Teachers like Allison Voet felt deflated this spring when Burbank Elementary landed on a California list of persistently failing schools, one of just six schools across the county to get the dreaded label.

School officials argued over whether it was fair to compare its scores over time after the school added fourth and fifth grade, since older students tend to score lower. They questioned the formula that singled it out.

“It was a hard pill to swallow,” said Voet, a fourth grade teacher. “But then we got over it and asked, ‘What do we need to do to save this school?’”

They knew the Logan Heights school had been struggling: Its test scores had sagged after it was rebuilt three years ago. Teacher turnover seemed to be nonstop. Burbank scores rank at the bottom statewide, even compared to similar schools where English learners are the norm.

California and the federal government offered Burbank and other targeted schools a carrot. They could get up to $6 million if they used one of four methods to turn themselves around: replacing their principal and at least half of their staff, shutting down, becoming a charter school or instituting a long list of classroom reforms that add to learning time and make teachers more effective.

Burbank decided to go after the money, but it won’t be tossing out teachers or converting into a charter school. Instead of a shake-up, Burbank decided that what it needed was stability. It is pursuing the fourth option — the long list of classroom reforms — but it is using strategies it has already started employing.

Staying the course might sound like a bizarre way to reform a school that is supposedly faltering.

But Burbank had already begun to change its ways after seeing its scores last summer. It started getting teachers together more to analyze data, design lessons and talk about what each child needed, making notes on each student like “spunky but needy.” Many changes boil down to more targeted teaching.

“We really look at what the students need,” said kindergarten teacher Melissa Alegre. “We’re not just teaching it because it’s in a textbook or because we taught it last year.”

Burbank is a test case here in San Diego. In its bid for grant money, the school district describes Burbank as “a vital place of study” for its emerging philosophy of school reform.

Trying to reform schools without the specific, dramatic steps that the Obama administration has endorsed is part of a new direction for San Diego Unified. Instead of imposing changes from outside, the school board says it wants its new superintendent to nurture changes from the grassroots. Different schools may need different things. Staff at each school come up with their own reforms by working together.

That philosophy has steered San Diego Unified away from some of the federal pushes for reform. In Burbank, however, the school district is setting forth its slow-and-steady model of school reform to compete for state dollars with other schools that are taking more obvious steps that jibe more clearly with the Obama administration’s ideas of reform.

Burbank avoided controversial strategies that are promoted by the feds but disliked by the teachers union, such as paying teachers more to work at troubled schools. Instead, Burbank says it will meet the requirement to retain teachers by simply making the school a more appealing place to work.

The changes at Burbank can be difficult to discern for someone outside the education world, but they come down to a simple idea: Teachers have to figure out exactly what each child is missing and make sure they get it. For instance, Alegre recently zeroed in on a specific problem that had cropped up in her kindergartners’ writing: jumbling the future and past tense.

“If your party is going to be in August, did your brother already break the piñata?” Alegre asked the kindergartners as an example. The kids shook their heads.

Later Alegre checked on a student who had struggled with the idea. Writing about going to the aquarium someday, he had jotted down, “A jellyfish stung me.” So Alegre went over the concept again in another way. Reteaching is nothing new, but that kind of careful, systematic attention to what each child has learned is central to the sometimes subtle reforms that Burbank is trying to realize.

Burbank also added time for students to temporarily split up into smaller groups based on how well they were faring academically and what they were struggling with. They rotate between teachers who give them quick lessons aimed at their specific needs, such as sounding out words or story structure. Doing so is supposed to provide more personalized, targeted help for each child.

Principal Diana Grijalva believes that these steps are already starting to work. Just after Burbank found itself on the infamous list this spring, students took school district tests that help predict how students will do on the state exams. Their scores surged in both English and math.

Teachers will get together to plan lessons more often and with more training, enabling them to learn from each others’ successes and struggles.

“There are no about-faces,” Grijalva said. “We’ve done the hard work. It’s only going to get better.”

Burbank might also have to replace its principal as schools that adopted the fourth model of school reform are supposed to do. Grijalva shied from talking about it.

But making the state list has also presented a rare opportunity. If Burbank gets the money, its plan is also loaded with new help for teachers and kids: Literacy and math coaches to work with struggling students. A new science lab and computers to occupy kids while teachers work together. Two extra weeks in the summer to gather teachers and prepare kids for school.

“We said, ‘Don’t worry about the money. What would be ideal?’” said Jennifer White, who until recently oversaw Burbank from the district office. “Teachers started to get excited. They’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, this would be so amazing. Is it really going to happen?’”

There is no single silver bullet for fixing a school. Schools may be doing the right things, but not doing them well enough. Research scientist Daniel Aladjem compared it to going to the gym five times a week and not losing weight: You may not be doing it quite right. Genuine turnarounds are so rare and so tricky that some critics think it’s better to just shut down troubled schools.

But Burbank thinks it can do it — and it hopes that California thinks it can, too.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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