Over the last few years, El Camino School in Goleta has strived to make itself a "turnaround school." With a majority of its mostly Latino students living in poverty, future opportunities may seem remote if not downright unattainable.
That appears to be changing, thanks in part to a No Excuses University program that has instilled the belief that every student can learn and it’s the school’s job to make it happen. The results are becoming more apparent every day.
The Goleta Union School District campus at 5020 San Simeon Drive is the only Title I school on the South Coast to meet every state and federal academic standard, putting it on track to get out of Program Improvement accountability requirements next year.
To avoid Program Improvement status, federal Adequate Yearly Progress targets require schools to have 90 percent of their students considered “proficient." Since No Child Left Behind Act oversight was implemented in 2001, only two Santa Barbara County schools have been able to accomplish the feat.
If El Camino meets all 17 targets again next year, it will become the third.
Principal Liz Barnitz credits the school's emphasis on motivating students and getting them to believe they can learn, no matter what.
It’s the only No Excuses University school in the county, with a mantra that all children can be academically successful and attend college, even if they’re economically disadvantaged, English learners or have trouble getting food at home.
About 80 percent of El Camino students are Latino and the majority of them are living in poverty as well, Barnitz said. Students don’t always have access to the idea of higher education at home, so every classroom “adopts” a university and displays pennants, chants cheers and writes to students at the college.
“This is a school that believes academics are an obsession,” Barnitz told Noozhawk. “We do all in our power to make college a good idea.”
Parent Lisa Rivas said it’s interesting to have the idea of college reinforced at school so early.
“In junior high they can think about an area to focus on," she said. "Then in high school, what kind of higher education — trade school? Community college? A university? It’s a great process to have the conversation get started in elementary school."
Every teacher has been trained for El Camino to be a “turnaround school” in the No Excuses University program. They work with students to establish goals after the Measures of Academic Progress assessments so students understand the high expectations.
The students have “core” grade-level learning in the mornings, then break out to English language arts time by skill level, followed by activities like science, art, music, computer class and physical education.
There are additional programs before school with computer-based learning in a partnership with United Way of Santa Barbara County, and tutorials, dance and sports classes after school — all at no charge for the students.
Everyone is especially excited about the new science lab, which has its official ribbon-cutting this week.
“Sometimes these kids don’t have a lot of motivation at home, and how else are they going to get inspired to be scientists or engineers?” observed Olga Zermeño, a member of the school’s PTA and English Learner Advisory Committee.
Parent involvement is definitely growing, helped by the fact that Barnitz and her front-office staff are bilingual.
“No Excuses applies to parents, too,” Zermeño said.
The school hosts parent education nights and stresses the importance of supporting their children, getting them to school every day on time, and telling them they can go to college.
“Just because you were born into poverty doesn’t mean you’ll be there forever," Barnitz vowed. "We’re going to get you out."
In Mexico, it’s part of the culture to leave learning to the school, and respect that the teachers know best, Zermeño said.
“Now, people expect you to participate or they think you don’t care,” she said.
“When they’re young like this, we can love our kids, set the rules and be part of their lives” — before they’re teenagers, she said.
As is often the case with schools in and around low-income neighborhoods, El Camino must confront what's known as “white flight.” More families are moving into the elementary school's district, but send their children to other schools, fearing that the high percentage of English learners and Latino students will mean lower standards, Zermeño said.
“It’s not that," she said. "We want the same things. We’re concerned about the future of the world, about the environment — we just look different."
The community — meaning the neighborhood and the local philanthropic community — must remember this gem of a school, said Rivas, a mother of two El Camino students.
Plus, during state testing, accelerated white students at El Camino scored the highest throughout the Goleta Union School District, Barnitz points out.
“We’re meeting everyone’s needs, which is showing in our results,” she said.
Like every other school, El Camino is preparing for the new Common Core State Standards. The Goleta school district is far ahead in terms of building strategic planning time into the school day and encouraging teachers to collaborate and shadow each other, Barnitz said.
She said she and her teachers are hopeful that the existing standards will remain in place for one more year, just so they can prove El Camino can get out of Program Improvement status.
Even state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson calls the federal targets under the No Child Left Behind Act “unrealistic.” Only 10 percent of California's Title I-funded schools met the Adequate Yearly Progress targets this year.
While 3,164 schools advanced further into Program Improvement — by missing federal targets — only 28 got out for the 2013-2014 year, according to the state Department of Education.