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.

CEA student members treat Pueblo kids with ‘books for keeps’

Minnequa kids show their books.

Minnequa kids show their new books

The book drive could have placed the donations directly into the Minnequa Elementary School library and done a lot of good. The Title I school in Pueblo doesn’t have a great amount of funding to raise a big book collection. But there’s something special about giving a book to a child to keep that Kelly Gonzalez calls a ‘magical’ experience.

“It’s just awesome that they know, ‘This is my special gift that I got from school,’” says Gonzalez, a student preparing to become a teacher at Colorado State University – Pueblo. “The child will always remember this experience and that will be something special for them when they open up that book and look at it.”

Kelly Gonzalez helps kids make their choice

Kelly Gonzalez helps kids make their choice

Gonzalez and several other members of the Colorado Education Association’s student group at CSU-Pueblo collected more than 1,000 books for Minnequa Elementary students through community donations. They stayed in the school library for nearly four hours, meeting class after class, helping every child pick out a book to call his or her very own.

“If people are taking time to come out and give them a book, the students will see the importance of having a book,” said student member Ayana Bentley. “If this is the one book they have, maybe they’ll ask their parents for another book. Maybe it will go further down the line than this book just being their one book.”

Owning books at home is a challenge for many Pueblo families, according to Minnequa’s teacher-librarian Kathy Plath.

“The parents don’t have a lot of money to purchase books for their children,” said Plath. “An opportunity like this for them to build their home library is pretty awesome.”

Ayana Bentley offers a book to students

Ayana Bentley offers a book to students

That opportunity, however, caused a fair amount of confusion for the children. Reading a book in the school library is one thing, but taking a book home for keeps is, well, a novel concept for many kids in this community.

“They’re so shocked about it,” Bentley noticed. “They don’t understand it’s their book.”

“A few of the kids tried to put the books back on the table, because they think they’re going to look at the book, sit down and read it, then put it back,” added Gonzalez. “And we say, ‘No, no, you get to keep the book and take it home.’”

Even though Minnequa teachers wrote the student’s name inside of the book for younger ones, Plath said many kids will still have a hard time believing they get to keep the book.

book9

Plath (center) guides kids to a book table

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few of these books come back in my book return slot, with our students thinking that they can’t keep them, but we’ll let them know they can keep these books.”

Plath, a member of Pueblo Education Association and herself a graduate of CSU-Pueblo, was happy to invite the college students into her school.

“When they put together a book drive like this, it’s giving back to the community in a big way and just wonderful to see. And they get hands-on experience with the students and dealing with the students on a personal basis. That’s important too.”

“It was beneficial to see the different reading levels the students were on,” said student member Morgan James as she helped students find their book. “Just because they were in the second grade didn’t mean they were reading on a second grade level, so that was an eye-opener.”

“I just want to say, ‘Oh I think this book is great for you’ and sit and read with the kids, but there’s just not enough time to spend with each individual child,” added Gonzalez. “It’s motivating me to want to come back into their media time and sit and read with the kids.”

Teaching kids is James' career choice

Teaching children is James’ chosen career

Gonzalez also noted the first and second graders were already aware of their reading proficiency and their personal interest in reading, “which lets us know that the teachers are really working with each individual student.”

For James, the experience affirmed her career choice to become a school teacher. “It gets me excited to help kids get excited about reading and learning, which is the whole reason I want to be a teacher. I love seeing them smile.”

Plath loves seeing her students build enthusiasm for reading, and this book delivery supported a larger strategy to get kids hooked on books at an early age.

Student member Elizabeth Wilson came to school as Cat in the Hat

Student member Elizabeth Wilson as Cat in the Hat

“There’s so many other things that vie for their attention – video games, television, many things – so if you can build that excitement for reading early on, it’s been proven that it will stay with them for a good, long time.”

See more photos of CSU-Pueblo student members at Minnequa Elementary in CEA’s flickr set.