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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 22, 2004

Reading focus helping school beat odds, No Child stigma

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Hawai'i — The young girl was in tears. Her size 6 feet were jammed into tiny slippers that were obviously meant for a much smaller child.

Robert Dircks, principal of Mountain View Elementary School, says the resilience of his students and staff helped the school achieve compliance under the No Child Left Behind act.

Kevin Dayton • The Honolulu Advertiser

The family dog had chewed her nice shoes, she said, and the only footwear she could find when it was time to leave for school were her baby brother's slippers. It was terribly embarrassing.

Embarrassing, but not unheard of at Mountain View Elementary School, where the staff donates slippers to keep in reserve for just such occasions. Principal Robert Dircks found the girl a better-fitting pair, and she was smiling after breakfast.

Some of Mountain View's students live in tents and trailers in the isolated rural subdivisions of Upper Puna, and more than 87 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a common measure of poverty.

Teachers limit the amount of homework they assign out of consideration for families without electricity for lighting. The school provides a place to shower for students who live in homes with water catchments because during the dry season there may be no other place to bathe.

But most importantly, Mountain View offers tutoring and an intense focus on reading, and it is paying off.

For all of the challenges facing its students, Mountain View Elementary School achieved coveted "adequate yearly progress" status last year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The school not only reversed several years of non-compliance, but attained a goal that 60 percent of schools in Hawai'i failed to meet.

Jeanine Chase
Jeanine Chase, a parent who works as a substitute educational assistant at the school, gives much of the credit to the sweat and determination of the staff.

Chase said she considered private school for her children, but decided against it after looking more closely at Mountain View. She has a daughter in the fourth grade and a son in the first grade.

"It was what I could see here about the staff and their heart and the dedication to improving our kids' lives in this community, with very little feedback or thanks from the community," she said. "The staff here has brought this school out of a real muckhole, and they've done it just through sheer dedication and persistence."

Dircks points to the resilience of his students, saying they make him proud.

Lessons learned

Some reasons the principal and staff give for their success at Mountain View Elementary School:

• A schoolwide focus on reading, with a research-based curriculum called Reading Mastery designed for at-risk children that uses scripted lessons delivered at a quick pace to move students to mastery at the fastest possible pace.

• A dedicated, cohesive staff with a formalized peer-coaching system within the school.

• Painstaking attention to testing results. Teachers learn from test results where students need help and focus on those areas.

"They know because of other friends they see at school or on weekends, they know the haves and the have-nots," Dircks said. "So they come here, I think, with a goal to become like those of their friends who have more than they have."

For years Mountain View Elementary School has battled a bad reputation. It was regarded as a troubled school, but Dircks said there have been important changes.

The opening of a new middle school in Kea'au allowed Mountain View to shrink and remake itself from an elementary and middle school to an elementary-only campus with students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

That eliminated problems with mixing older and younger students, and dropped the student population to 430. Statewide improvements in special education also made a big difference, Dircks said.

"Mountain View is not the same school, but it's hard to shake the rap that they used to have," he said. "Some of the parents of the older children who came here, that's what they remember. They don't know what's going on now."

Barbara Beck's three adopted sons attend kindergarten and the second and fourth grade at Mountain View, and she is impressed.

Kindergarten in the Los Angeles suburb where the Becks used to live was little more than a few hours of daycare each day, but Beck said Mountain View is different. The strength of the school was particularly clear in the case of her middle son, who was identified by Mainland experts as a special-needs child.

Myrna Watanabe, reading resource coordinator at Mountain View Elementary School, displays the slipper shelf, where donated slippers from staff members are kept for students who need them.

Kevin Dayton • The Honolulu Advertiser

"When we adopted him, they said he was mildly retarded and never to expect too much out of him. Excuse me, he's a straight-A student and there's nothing wrong with him," she said. "By the time he got out of kindergarten here, he was reading and writing."

In fact, Myrna Watanabe, the schoolwide reading resource coordinator, said all of Mountain View's kindergarten students were reading by the end of last year, which astonished many parents.

One key to the advances the school made was employing a program called Reading Mastery that is designed to accelerate the learning of at-risk students. Teachers provide intensive phonics instruction using scripted materials delivered at a quick pace.

It was expensive, but the school invested $45,000 in federal grant money to launch the program two years ago, and the difference, especially in kindergarten and first grade, is "just unbelievable, it's phenomenal," Watanabe said.

Average class size is relatively low, at 18 to 25 students, and Dircks brags about his teaching staff, tallying up their years on the job to announce they have more than five centuries of teaching experience among them.

Still, Mountain View Elementary School is in a constant race against time.

Families in the area often pack up and move to seek work or for other reasons, and the school has a high turnover rate. Already 30 percent of the 96 students that began kindergarten at Mountain View last fall have left, with new students taking their places.

That often makes it impossible for teachers to build on gains students make at the school because many of them are gone the next year.

The teachers respond by seizing every minute. Beck described one teacher who has her students answer a question about letters and letter sounds at the door as they enter the classroom for the day.

Cathy Arnold
Cathy Arnold, a reading resource teacher for the Pihana Na Mamo special-education program, listened last week as two groups of students stood in lines in the hallway outside her office, waiting to enter the school cafeteria.

Their teacher instantly launched into an impromptu lesson based on displays plastered on the hallway walls. "I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, how wonderful. They're not losing a moment,' " Arnold said.

The school tries to hang on to the kids for extra hours each day, using federal money to provide tutors after school. About two-thirds of the students qualify for the tutoring, but only about a third actually get it, Dircks said.

The problem is finding after-hours transportation to the sprawling Puna subdivisions, because parents cannot simply leave work to pick up their children when the tutoring is finished.

"The kids need the extra help, but they won't stay because they've got to get on the bus at 2:10 p.m.," he said.

Mountain View is still classified as a "corrective action school" because it failed to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind in previous years, but Dircks is confident it will make adequate progress again next year.

That is a mixed blessing. If Mountain View does graduate out of corrective action status, it stands to lose about $16,000 a year in federal money that is earmarked to help the most troubled schools under No Child Left Behind.

"I'm going to make it and it's a hard pill to swallow, but that's the price of success," Dircks said. "You still have children who need that support."

Reach Kevin Dayton at (808) 935-3916 or kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.