Victoriano Elementary School (K-5)
Val Verde Unified, Riverside County
2006-07 Enrollment: 510
Percent Free/Reduced-price Meals: 58%
Percent African American Students: 28%
Schoolwide Growth API (2007): 901
African American Growth API (2007): 882
(Note: All data are current as of February 1, 2008.)
Principal Rick Aleksak
Length of time as principal at Victoriano Elementary School: 1 year
Former Principal: Chuck Holland, currently Program Improvement Administrator, Riverside County Office of Education
Length of time as principal at Victoriano Elementary School: 6 years
Rick Aleksak: "We are a data-driven
school, and we pay attention to what the kids show us their needs are.
What works hand-in-hand with that is a lot of collaboration…. We use
that data and talk together about it."
Chuck Holland: "As ironic or crazy as this might sound, I think our biggest challenge is ourselves. And what I mean by that is not accepting our current level of success as being done with the work."
Q: In your estimation what are the greatest challenges facing African-American students at the elementary school level in general?
A: CH: The biggest challenge facing all of our students is low expectations. We still expect only about a third of our students to be proficient. I think our students deserve more from us than that, and we should expect more from each other than that.
A: RA: The challenges that the kids face are mostly socioeconomic. Sometimes it's very difficult when what is happening at home is interfering with the business of school. That could take shape in their attendance being poor or being late to school. Sometimes other things are happening in their lives that are maybe not allowing them to concentrate and focus like they should.
Q: From your perspective, what are the three most important things your elementary school does to support African American achievement?
A: RA: We are a data-driven school, and we pay attention to what the kids show us their needs are. What works hand-in-hand with that is a lot of collaboration. We have professional learning communities--teams of teachers who are constantly collaborating to think of the best practices and the best means by which to help kids learn. We use that data and talk together about it. And then the teachers here just have a very high level of expectations for the kids and commitment.
A: CH: These high expectations include academic expectations and behavior expectations. We also provide kids everything they need to meet and even, in many cases, exceed those expectations. We have a very safe and engaging learning environment with consistent and highly effective instruction.
Take third grade, for example. All of our third grade classrooms are very similar. We make sure that all of the teachers teach virtually the same thing using the same materials and have access to and training on the best research-based instructional strategies that not only increase student learning, but also student engagement. We'll often go into a classroom and say, "Oh, the kids weren't engaged." And the truth of the matter is, children are always engaged. The challenge is to ensure that they're engaged in meaningful work.
One of the ways you assist them in being engaged is to let them know that you expect that. Children need to know that you're not lying to them. You find the child in line at the grocery store tugging on their parent's pant leg saying, "Mom, can I have this candy bar?" And Mom says, "No." But the child knows that what Mom really means is, "Ask me 10 times and I'll say yes." If you have a clear expectation that the child understands, knowing full well that they will test you to some degree, then a good portion of the battle is won simply by ensuring that the expectation is clearly understood and not just a conversation you're having with the wall.
Then, of course, the instruction and the person delivering it have to be engaging. One way is to provide appropriate wait time so all the kids have an opportunity to process the instruction. Then ask lots of different questions to all of the children, providing multiple ways for them to answer. When a teacher asks a question and calls on a child who raises their hand, the other children learn if I don't raise my hand, I probably won't get called on. And once the teacher calls on someone, it often becomes a one-on-one conversation between the two of them, so the other children have a tendency to tune out. Having different types of response vehicles is one way of having everyone involved. An example is asking children to paraphrase the answers of other children so that they need to maintain their level of engagement for a longer time period because they might get called on down the road. Another approach is to use individual whiteboards because it makes everyone involved accountable. Say we're going over a problem that has four possible answers. We're talking about why the right answer is right, and more importantly, why the wrong answers are wrong. You could have the children take one of the three wrong answers, change the question stem to allow that wrong answer to become a right answer, and then they hold up their board and show the teacher. When children all hold up their boards, the accountability bar goes up and the engagement level goes up because kids--like most of us--don't want to appear to not know what's going on. It also makes it easier to see their thinking and for the teachers to measure their own effectiveness. And it's easier to spot those children who need immediate intervention.
Q: What instructional or curricular priorities have been most important?
A: RA: The big thing is to make sure that we are teaching the standards. We've been focused on finding the tools, the resources, whatever we need to make sure that the kids learn the standards that they are supposed to at each grade level and become proficient. It's also a really big priority to reflect on our instructional practices to make sure what we're doing is bringing the kids the best that we have to offer.
A: CH: Because the information in the world is changing so rapidly, we need to teach children how to use higher-order thinking skills, such as Bloom's taxonomy, so they can analyze and synthesize. We can teach them how to find everything and then provide them those tools that they're going to need to get the most out of everything they find. My goal as an educator has always been to be able to have a child walk up to those 20-foot doors, open them with every bit of strength they have, and inside find this universe-sized library. I didn't teach them everything that's in the library, but I did teach them how to access every book that was in there so they would be able to get the information they needed. Part and parcel with that, of course, is building academic vocabulary. That's critical because a person's vocabulary is one of the most accurate indicators of life success.
Coupled with that, we have always worked on character because I didn't want to educate a bunch of children who maybe weren't going to be the best of citizens. I'm a big believer that life is about making choices one after another after another, so in school we tried to make sure that we provided children the opportunity to make choices, to be independent thinkers. But they needed to understand that they were responsible for those choices. We wanted to give them some practice in how cause and effect works in real life when the stakes weren't too high--where you might lose a recess or something.
Q: What challenges does your elementary school face, or does it continue to face, in these efforts?
A: RA: Not every kid is going to learn in the same way. Teachers need a number of different resources or tools to make sure that each of the kids in their classes is able to get to proficiency on the grade-level standards. It's an ongoing challenge to find appropriate resources that are not going to be financially distressing to our budget.
A: CH: As crazy as this might sound, I think our biggest challenge is ourselves--not accepting our current level of success as being done with the work. Over the six years I was at Victoriano, we were a very successful school, going from Program Improvement to National Blue Ribbon, taking our API from 674 to 901. And I think sometimes we rest on our laurels. Our biggest challenge is to constantly strive to do better for our kids. I have this belief--and we had it at school--that if we rest for a second, that's where we're going to end up, and our students always deserve more from us than that. So even though we did hit 901 in our API, which was a very nice accomplishment, you could get 1000. We believed until we got 1001, we weren't done!
Another challenge is extending parental involvement. The single most important responsibility of parents is to make school important by sending their kids to school on time every day. Every time parents bring their kids in late, the message is clear that school is so unimportant it doesn't even matter when we get there. Not only does their child lose out because they miss instruction, but they also interrupt the class and everyone loses out. I rewarded attendance at my school through what we called "Chocolate Sundae Wednesday," which took place on the last Wednesday of the school year. Every year the kids who achieved perfect attendance--about 50 each year--got a t-shirt with the motto: "All day, every day, all year long." If you were tardy one day, even one second, or if you left early, you did not have perfect attendance. Each kid with perfect attendance got a 22-ounce bottle of chocolate syrup, a can of whipped cream, and sprinkles. I was up on a stage, out on the playground, with the entire school there, including parents. The kindergarteners with perfect attendance would come up first and they would empty their bottles of whipped cream and their bottles of chocolate syrup on me until [by the time the 5th graders were done], I was completely smothered. It was their reward for working so hard to be there every day. While this was taking place, all of the rest of the school's children got to eat a chocolate sundae. It was a way for me to involve parents. It's like what McDonald's does when they give away the free toy with the meal, and kids go, "Mom, Mom, can we go to McDonald's?" Well, I wanted my kids to go to, "Mom, Mom, take me to school!" We have an obligation to make our school inviting and exciting enough to our children and our parents so they want to come.
We also want parents to take just a few minutes to talk to their kids and ask them about how their day was at school. Show 'em it's important. Parents need to not just check their kids' homework, but also ask them about their schoolwork: "Did you bring any home?" Parents also need to build relationships with the teacher. If the child knows that there's regular contact between the parents and the teacher, there is much more opportunity for success.
Q: What resources, whether inside or outside the school, have been the most important?
A: CH: The best resource we had was the collective experience and knowledge of our diverse staff. We pretty much looked at problems and challenges as opportunities to excel and do great things for kids.
A: RA: We've had great support from the district level. All the people with oars are rowing in the same direction, and that makes it go a lot smoother. We also have a collaborative coaching and learning model here, where teachers, with our literacy coordinator, work on observing each other and looking at instruction and best practices. We aren't satisfied with the status quo.
Q: Does your elementary school provide extra time in English language development to help students build a strong academic vocabulary?
A: RA: We have 30 minutes each day during which the students have the opportunity to do additional English language development. In the lower grades, it's more of a whole-class kind of a thing. We have English language instruction time built into the school day, but we also have an hour of universal access time during our English language arts block so teachers are able to pull kids in small groups based on what we know about them.
A: CH: We made sure we provided students time throughout the day, before school, after school, whatever was necessary for them to be articulate speakers of English for their benefit--never to take away the home language, but to give them that language of money and the global language. Invariably, many of the students who need the additional before- and after-school time are the same students who don't come to school. Yet they're the ones who also don't show up to before- and after- school programs. So we always made time during the required instructional day to give the children who needed it (and all kids did, to varying degrees) that additional support to get them what they needed to be successful.
Q: What role does data disaggregated by student subgroup play in your elementary school's efforts to support student achievement, including among African-American students?
A: CH: We fed on data. Data was how we made all our decisions. It gave us the information necessary to modify and adjust our instructional practices as needed. We had grade-level data, schoolwide data, district data, individual student data— you name it. But we focused on the formative data because it told us where we were going. We believed that data analysis played a significant role in our students' success and was the foundation of everything we did. We didn't always love it because sometimes it told us that we needed to stop doing something or do something better, but we always believed in it. We wanted to make schoolwide decisions, and the only way to do that is with data that reflects the entire entity. That's why it was so important that we had people at grade levels essentially doing the same thing, using the same materials and instructional tools. Not to say that we didn't differentiate, because we did. But the core essence was that everybody got the same thing and it was good stuff. At the end of 2007, we had virtually no achievement gap.
A: RA: The data that was used five or six years ago might have been more directed at looking at groups of students and trying to make sure that groups of students were not falling behind, that there was no big gap between one group of students versus another one. We have pulled up the achievement of the different groups of students so that there's not a big achievement gap any longer. Now our data is being looked at more along the lines of the individual kids.
Q: In what way does the demographic mix of your elementary school student population pose challenges or opportunities for supporting African American achievement?
A: RA: There is a pretty good mix of students here, and it's not like there is any one specific group of kids who are achieving more than others. So it sets the tone that what we're looking for is student achievement, period. It is really good because the kids see all different sorts of kids achieving and succeeding.
A: CH: I know this sounds trite, but we really were about as colorblind at our school as you can get. We believed that the demographic mix that we had was like a microcosm of society, and our whole staff looked at it as an opportunity. We had kids of all colors. We had kids from all backgrounds. We had kids who were in foster homes. But we didn't treat them differently. We loved them all and we had high, high expectations for all of them and ourselves. Then we did everything everybody needed to meet those expectations because otherwise those expectations are punitive.
Q: What support and leadership does your district provide?
A: RA: We've had great support from the district. I think there is a lot of pride in what has been accomplished here. Leadership is data-based and data-driven. The district tests students at the beginning and end of each trimester so that we can assess improvement. A good bunch of resources are available to teachers through the district curriculum committees to help them in their lesson planning and in their teaching. If there's any need for any support or outside resources, we have the ability to get that through the district.
A: CH: We had a visionary leader with Superintendent C. Fred Workman. He modeled the district motto: "No excuses!" And he wasn't kidding.
Q: What would you hope California policymakers, educators, and the public understand about the academic achievement of the state's African American students?
A: CH: Our educational system has got to have higher expectations for everyone involved, from the top to the bottom; an accountability system to monitor our progress toward meeting those expectations and making them a reality; and a support system to provide all the necessary tools. Otherwise, that accountability and those expectations are punitive. And perhaps most importantly, we have to provide the capacity building necessary at all levels to ensure success. I'm a believer that there is a capacity gap more than an achievement or any other gap, and ultimately where the rubber meets the road is in the classroom. We need to ensure that everybody--from the superintendent to the children--has the capacity to do what's necessary to achieve success, but that is most important for the teachers. And then when we have all of this, we need to have a clearly articulated vision and expectations that are understood by everyone--maybe not agreed-upon, maybe not in love with, but understood and truly expected. And we need to provide everything because if we're going to ask everyone to fly--and we should--then we must provide both the wings and the flying lessons. This is critical. To ask someone to do something that they don't have the capacity to do creates pushback. Nobody's going to do it if they don't think they can.
A: RA: I think they need to know, as this school has demonstrated, that all kids can achieve. I also think that it's important to continue to provide schools and educators with the resources, the tools, the materials that they need. We need a commitment from those in the Legislature who are funding schools. They need to be aware that people in this profession are doing good things. It would also be great to see more sharing of best practices and putting our heads together. All these things take time and resources and are not typical, unfortunately.
Q: Is there anything else that we have not talked about that you think is important for us to know about your school or your students?
A: RA: We're pretty typical of a California school. We are just really committed to the kids and seeing that every single one of them, if possible, will make it to that proficient line.
A: CH: I got into education late in life. I didn't start college until I was 37. I mention that because I'm of the belief that anybody can do anything if they really want to, and I feel like I've sort of ended up, one way or another, modeling that in my life. I came to Victoriano seven years ago. I was the third administrator in three years.
I was a brand new principal, and I'd been an assistant principal for only eight months. But when I got there, I was so fortunate to find a group of people who were willing to step out of their comfort zone and refocus their vision, their purpose, their direction--everything. Over the next six years, I was so privileged to have the pleasure of working with some of the finest people in the world. They put children's needs ahead of their own and would never give up on a child--not any child. And I truly believe it was an experience that changed the lives of hundreds of children. For me, it was the experience of a lifetime. I'll always, always, always, until the day I die, be honored to have been their principal.
This article is a transcript of an interview conducted by EdSource staff in May 2008.
The opinions in this interview are those of the principal, and not necessarily those of EdSource, its staff, its funders, or its Board.