arts, sciences, athletics and languages.

But the combination of high wealth and high poverty can lead to stark disparities.

Take test scores.

Stacked against their peers at each of California’s 1,240 middle schools, Santa Barbara Junior High’s white students last year scored in the top 3 percent, or 24th place, according to a report compiled by Santa Barbara school board member Bob Noel. (Schools do not keep track of affluent students.)

But only 16 percent of the school’s poor students, and 11 percent of English learners, demonstrated proficiency – another word for grade-level work – in math. The federal government requires it be more than 25 percent, and has sanctioned the entire school under the No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to have all of the nation’s students passing standardized tests in math and English by 2014.

A closer look at Mr. Noel’s study revealed that, statewide, just one other middle school exhibited such disparities. Of the 23 middle schools across California whose white students scored higher in math and English than Santa Barbara Junior High’s, just one of them – King Middle School in Berkeley – also faces penalties under the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Eduardo, a seventh-grader, has lived his entire life in a subsidized housing unit on Soledad Street. But his days at the apartment could be numbered: His older brother, a senior at Santa Barbara High, was recently involved in a gang brawl and was sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp, his family said. Now, the Santa Barbara Housing Authority, which does not tolerate drug use or gang involvement among tenants, is deciding whether to evict the family. (See his story in "Tale of 4 Families" sidebar)
Eduardo, a seventh-grader, has lived his entire life in a subsidized housing unit on Soledad Street. But his days at the apartment could be numbered: His older brother, a senior at Santa Barbara High, was recently involved in a gang brawl and was sent to Los Prietos Boys Camp, his family said. Now, the Santa Barbara Housing Authority, which does not tolerate drug use or gang involvement among tenants, is deciding whether to evict the family.

At Santa Barbara Junior High, the socioeconomic disparities are also evident in the classroom: In many high-level classes the students are nearly all white, and in most regular-level courses, nearly all Latino.

Finally, they manifest themselves socially, with white and Latino students eating separately, for the most part, at lunch time.

But as this chasm widens, teachers and students alike are building innovative bridges. Teachers, in keeping with a trend in education that emphasizes helping those who are lagging, have launched a new math program for such students. And kids, with the help of some adults, have begun an organized effort to break through the social barriers keeping the students in separate groups.

For teachers, the clock is ticking.

When it comes to test scores, this is a pivotal year for the school, which is in its second year of federal sanctions. To avoid entering the third year – with stiffer penalties – this year the school started requiring every struggling student to take two math classes.

In the spring, students will take a barrage of tests. How they perform will dictate whether the school begins to climb out of No Child’s punitive quicksand, or sinks deeper into it.

FINANCIAL GAP WIDENING

By the numbers, the parents of Santa Barbara Junior High’s Montecito students are not only rich, but getting richer faster than others across the state. Meanwhile, the school’s poor students are growing more numerous.

In five years, the proportion of Montecito households earning at least $250,000 annually has jumped from 22 percent to 27 percent, according to the California Economic Forecast. Statewide, since 2000, it has crept up from 2 percent to nearly 3 percent.

On the other hand, the proportion of students getting free or discounted lunches has increased from 30 percent to 43 percent — now nearly twice as high as the district average. (Statewide, the number has held pretty steady in five years, at just under half.)

Yet in recent decades Santa Barbara Junior High has not experienced white flight, as have other local schools. Since 1990, the racial breakdown has remained relatively static: two-thirds Latino, one-third white. (The white population peaked three years ago at 40 percent, but is back to 31 percent.) In a sense, Santa Barbara Junior High is an inner-city school and suburban school wrapped into one.

In contrast, the Westside’s La Cumbre Junior High — another sanctioned school — has seen dramatic white flight. Since 1990, its proportion of white students has dwindled from 35 percent to 11 percent. (La Cumbre has launched a major effort to turn that around.)

Despite its success at retaining students, inside its walls Santa Barbara Junior High appears segregated.

White students make up just one-third of the school’s enrollment, but they constitute three-fourths of its gifted and talented program. Latino students make up two-thirds of the enrollment, but the vast majority are in general education classes, now known as “College Prep.”

Last year, Principal Susan Salcido and the leaders of two other local middle schools tried to blend programs — and their students. But the plan died when affluent parents expressed alarm. Now, and for the foreseeable future, it’s back to the status quo: four academic tracks — GATE, honors, college prep and remedial. As has long been the case, the first group is mostly white; the second is mixed. The third and fourth — college prep and remedial — are nearly entirely Latino. (Many students fall into more than one category.)

“The whole honors thing was an idea,” said Ms. Salcido of the plan to merge the honors and general ed tracks. “That idea can’t work, so, OK, can’t do.”

THORNY TOPIC

The gap between the haves and have-nots at Santa Barbara Junior High is not a topic many like discussing. Administrators at the district balked at providing an ethnic breakdown of all the academic tracks besides GATE, saying compiling the information would be too labor intensive.

But Ms. Salcido offered an estimate. The college-prep classes, she said, generally reflect the breakdown of the school — two-thirds Latino, a third white. The honors courses are the other way around. The remedial classes are virtually 100 percent nonwhite, she said.

Many of the Montecito parents say they send their children to Santa Barbara Junior High because it represents the real world. But most of the Montecito families contacted by the News-Press had students enrolled in the GATE courses, which accommodate students only in the top 20 percent bracket.

“It’s a school within a school,” said Montecito parent Barney Berglund, echoing the words of some others.

Such statements cause Ms. Salcido to bristle.

“I really want to make sure everyone knows that all our programs challenge students,” she said.

Although she wasn’t able to provide numbers, Ms. Salcido said not all students from Montecito are enrolled in GATE classes.

Built in 1932, Santa Barbara Junior High School is an architectural gem: red-tile roofing, soft-ivory facade, tiled walls and cherub-adorned bell tower. Equally striking is its demographic makeup. Located near Milpas Street, the school draws students from two worlds that, in some cases, are mere blocks apart.
Built in 1932, Santa Barbara Junior High School is an architectural gem: red-tile roofing, soft-ivory facade, tiled walls and cherub-adorned bell tower. Equally striking is its demographic makeup. Located near Milpas Street, the school draws students from two worlds that, in some cases, are mere blocks apart.

Sasha Paskal is one. The eighth-grader, whose father owns a business building sets in Hollywood — including for the movie “Elizabethtown” — takes both honors courses and college-prep classes.

In her honors courses, she can count on one hand the number of Latino students. In college prep, it’s the other way around: She’s in the minority.

“I was kind of upset when I wasn’t accepted in GATE,” she said.

“I felt left out, because so many of my friends were.”

An articulate, easygoing redhead who wears hip eyeglasses with translucent-pink plastic frames, Sasha aims to study fashion design in New York City after she graduates. Math isn’t her strong suit.

While in sixth grade at Montecito Union, she heard rumors that white kids in regular classes are taunted. Not so, she said.

Given her career interests, Sasha says that despite her initial disappointment, she believes everything turned out for the best.

“I’ll understand other people’s cultural experiences,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of people I wouldn’t have.”

TEACHERS BUILD A BRIDGE

Meanwhile, just because the school’s educators have backed off from changing the academic tracks doesn’t mean they’ve stopped refining their efforts to close the achievement gap. The two-math-classes-for-every-struggling-student approach is less controversial.

But even here there is a hitch: Having more back-to-the-basics courses leaves less room for electives, like band and foreign languages.

Eighth-grader Angie Solis was among the roughly 100 students who were assigned the extra math class. Its appearance on her class schedule was an unwelcome surprise.

“I was like, ‘What?’ ” she said. “It meant no elective. . . . I wanted to take Spanish or journalism.”

Now, though, she says she’s glad it happened. Her grades have gone from B’s to A’s. Another student said her grades have improved from D’s to a B-minus.

Math co-chair Marc Fidel said such students still can take electives by going to school for an optional extra period.

“If they really want it, it’s there,” he said.

Mr. Fidel is excited — and nervous — about the program he and his colleagues devised.

“I don’t want to just plug the dam,” he said. “I want this to work.”

The “extra” class is really a lab at which teachers, with full knowledge of what kids will learn on any given day in the regular class, bolster students’ understanding of the day’s lesson.

The idea is to use re-teaching and pre-teaching to ward off the dazed sense of hopelessness that can befall a kid when, say, first setting eyes on a symbols-laden quadratic equation.

“You see that stuff and you sort of make a decision before you attempt it whether you’re going to get it or not,” he said.

Mr. Fidel acknowledges he has no data on how the dual-math program is working, but says he can sense the students’ increased confidence. For instance, some of the students who were slackers last year are eagerly raising their hands this year.

“Once a kid feels hopeless or helpless, it’s really difficult to get them to jump that hurdle,” he said. “As long as they’re willing, they’re hopeful.”

But the real test will come this spring, when all students take a barrage of proficiency exams. If too few make the mark, the school will experience more sanctions.

In its first two years of sanctions, Santa Barbara Junior High — one of four of the South Coast’s 42 public schools to be marked thus far — has had to send letters to all parents telling them they may send their children to another school. It also had to offer each of its poor families $900 worth of free private tutoring.

According to the way the law is written, the penalties steepen every year.

Third-year sanctions include: “Decrease management authority at school level.” Fourth-year penalties include “reopening the school as a charter,” “replacing all or most staff, including the principal” or the most likely: “Any other major restructuring.”

But the 32-year-old Ms. Salcido, who inherited the sanctions when she accepted the principal’s post in the fall of 2004-05, seems undaunted by the pressure.

Asked to describe the most difficult challenge of heading up such a polarized school, she said: “I don’t think of it that way. This is what we do — it’s wonderful that we have the diversity.”

STUDENTS BUILD A BRIDGE

Students say the gap between rich and poor plays out socially. At lunchtime, in general, white students tend to hang out in the quad — a grassy square of trees, tables and benches — while many Latino students gather behind the school, near the outdoor volleyball and basketball courts.

In November, the school launched an approach to breaking down social barriers between cliques, which at Santa Barbara Junior High tend to form along ethnic lines. Administrators have culled 38 student ambassadors — each a perceived leader in a group of friends — and trained them to mediate conflicts among students.

The program has inspired a few students to lead the way in mixing it up.

For instance, Montecito resident Andrew Adams, one of the ambassadors, and a couple of his friends one day joined a group of Latino kids on the basketball court.

“It’s really weird and wrong how separated we are based on if you’re white or Mexican,” he said. “It’s getting better.”

At first, it was awkward.

“We were like, ‘um, alright,’ ” said Irene Ricardo-Valle, an eighth-grader. “We weren’t used to it.”

The white kids, she said, were so rule-conscious, a style she termed “YMCA.”

“If you double-dribble, you have to do a free shot or something like that,” she said. But “it was cool.”

The ambassador program kicked off with an assembly, led by a trainer.

In addition to the usual jocks and theater students, the participants included the rich kids — perjoratively dubbed the Montecito Millionaires — and wannabe gangbangers. In one exercise, the trainer situated all the students side-by-side in a long line outside.

The trainer fired questions at the group. If the answer to any question was “yes,” students were to take a step forward. The questions started easy, but worked their way to the profound: “Have any of you had a relative die violently?”

After a pause, one student stepped forward. Then two. In all, to everyone’s shock, at least two-thirds of the students, most of them from lower-income families, took a step.

“My aunt was riding in a car in San Diego,” said Corena Herrera, an eighth-grader whose chipper demeanor belies some of the tragedies her family has endured.

“It was a nice car, so they thought she had money, but it was a rental. They shot her.”

“He got stabbed,” said Esly Dubon, of her cousin, Henry Sanchez, a former Santa Barbara High School football player who was murdered at a party five years ago. It was a gang-related killing.

For some of the Montecito students, the lesson was an eye-opener about the other sphere.

Other questions, though, underscored the kind of adolescent pain that is blind to class and race.

When the trainer asked how many students had been called a name, such as “slut” or “fag,” nearly all crossed the line.

Now, the 38 ambassadors meet regularly with mentor teachers to discuss conflicts on campus. No names are used, because the idea is to get advice on how to resolve problems, not to impose disciplinary measures.

For Irene, also one of the ambassadors, the program has given her the tools to deal with everyday conflicts between students.

Sometimes the confrontations have a racial edge.

One day, after school, she saw a white girl chiding a Latina, telling her, “Why do you think you’re all bad? You’re not a gangster.” The situation escalated, with the Latina rounding up some friends. The white girl started walking away, saying her ride had arrived. Irene, who is friends with both girls, tried to ease the tension, bidding a friendly “goodbye” to the white girl.

Irene said her Latina friend responded.

“She’s all, ‘Why are you saying bye to her?’ I said, ‘She’s my friend.’ ” Then, Irene said, she helped defuse her Latina friend’s anger. “I said, ‘Do you even consider yourself a gangster?’ ” The girl thought about it, Irene said. No, she didn’t.

“That happens almost every day,” Irene said. “Just little changes here and there. It makes a big difference.”

DEFYING STEREOTYPES

For all the talk of the gap between the rich and the poor, both academically and socially, there are encouraging exceptions. Like Jose Cruz.

He, too, has a relative who has died violently — an uncle in a shooting over drugs and money in Mexico. He wears gold chains and baggy pants, and his peach-fuzz mustache and ruddy complexion make him seem older than his 14 years.

But looks are deceiving.

Jose is enrolled in honors courses for English, math and history. His mother, a house cleaner, has a good relationship with his teachers. His stepfather is a mechanic who owns Automotive Clinic in Oxnard, much to the admiration of his son.

“I would like to do that,” he said.

But going against the grain can be difficult, especially in the middle-school environment. For Latino students especially, the pressure to be like their peers is demanding.

Last year, Olivia G. Rodriguez’s daughter, Andriana, was enrolled exclusively in GATE classes at Santa Barbara Junior High, but hated it.

“She said, ‘Mom, I’m the only Mexican kid in GATE,’ ” said Ms. Rodriguez at a recent meeting for parents of secondary students in GATE.

“I said, ‘That should be an honor.’ ”

Andriana didn’t see it that way. Her Latina friends teased her, and she felt intimidated by all of the “rich kids” surrounding her. Now, as a freshman at Santa Barbara High School, she doesn’t take a single GATE class. However, she is taking a high-level physics course.

“The teachers wanted to push her up, and here she’s trying to push back,” Ms. Rodriguez said, incredulous. At home, Ms. Rodriguez said, she could always tell whether the friend her daughter was talking to on the phone was white or Latina. When she talked like an adult, it was a white student. When she peppered her diction with the words “like” and “you know,” it was a Latina.

The situation was all the more vexing to Ms. Rodriguez because she struggled all her life to be recognized for her skills, “and here (Andriana) is, trying to cover it up.” Ms. Rodriguez’s struggle paid off: She’s now an attorney.

She hopes her daughter finds a similar path.

Categories
Santa Barbara News Press

Bitter Rivalry in Race for Top

In Santa Barbara County, as in the rest of the country, the race to become high school valedictorian is an increasingly cutthroat competition.

The honorific post has become the focus of intense student rivalries, slick maneuvering over class choices, and even the threat of legal action by parents.

To avoid splitting scholastic hairs in excruciatingly close contests, local schools are naming more multiple winners. Colleges, meanwhile, are getting flooded with more valedictorian applicants. And the valedictorians themselves are achieving GPAs that are through the roof.

Locally, the most intense valedictorian controversy has been waged at Lompoc High, where a $35,000 scholarship was at stake.

There, a neck-and-neck bid not only had a parent calling an attorney, but another accusing the school district of a cover-up. In the end, the school named four winners — a record number.

Lompoc is not the only place where pursuit of the valedictorian award has amped up academic competitiveness.

“With more students applying to colleges, it is kind of raising the bar,” said Jennifer Foster, an assistant principal at San Marcos High School.

To beef up their college applications, more students are taking college-level courses known as “Advanced Placement (AP)” or “International Baccalaureate” classes. Schools assign higher weight to those courses, raising the top possible GPA from 4.0 to 5.0.

During the 1990s the number of students taking college level courses doubled, according to The New Yorker magazine, which published a story this month stating that the increased competition has caused some schools to drop the distinction. Between 1990 and 2000, the mean GPA of high schoolers in the United States rose from 2.68 to 2.94, the magazine reported.

The stepped-up drive comes as a new reality TV show, called “The Scholar,” appears to glorify the growing intensity by having 10 students vie for a scholarship to the college of their choice.

In Carpinteria, valedictorian Emily Pettijohn felt the pressure both at home and beyond. The race at her school was so close the principal named three salutatorians.

Yet earning the title didn’t improve her prospects for scholarships; she applied for eight, and didn’t get one. The rejection letter from one school, Colorado College, said this has been the most competitive year in three decades — with 30 percent of its incoming freshmen being valedictorians from their schools.

She said many of the high schools there give the distinction to all students who receive straight A’s.

As a result of her failure to secure a scholarship, Emily is taking next year off.

“I’m going to move to Colorado and get residency out there,” she said. “I want to work full time . . . so I can save up some money for next year.”

Sometimes, the valedictorians aren’t even seniors.

Last year at Santa Barbara High School, seniors were peeved when 16-year-old Ben Eidelson, a junior who had accrued enough credits to graduate, took the title because he had the highest grade-point average, a 4.94. He had also earned two associate of arts degrees with honors.

In the old days, the tradition was to name one valedictorian and one salutatorian. Not anymore.

At the private Bishop Diego High School, there was only one valedictorian and salutatorian each year between 1990 and 2001, but this year, for the first time, the school had two of each. And Carpinteria’s naming of three salutatorians also probably constitutes a record, Principal John Arreguin said.

“It’s kind of difficult when you get into (differentiating) grade-point averages in the thousandths,” he said. “When you get into that minute an area . . . it isn’t worth trying to split hairs.”

At Santa Barbara High this year, Mikel Richardson won by a sliver, with an off-the-chart GPA of 4.85. The two salutatorians, Cord Phelps and Kimberly True, both earned a 4.82.

His sophomore year, Mikel quit playing football to keep his near-perfect grades on track.

While the praise from friends, family and strangers has been nice, it hasn’t come without sacrifice.

“I would have liked to learn a musical instrument,” said Mikel, who will attend Westmont College in Montecito, where he will major in chemistry.

David Hodges, an assistant principal at Santa Barbara High, said while it is good to recognize the academic feats of star students, he worries that the valedictorian title replaces the emphasis on learning with that of grades. Students, he added, are not similarly awarded for improvement.

“Say a student has gone from D’s to B’s (because) their reading comprehension had gone up,” he said. “Those accomplishments are well worthy of celebration as well.”

In Lompoc, the pressure went beyond simply being No. 1. Two of the school’s four winners had applied for a full-ride scholarship offered to valedictorians at Long Beach State — an award that amounts to about $35,000.

The dispute began when the front-running student, Matt Marchione, lost his sole first-place status because he dropped an AP class, leading to a swirl of confusion over the new winner. The school ultimately named four valedictorians, one of whom was Matt, whose father had contacted an attorney shortly before the announcement.

Earlier in the year, Matt had successfully applied for the Long Beach scholarship. The school bestows the award on the contingency that students wind up the first-place winners.

Naming four valedictorians infuriated parent David Grill, the father of Diane Grill, one of the four. Mr. Grill suspects his daughter, who unsuccessfully applied for the scholarship, achieved the highest GPA, and that the district caved to the legal pressure — a charge district officials deny.

But his anger has cooled somewhat since learning that, regardless of whether his daughter was the lone valedictorian, she did not qualify for the Long Beach scholarship.

“It still remains that the reputation of the school board is in the trash can, and the morale of the academic students is in the trash can,” he said. “The students see that no matter how hard they work, how great they achieve, the bottom line is . . . the actual reward in the end is determined by secret, back-room politics.”

Meanwhile, at Long Beach, the number of applicants for the scholarship — called President’s Scholars — has skyrocketed, from 25 the first year in 1995 to about 650 this year. Only 65 scholarships are available.

“We have moms with students in middle school calling to say, ‘I’ve heard about the scholarship, what do we need to do now to be competitive?’ ” said Valerie Bordeaux of Long Beach State.

The valedictorian imbroglio at Lompoc High wasn’t the district’s first.

Five years ago, a student at the other high school, Cabrillo, had taken the maximum number of AP courses, and had aced every course she took. Yet her GPA was surpassed by that of another student who had recently moved to Lompoc from a school out of town that had offered more AP classes.

Over the objections of the new student’s father — who pointedly identified himself as an attorney — the Lompoc school board crafted a policy granting principals the ability to name co-valedictorians despite differences in grade-point averages, “if inequity existed.”

But not all contests are bitter.

Take San Marcos High School, whose valedictorian and two salutatorians were all on the school’s polo team, and began hanging out in seventh grade.

Yet salutatorian Mike Kuhn admitted he wanted the title so badly he could taste it, unlike Thomas Myers, who assumed a more laid-back attitude but nonetheless wound up the winner.

“It’s sort of a fitting end,” Mike said.

One local high school, Dos Pueblos, has never given the honor, Assistant Principal Michelle Hughes said.

“All of our graduates are special,”

she said. “We want to keep an even playing field.”

< back to News-Press story list

MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS

San Marcos High School graduate Thomas Myers assumed a more laid-back attitude toward the valedictorian honor than some of his peers, but he won it nonetheless.

Following controversy over who would be named valedictorian at Lompoc High, the school chose a record four winners, from top: Matt Marchione, Sarah Lyons, Thai Mova and Diane Grill

Categories
Santa Barbara News Press

A new path for autistic kids

Before the school year started, 6-year-old Kevin Bowen used to stare into space when his mother asked him questions, like “Do you want to read this book or that book?” Now he knows that all questions require some sort of response — even if it’s just a nod.

Kevin accomplished this key social development step in a new class for children with autism begun in September in the Goleta elementary school district. The class at Kellogg School has six kids, but more are on the way.

Student Brandon Geise gets help printing from foster grandparent Carol Rowland. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS
Student Brandon Geise gets help printing from foster grandparent Carol Rowland. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS

Last year, district officials identified 17 children ages 3 to 5, with varying degrees of the disorder, expected to begin kindergarten in the next three years. (Four started this year.) That number surpassed by two the total number of autistic students attending schools in the entire elementary district.

The numbers aren’t as high in Santa Barbara, where 12 students have been identified. But at Cleveland Elementary, two children are enrolled in a similar program begun this year.

The numbers reflect a larger phenomenon in the United States, where one in 160 children is now diagnosed with varying degrees of the disability, a brain disorder that affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact socially. That compares with one in 2,500 in the mid- to late 1980s, said Dr. Lynn Koegel, the clinical director of the Autism Research and Training Center at UCSB. With the mushrooming numbers has come increased media attention, and still unproven theories about a cause, such as prenatal exposure to certain medications and inoculations for measles, mumps and rubella.

The Goleta class provides one-on-one teaching to each of the kids, and it is expensive. The cost to the district is $165,000 out of a $29 million budget. With five district-funded teachers and aides for the six students, it amounts to about $27,000 per student annually, compared to the roughly $5,000 for most other students. (UCSB also funds one student teacher.)

But because Goleta Union enjoys a rare funding status related to the high property tax revenue generated within the district and its declining enrollment, it is better off financially than the vast majority of California school districts.

Goleta school officials traveled extensively to study model programs before setting up their own this year.

As a result, parents of students with the disorder have a “middle ground” option. Last year, parents could send them to either the “special day classes” for all students with developmental disabilities — such as mental retardation and cerebral palsy — or the regular classroom, where they would be watched over by an instructional aide.

In the special classroom in Goleta, the students ponder not only traditional subjects but learn social skills that other children pick up more easily.

One second-grade student who used to spit at the wall or “cuss out” classmates when they tried to talk to him has learned to say “no” when the head teacher, Brent Elder, asks him if he feels like talking.

“I’ll say ‘OK, then keep it cool and if you do we’ll talk about it,’ ” Mr. Elder said.

Autistic children “are not as concerned with social conformities,” said Dr. Koegel. “A (successful) teacher’s not going to say, ‘If you don’t do your homework, you can’t go to recess.’ A child with autism might say, ‘Fine.’ ”

Also, such children often need either more or less sensory input than others.

A student whose sensory needs are underactivated might crave deep-pressure rubbing occasionally throughout the day; a hypersensitive student might be unable to focus on anything but the feeling of the seam on the toe of his sock. Nearly half of people with autism are hypersensitive to noise.

“For them, the (school) bell ringing might seem like the sound of a dentist’s drill or a jet plane taking off,” said Helen Bird, who works with special education students in Goleta as an inclusion specialist.

In the Goleta class, the five boys and one girl take a daily “sensory break,” with an occupational therapist squeezing the hands and heads of some children or rubbing their arms and legs with a plastic brush. One child who has a need for oral input will receive a specially made rubber toy to chew on, providing an alternative to chewing on his hands.

Parents and educators seem to be pleased with the progress of the Goleta class.

Kevin’s mother, Terri Bowen, has noticed marked improvements in his writing skills.

“He’s now working on forming letters and numbers,” she said.

Some of the kids in the class spend up to half the day with “typically developing” kids. Dr. Koegel said that research in this past year suggests moving them toward full inclusion.

“Our end goal in life is to not have them in segregated settings,” said Dr. Koegel, who heads an inclusion program in the 500-student Montecito Elementary School for the eight children there with varying degrees of the disorder. “You want them to have jobs.”

Regular students, she said, also benefit.

“The typical kids are absolutely wonderful with kids with autism,” said Dr. Koegel, who was careful to credit the Goleta district for responding to parents’ requests. “There are several kids in each class who want to sit and help. It really makes your heart soar.”

Goleta parent Tambra Boydston can attest to that.

Her fifth-grade daughter, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, has been in the regular classroom since kindergarten and sometimes gets nudged in the right direction by nearby students.

“Once in a while they’ll notice she’s not quite focused. She’ll be staring out the window during reading and a kid will point where they are in the book,” she said.

Now, her daughter enjoys sleepovers and birthday parties with a circle of friends. But Ms. Boydston doesn’t necessarily credit the full-on regular classroom experience for her daughter’s social success.

“That’s who she is,” she said. “One thing that made it tough to diagnose her is she wanted to be cuddled. There are some that are that way.”

Mr. Elder said the goal of his Goleta class is to eventually integrate the students. But for now the structured environment is better for most of them.

“With autism, the world is chaotic,” he said. “Routine and sameness provide comfort in a world they have a hard time understanding.”

In the classroom, the most important asset is a teacher’s patience, a trait for which 24-year-old Mr. Elder is well known.

On a daily basis, one 5-year-old used to scream “No!” repeatedly and run around the room when he didn’t want to do an assignment, like learning how to count. Now, he knows to simply say “I’m not ready” when he needs a break before starting such a task.

The most severely affected student in the class is extremely withdrawn, and Mr. Elder can often spend 10 minutes sitting face-to-face with the boy, coaxing him to put on his shoes.

“Stand up,” he said evenly to the boy on a recent school day. The child was softly singing and muttering to himself while holding his ear and looking at his raised hand. “Pick up your shoe, please. Stand up. Hand me your shoe, please. Pull (the Velcro) off. Nice job.”

WHAT IS AUTISM?

Autism is a developmental disorder that is characterized by three distinctive behaviors and is generally apparent in children by the age of three.

Autistic children have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and sometimes exhibit repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. The behaviors can range from mild to disabling.

Many children with autism have a reduced sensitivity to pain, but are abnormally susceptible to sensations such as sound, touch, or other sensory stimulation. These unusual sensitivities may contribute to behavioral symptoms such as a resistance to being cuddled or hugged.

There is no cure for autism, but symptoms often lessen with treatment and with age.

— Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health

STEVE MALONE / NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS

Carol Rowland, one of the “foster grandparents” in a Kellogg School program for students with autism, helps Kevin Bowen complete a class project. Kevin is one of six students in the class.

Jenny Wolfrom, an instructional assistant, works with student Jordan Frank as he examines an “emotion card” during a one-on-one activity at Kellogg School.