Successful Students

Reaping the Fruits of Collaboration at John Muir Elementary

Even if you’ve never been to California’s San Joaquin Valley, you’ve been there. Made famous by John Steinbeck’s literary classic “The Grapes of Wrath,” there is plenty about the San Joaquin Valley that hasn’t changed much in 70 years. The cotton and grape mega-farms still stretch for miles in places. Migrant workers still flock to the valley to eke out livings. And the gulf between the haves and have-nots is as wide as ever.

As the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad freight train rumbles past Merced’s John Muir Elementary School a few times a day, blaring its high-decibel horn, interrupting lessons, it’s a powerful reminder that the school was not built for the haves.

“Don’t let the train bother you,” warned school principal Sandi Hamilton. “You get used to it.”

Don’t get sidelined by distractions. It’s the same advice John Muir’s educators dole out daily to students, nearly 9 in 10 of whom come from lower-income families. For many students at the K-5 school, the distractions run the gamut from poverty to language barriers (more than a quarter of John Muir students are English language learners) to ethnic gang violence.

“When I first started here, kids would throw gang signs at each other,” Hamilton recalled. Distractions were everywhere, always lying in wait to thwart progress.

Five years ago, John Muir was the lowest-performing elementary school in Merced, tallying a 650 on California’s Academic Performance Index. The state target is 800.

Drastic changes were needed. But as Steinbeck’s Tom Joad famously quipped, it doesn’t take nerve to do something when you don’t have a choice. John Muir needed to get better — and fast.

And it did. Over the course of the past five years, the school has been making incremental progress — but it was last year when the school really blared its own high-decibel horn and made its own noise. In 2010, John Muir scored an 806 on its state API and made Adequate Yearly Progress for the first time in eight years — it was one of only four schools in the district to exceed 800.

“I cried when I found out,” admitted Hamilton. “A lot of us did.”

John Muir’s roadmap to success is just as notable for the reforms is did not use as the reforms it did. The school did not rely on magic bullets or unproven pseudo-reforms designed to draw more applause than results — like firing teachers. In fact, John Muir has very little staff turnover.

“All across the district, we are talked about as a school where people come and stay,” said reading interventionist Lisa Van Elswyk. Instead, the school focused on reforms supported by research, such as collaboration, professional development, data sharing, and intervention for lower-performing students — a strategy Van Elswyk calls “meeting students where they’re at.”

Teachers at John Muir often surrender their lunch and prep periods to work together to craft lessons, improve assessments, and share strategies for reaching struggling students. On a Wednesday afternoon in November, kindergarten teachers Rosa Munoz, Joni Imberi and Diana Franca were huddled around a miniature table planning a math lesson. In another room, 10 teachers from grades 1 and 2 were hosting a book club where they discussed a new text on improving writing instruction.

Collaboration isn’t just encouraged — it’s built into teachers’ schedules. They meet as a faculty to share data and to present summaries of effective lessons they’ve recently delivered.

“You always hear teachers talking about teaching as a lonely job,” said second-grade teacher Cordell Randall, who has been with John Muir for 23 years. “In this school, we all work together and it’s not a lonely job.”

The school has also been buffeted by a seven-year grant from California’s Quality Education Investment Act. QEIA, implemented thanks to advocacy from the California Teachers Association, devotes extra funding to lower-performing schools for staff development and other proven reforms. Research has shown QEIA to be a runaway success that has led to improvement at schools throughout California.

John Muir has used the funds for professional development, reducing class sizes, and providing intervention assistance for kids who were falling behind. As budget cuts lead to increased class sizes throughout Merced and other California communities, John Muir has been able to keep the problem in check and continue delivering personalized attention.

Although John Muir is now classified as one of the top-performing elementary schools in Merced, the school’s educators are not resting on their laurels. Maintaining momentum is going to be a yearly struggle, played out across hundreds of smaller, daily struggles.

“It’s going to be a race every year,” said Van Elswyck. “But we have an idea of how to get there and what works.”

John Muir has momentum — and its staff is focused on sustaining it. Hamilton said she never forgets what’s at stake for the students or their community.

“My worst fear is that nothing would change for these families — that things would stay cyclical,” she said. “The students wouldn’t think about finishing school or going to college. Some might even join gangs. We can’t have that.”

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