It's "universal access" time for students in the kindergarten class of Sydney Scott, a time when she dedicates a few minutes to her pupils in small groups to practice reading. Or phonics.
The remaining students in the 30-pupil classroom know what to do. They've either worked as partners to read out loud, are sitting at a computer reading, or are practicing their letters on the interactive white board. Like Azucena Basilio Morales, who "drags" the screen with a long stick, revealing the next set of letters to say out loud.
"H-D-R-E-L" Azucena reads slowly. She takes turns with Lidiana de Jesus repeating the same letters in different order. D-H-L-R-E. H-E-R-D-L.
The summer after Sonia Ar mburo was assigned to lead Mary Chapa Literacy and Technology Academy in Greenfield, she attended a training course on learning through repetition. Sixty percent of learners need 250 or more repetitions to learn something new, Ar mburo discovered.
In the fall of 2010, she came back with a plan for the elementary school, one of the poorest performers in Monterey County and the entire state. She put in practice the "universal access" time and a series of other systems that helped the school make a huge leap in test scores.
Mary Chapa, a K-2 elementary, went up by 108 points from 599 in 2011 in the Academic Performance Index.
"Personally I'm thrilled for the students, for the families, teachers, all the administrators and board," said Trevor McDonald, the district's superintendent. "We're seeing a lot of the fruits of our labor coming through, with our students doing a very good job. We're happy but mindful we have a lot of work to do."
The increase in scores was mirrored next door at El Camino Real Science and Technology Academy, an elementary school for third through sixth graders that went up by 73 points. The schools' climb contributed to the district's overall 33 points gain in the API index, one of the largest in the county as well.
"We had a lot of work to do in a very short time," Ar mburo said.
Even though students don't get tested until the second grade — and carry the weight of Mary Chapa, since they're the only grade in the school where academic achievement is measured — intense educational training is beginning full throttle in kindergarten.
And not just in the classroom. Ar mburo is operating with the idea of establishing order all around to create a more conducive learning environment, starting in the playground.
When the bell rings, students freeze. Then they wait for their teachers' instructions. The teachers allow them to join the queue, hands grasped behind the back, to march slowly back to the classroom.
"Sometimes these students live more than one family per house," Ar mburo said. "If you place them in a calm environment, in a place where they have more structure, that's more conducive to learning."
Like most public schools in the Salinas Valley, Mary Chapa is characterized by the "demographic challenge" some educational leaders refer to when trying to explain poor academic performance: with high numbers of Latinos, English learners, and low-income students, high test scores are a bigger challenge than in affluent communities.
At Mary Chapa, 86 percent of students are English learners, 96 percent are low income, and 98 percent are Latino. In 2011, only 20 percent of students scored at proficient or advanced in English, and only 25 percent in math. Percentage went up to 35 percent in English and 41 percent in math this year.
It is proof that children can learn, that improvement is possible, Ar mburo said.
But not without systems in place, without data, and a lot of work.
Teachers meet regularly to compare notes and share "best practices"— what works well.
Every child is monitored regularly to make sure he or she's learned the basics before moving on to the next step. The "universal access" gives teachers time with students to address the gaps. A thick binder in Ar mburo's office tracks the progress of each child, what skills he or she is concentrating on on a weekly basis.
A federal School Improvement Grant has helped. Greenfield was one of a handful of districts in Monterey County to receive SIG money, allocated to poorly performing schools to boost their scores. The $1.3 million has been part of the extra help Mary Chapa and El Camino have received, and Ar mburo credits it in part for both schools' success.
Cesar Chavez Elementary, also in the Greenfield district, lost points in the API scale, which McDonald partially attributes to not having the extra SIG funds and partially to a change in administration that did not allow making changes on time.
"We know we have a lot of systems in place now," McDonald said. "The real pride, what we've learned from this experience of the SIG, is to create a blueprint for success throughout the district."
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.