Stability: School’s underrated X-factor makes Belmont Elementary a shining star in Pueblo

belmont1Kaelia and Sunny were called into Principal Stephanie Smith’s office to tell the truth. They weren’t called in to inform on another student’s bad behavior, but given the more unusual opportunity to tell on their teachers.

Sunny: “They work together as a team to find out what we’re going to do, and if we get stumped on something, like we don’t know something, they help us understand it.”

And tell on their parents.

Kaelia: “My mom gets along with the teachers, she talks with them, she wants to be their friend. They think it’s great that I’m learning a lot from this school.”

And talk about the big lessons they’re learning.

Sunny: “If you don’t strive for success, than you might not get to where you want to be, and you’ll just be lonely.”

Kaelia: “You can’t just say, ‘I can’t do this.’ You always have to say, ‘I can do this. I can get through this.’ You can’t just give up right away. You don’t do that.”

Kaelia and Sunny love their school

Kaelia and Sunny love their school

Sunny and Kaelia haven’t been inside every school in Pueblo, but these third graders have both attended another school in District 60. Even with that short sampling, they’re convinced Belmont Elementary is the best school in the city.

“I love school. I was sick for two days last week and I kept telling my mom that I was better,” Sunny confesses with a sly smile. Not to be out-complimented, Kaelia brags, “I wake up earlier than I should just to get ready to go to school.”

Many education watchers in the city and state don’t share this enthusiasm for Pueblo City Schools. District 60 is better known by the word ‘turnaround,’ a term for failing schools that are on the clock to bring up student performance. Belmont is not a turnaround school even though its staff faces the same Pueblo realities: high poverty and unemployment, low incomes, and great public reluctance to raise revenue for public education with its limited means.

Belmont's Principal Smith

Belmont’s Principal Smith

“In Pueblo we have some of the hardest working educators probably anywhere. We work our tails off, but we don’t always see the results of that in numbers, in test scores,” said Smith, Belmont’s principal of seven years. “I’m not sure that people outside of Pueblo, and even here, get how significantly challenging our schools are as a whole. We don’t have a mix of student needs in Pueblo. We have a demographic continuum that starts high-need, and just gets higher and higher and higher.”

Belmont has not only survived but thrived in conditions where similar schools are struggling. The key to its success starts at the top, with Principal Smith and her predecessors.

“We’ve had four principals in 59 years, which is practically unheard of,” said 4th grade teacher Terry McCanne. “You have to have stability in leadership. A lot of Pueblo schools have had 25 principals in that time, and the average turnover of every two to three years isn’t going to cut it.”

Terry McCanne teaches 4th grade math

Terry McCanne teaches 4th grade math

“Every time you have a new principal, the programs are going to change, the expectations are going to change, and that is really what makes Belmont good. We’ve stayed stable,” added library media specialist Julie Naccarato. “We’re not a school that gets a new principal every two years. The stability helps.”

Kendra Zerfas, a 5th grade teacher, says principal firing is too often the silver-bullet, quick-fix to whatever issue a school is having. “Administrative offices think, ‘Let’s just get a change of principal in there and it will make the difference.’ That’s the absolute wrong approach to take. The more stable your principal is, the more stable your building is going to be.”

Principal stability has led to teacher stability at Belmont. “I believe having stability in leadership is really important in developing a good school. Once you get a reputation of being a good school, many teachers want to teach there,” said McCanne, who has taught at Belmont for 20 years. Naccarato has taught Belmont students for 17 years, Zerfas for 12.

Kendra Zerfas checks progress one-on-one with her 5th graders

Kendra Zerfas checks progress one-on-one with her 5th graders

“That is something to celebrate and tell other districts and schools,” Zerfas said of Belmont’s experienced workforce. “You don’t want 90% of your staff to be a first-year staff. You need to have a good mix of veteran teachers because they teach younger teachers how to handle change and problems.”

CharLou Simonson, a kindergarten teacher here for 29 years, is proud to be part of the long history of teachers who have stayed Team Belmont. “That’s been the trend since I’ve been here, teachers stay. It’s a very cohesive staff and that really helps too.”

Principal and teacher stability has led to a solid community reputation that in turn fosters student stability.

“The principals and teachers get to know the families, and the families become very comfortable with them, and that’s what makes Belmont special,” Zerfas explains. “Many Belmont families have their kids come here kindergarten through 5th grade, then their brothers and sisters come here. Even when families move, they still come here because they don’t want to switch schools.”

According to Smith, nearly 200 of Belmont’s 550 students choice-in to attend Belmont from across the city.

“I get challenged here at Belmont,” said Lauren, a 5th grader in the Gifted and Talented program. “If math problems or worksheets are a little too easy, they’ll give me a more challenging one. It really helps because I feel like I’ve grown so much. I’ve been really successful over the years.”

So if stability is demonstrated to be a positive force at Belmont, trickling benefit down from principal to teacher to student, why don’t we see more stability at other Pueblo schools?

“That’s a good question. Because there hasn’t been consistency at other schools, it’s a problem that just keeps feeding itself,” Simonson offers. “The more instability there is, the more people don’t want to stay because it’s not a stable feeling. So then people leave, and then it’s not stable. That’s the real challenge in truly turning a school around.”

CharLou Simonson has taught kindergarten at Belmont for 29 years

CharLou Simonson has taught kindergarten at Belmont for 29 years

Though every teacher CEA spoke with felt fortunate to work in a highly successful school, they have aspirations for working in a better school system. Among the roadblocks they face:

Curriculum: “The powers that be are causing what I call curriculum-creep, where what used to be taught in 6th grade is now taught in 5th grade, and now it’s even coming down to 4th grade. It’s not developmentally appropriate and it’s a huge challenge for us to get kids up to the level that’s expected. It’s gone too far.” (McCanne)

Testing: “Testing has taken over the whole feel of a school in many ways. Here, kids know that tests are important, but we’re not making it into the be-all and end-all of the school year. I think a lot of schools focus way more than they need to on the whole process because they’re scared. They hear rumors of, ‘We’re going to close you down.’ That’s scary. So then they think, ‘We better make sure we’re doing well on these tests.’ That doesn’t necessarily make you do well on tests.” (Simonson)

Funding: “I wish the taxpayers in this city who didn’t have children in school anymore would understand how poor our city is and the majority of our kids are. If they would support a mill levy or a bond, it would trickle into businesses and improve everything else. That’s what I think the everyday lay person doesn’t get. They don’t understand what kinds of financial things we’re seeing here.” (Zerfas)

belmont6The education of children like Kaelia, Sunny and Lauren are impacted by these challenges, but Belmont mitigates them better than most through a stable learning environment.

“Schools reflect society. You can’t really change society by changing the schools, and yet we all try to do that,” Simonson reflected. “That’s what we try every day – we try to fix it. I don’t really think we can, but we are a positive force toward that change.”

Kaelia and Sunny certainly appreciate the stable, caring staff. When asked about the lessons and skills they’ll take with them when they leave Belmont, they couldn’t even fathom the thought of leaving.

Kaelia: “I just love this school, I don’t ever want to leave it.”

Sunny: “I’m going to take my principal, my teachers, and my stuff – but mostly my principal and my teachers.” 

Note: Terry McCanne, Kendra Zerfas, Julie Naccarato, and CharLou Simonson are all members of Pueblo Education Association. Belmont Elementary has 27 members of Pueblo EA and classified employee associations.

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