One of Bernadette Lopez’s friends asked her if she was using witchcraft. The third grade teacher at Denver’s Beach Court Elementary School laughed it off.
Lopez, a Duke University graduate, and her 2006-2007 teaching partner, Amanda O’Grady, didn’t act like magicians. They acted like tireless advocates who expected success from a group of students often presumed to be failures.
Their attitude and their kids’ responses produced a miracle worth remembering as another school year begins on Monday.
In 2006-2007, Beach Court’s third graders improved their scores in the Colorado Student Assessment Program in ways that defy easy explanation. The number of students with unsatisfactory CSAP scores in math, reading and writing shrank remarkably over 2005-2006. At the same time, proficient and advanced scores rose by double digits.
Little wonder, then, that Lopez’s friend Rudy Garcia, himself a Denver Public Schools teacher, accused his young pal of casting a spell on her students.
Instead, Lopez and O’Grady spread anticipation and expectation across a field of youthful dreams usually left fallow by poverty, language barriers and low levels of parental education.
“For me in my classroom” Lopez said, “I feel like I’m making it a business, teaching the children responsibility for themselves. I have a work-hard, play-hard philosophy. I don’t take long lunches. I stay after school if I have to. If I need to spend more time on a subject, I do.”
If she and O’Grady, who now works in real estate, needed to rewrite the curriculum, they did.
“She and I ate lunch together every day,” Lopez said. “Sometimes we’d say, ‘This lesson is ridiculous. Let’s come up with something better.’ We’d come up with our own thing rather than the cookie cutter.”
Lopez and O’Grady demanded as much of their students as they did of themselves.
“I have extremely high expectations for my children,” Lopez said. “Homework every night with no excuses. I run a really tight ship. I’m tough, but loving. My kids all give me a hug at the end of the day.”
As well they should.
Beach Court, located on Denver’s heavily Latino Northwest side, houses a poor, racially segregated student body comprised of a majority of English language learners. In other words, it shares the demographics of failing public schools all over the country.
Nearly nine in ten students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, the traditional measure of poverty in school record-keeping. The non-Latino student population is negligible.
The miracle of Beach Court contrasts starkly with CSAP scores in schools of similar profile. They made almost no progress in student achievement or, worse, fell farther behind.
Beach Court students scored on a par with many of their peers in 2005-2006. But as those others languished or retreated with double-digit rates of unsatisfactory performance in 2006-2007, Beach Court went from 23 percent unsatisfactory scores in math to 5 percent unsatisfactory. The school went from 20 percent unsatisfactory scores in reading in 2005-2006 to 8 percent unsatisfactory in 2006-2007.
The performance at the high end of the scale was just as impressive. No third grader at Beach Court received an advanced score in math in 2005-2006. In 2006-2007, 25 percent of the third graders tested with advanced skills. The one-in-four standard rivals schools with wealthier, more diverse student bodies.
In reading, the numbers weren’t quite as good, but they were still noteworthy. Unsatisfactory performances shrank from 20 percent to 8 percent, while advanced scores rose from zero to 11 percent.
One reason why: Lopez, a 25-year-old classroom neophyte, saw her parents in her students.
“Both of my parents are first-generation college graduates,” Lopez said. “My father grew up as one of 10 kids raised by a single mom in a welfare family. All he wanted to do was graduate high school and go to work to help his family. One of his teachers took him under her wing and told him, ‘If you go to college, you can help your family four times more.’”
That’s the message Lopez carries to her students, a missive of hope based in hard work, an un-jaded perspective about possibilities.
To grasp how far outside the box Lopez’s and O’Grady’s thinking went, look at Denver schools with demographics similar to Beach Court. Nearby Remington Elementary saw third grade math and reading scores plummet from 2005-2006 to 2006-2007. Nearby Bryant Webster Elementary also had more unsatisfactory third grade math and reading scores in 2006-2007 than the school year before.
Along with demographic similarities, attendance at all three schools was above 90 percent.
Nobody is quite sure what Beach Court is doing right.
In an ironic twist, Lopez doesn’t even hold a teaching certificate. She’s working on getting one to go along with her biology degree from Duke. For now, she said, “according to the No Child Left Behind Act, I’m not qualified to teach.”
Thing is, you don’t need a teaching certificate to care.
“If I don’t believe in these students,” Lopez asked, “who will?”
That’s a great question. Denver school administrators would do well to answer it.
Then try to cast that spell across the city.