Monday, April 1, 2013
SAN DIEGO Wherever Cindy Marten goes on the bright Central Elementary campus, children flock to her, throw their arms around her and if they’re too late to the throng to hug her, they clamor for a moment of her attention. They’re planning an elaborate goodbye for her the next morning. It’s supposed to be a surprise, but they can’t help telling her they’ve been making cards.
Throughout the day Marten tears up as students, parents and colleagues say their goodbyes and ask if she'll be back for this or that event they have planned before the end of the school year.
Marten has spent ten years at Central and done more than win her students' adoration. She came to the school from Poway Unified and started as a first grade teacher
“It was 18 percent proficiency at that point, it was about two kids in every room who were meeting standards," she says. "Two children in every classroom. So I actually changed my paradigm around how are we going to support children when there are very few models of what proficiency looks like, what an active, engaged learner looks like.”
Every student at Central comes from a low-income household. Eighty-five percent are learning English as a second language. Today, 45 percent -- more than twice as many compared to when Marten arrived -- are passing state English tests. Nearly 20 percent more are passing in math.
But Marten says there’s no magic at work here.
“Children who come from poverty or children who come from homes where English isn’t the first language or there’s low education levels at home," she says. "Children who come from struggle, whatever that struggle may be, can achieve and achieve at high levels, can learn and learn well given the right support systems and structures from research based practices.
Researchers at San Diego State’s Center for Urban School Transformation agree. The center's director Joseph Johnson says they see several common elements at successful urban schools including effective teaching that engages students, rigorous curriculum and positive relationships.
All of those are on display in teacher Jeremiah Atienza’s fifth grade class when Marten stops by for one last visit. Despite his students' different levels of English, Atienza found a way to reach them.
“A lot of our children are struggling, but these children can learn rap," he says. "If these children can learn rap then they can learn to read, write and do everything else.”
On their first day in his classroom Atienza asked the students to write down what they think a miracle is. "Because," he told them, "That's what you are -- a miracle."
Teasing out the phrases that made sense, the class cobbled them together to create their theme song. The students get up and circle around Marten as they belt out the first verse.
"Miracle, that's me. One word, champion.
Dream big. Bright future, that's my destination.
Work hard everyday. Everyday is my chance.
Day one Basic. Day two Advanced."
The thing that Johnson says make all of these other elements possible at high-performing urban schools is high-quality leadership. Transitional Kindergarten Teacher Michael Stanley says leadership is exactly what took Central from being a school with high teacher turnover to one with a stable staff.
“She fought to keep teachers here and to keep class sizes low and that has made people want to stay," he says. "If she’s willing to do that for us we’re willing to work to make changes and hopefully see that test score increase.”
Smaller class sizes and partnering with local organizations to build a five-day–a–week health clinic at the school are a couple of the things Marten says Central needed to help students be more successful. But she’s not going to tell other school leaders they need these same things.
“The communities each know what the children in that community need to be able to do well," she says. "So that’s kind of a grass roots effort, right? And the part about a grassroots efforts -- that’s difficult if it’s all grassroots and there’s no support from the top, you end up with inequities.”
Making an elementary school principal the superintendent of one of the country’s largest school districts is highly unusual.
"She'll have to deal with managing a vast organizational structure, a massive budget and even more massive budget constraints," says Johnson. "But given the vast responsibilities associated with this position, there's never going to be anyone who has every skills set desired or needed to do this job exceptionally well."
He says Marten's success will hinge, as her predecessor Bill Kowba's did, on being able to lean on the strengths and experiences her new staffers have in the areas where she is weakest.
Still, Marten says with the state overhauling curriculum and testing under new national standards, her classroom perspective will be key.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to have an instructional focus be the center of our district again.”
Everyone at Central can recite Marten's signature message. "Work hard. Be kind. Dream Big. No Excuses." And Jeremiah Atienza says the district's central office staff are in for an intense experience under those guidelines.
“She looks at every piece of paper with meticulous care. I’ve never seen anyone do that," he says. "And it’s very scary to have a boss like her. But it’s very necessary. That’s why if your heart is in the right place and you want to show the world you can make a difference, you will. And she’s that teacher to help you find it.”
Soon the city will see if Marten’s message carries the same power outside the walls of Central Elementary.