The last bell had rung at Burbank Elementary. But the math problem still sat stubbornly on the screen before the handful of third graders who lingered with teacher Fred Montes on a hot afternoon.

The children stared up at the numbers under a whirring ceiling fan. Montes coaxed them through long division, step by step. Then the kids tried the next problem alone, scribbling on little white boards on their laps.

“Ready?” Montes asked before they went over the problem.

“To go home?” one boy asked.

“It’s 3:03. We’re not going home yet!” Montes exclaimed.

This is one way that Burbank is trying to turn around years of sagging test scores: Montes and other teachers choose to stick around and tutor kids who faltered on state tests. The Logan Heights school pays for the extra hours with a windfall of federal money meant to overhaul the very worst schools. It is slated to get $4 million over three years and already was awarded more than $1.1 million this year.

Now that treasured money could be in jeopardy — and all because Burbank focused on its weakest students. To extend the day, the school tutored struggling students after school. It also served up extra lessons for them during breaks. Teachers could volunteer to work more hours for more money.

But the feds say schools were supposed to add more school time for all children, not just some of them. Giving students more time to absorb lessons is a big push for the Obama administration, which has touted longer school days and a longer school year to help youngsters in the United States compete with China and India. California has warned schools like Burbank they must change their ways or lose the money.

That is stirring up confusion across California and at Burbank here in San Diego. The most obvious way to make sure all students get more time is to lengthen the school day and make all teachers stay there longer. Public schools cannot do that unless they square off with their teachers union over work rules.

That clashes with the gentler take on school reform that San Diego Unified has put to the test at Burbank, one that has steered clear of showdowns with the teachers union. And teachers aren’t even sure that a longer day would be better for all kids, instead of just the ones who need the most help.

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Last year California branded Burbank as a persistently failing school, one of only six called out in San Diego County. Year after year its test scores have ranked in the bottom tenth percentile in the state, even when Burbank is compared to similar schools where almost all students are poor and many are learning English.

Burbank bristled at the label. But it also got a chance to turn itself around. To snag millions of dollars for reforms, schools had a short list of seemingly severe choices laid out by the Obama administration. Faltering schools could boot the principal and at least half of their teachers. They could secede from their school districts and convert into charters. They could take the nuclear option and shut down.

But schools could also make a fourth choice. They could revamp instruction, extend school time devoted to learning and replace their principal, changes less likely to anger teachers and parents. Nearly three out of four schools that sought the turnaround money chose that kinder, gentler option.

Burbank was one of them. Going the softer route made sense for San Diego Unified, which has veered away from the Obama administration when it comes to school reforms that rankle unions, such as using test scores to evaluate teachers. The federal push is grounded in the idea that teachers are the biggest factors that schools can control in student achievement and that schools should measure and judge them based on how students do.

Other turnaround schools have become reform battlegrounds; Burbank has been a quiet test of the San Diego Unified brand of reform, which is rooted in getting teachers to collaborate.

“It doesn’t do any good to throw teachers out,” said Sandra Sincek, one of four new coaches hired to help Burbank teachers. “So you build the teachers that you have.”

So besides tutoring, Burbank is using its millions in turnaround money to pay for coaches to help teachers work together to improve their lessons. Teachers come together every week to share ideas and analyze what works and what doesn’t. The grant also pays for another crop of educators who teach children about art, science and technology while their everyday teachers huddle and talk.

Last Thursday, fifth grade teachers dove into questions that stumped their students on a math test. One teacher pointed out children could calculate the volume of a box when it looked like a cube, but got confused if it were shown as if it were flattened, multiplying the wrong measurements together.

“I wonder if we made it too complicated,” fifth grade teacher Laura Lopez-Hudson murmured to the others, looking at the problem.

But Sincek pointed out that kids needed to learn to tune out irrelevant information. Lessons like these help teachers hone lessons of their own.

The money also means that every day, Burbank has a school nurse and a counselor on hand. It paid for more teachers to shrink classes and prevent fifth and sixth graders from sharing one class. It bought a new computer program to help children read. It even got planters and mulch for a school garden.

“It was like winning the lottery,” Principal Carolina Flores Wittman said of her new school. Teachers feel the same way, praising the extra attention for kids who are behind, added supplies and new training.

The trouble began when federal monitors stopped into some California schools.

They found some weren’t carrying out the reforms they had promised, including jettisoning teachers or replacing principals. They also argued schools had to offer extra time for all children, not just some. It faulted the California Department of Education for not checking on how schools used the money. Superintendents and school principals complained that the rules were confusing and unclear.

“This wasn’t like finding a few tax cheats. It was extremely widespread,” said Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education. “It’s out of control and we have to fix it as soon as possible.”

The board warned turnaround schools that they had to fix problems to get their next dose of funding.

Schools assumed that their plans were fine when California awarded them the federal grants last year. Burbank, for instance, said the extra time would go to “those students identified by their teachers” when it applied for the money. But the California Department of Education said it had little money to monitor the plans.

San Diego Unified officials are still working out what Burbank needs to do to keep the money flowing. It must act before school begins this fall. Principal Flores Wittman is lukewarm about a longer day for everyone, fearing advanced students will get bored. And nobody has even brought up the idea with the union. The existing teachers contract sets out a 40-hour-week.

“We don’t know exactly what the rules are. If we can solve it somehow without changing the teachers contract,” said Area Superintendent Gil Gutierrez, “that is always best.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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