OAKLAND -- Fights, racial segregation and chaos come to mind when Katherine Carter remembers Manzanita Elementary School, where she once taught kindergarten.
Five years later, Carter works at the same address, but in a much different place.
Carter is the principal of Manzanita SEED Elementary, a 230-student Spanish-English language-immersion school that opened in 2005. SEED shares a campus with Manzanita Community School, which is four years old. The two Fruitvale-area schools were created as part of a costly experiment supported by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and other major philanthropists, aiming to close failing institutions, such as Manzanita Elementary, and start over.
SEED stands for School of Expeditionary learning, Equity, and Diversity.
But, like many other new schools, those on Manzanita's campus didn't immediately produce the results that their founders, or their funders, had hoped to see.
SEED instantly felt safer and less chaotic than the school it replaced, Carter said. She sensed it, and parents and other visitors often told her the same. That cozy, safe feeling was essential -- but it wasn't enough.
At the end of its third year, in 2008, just 21 percent of SEED's students showed proficiency in reading and 31 percent did in math. It was better than the scores posted by the old Manzanita Elementary School, but not by much.
"It can be really demoralizing in your first few years," Carter said.
But in the past two years, SEED's state test score has shot from 652 to 842 out of a possible 1,000 points -- an improvement Carter attributes largely to a skilled, hardworking and stable teaching staff. Students made the biggest improvement in math, a subject that they learn entirely in Spanish from kindergarten through third grade (though, by design, only about half are native Spanish speakers).
About three of every four SEED students who tested this spring -- and 100 percent of its fifth-graders -- scored "proficient" in math, compared with 44 percent in 2009.
Manzanita Community School also made impressive test score gains this year. It had missed its No Child Left Behind Act goals in previous years, but it met all of the federal benchmarks this time. Its state Academic Performance Index score rose 61 points in one year to 733.
"This is the place that we wanted to be two years ago," said Eyana Spencer, principal of Manzanita Community.
How long does it take?
The trajectories of both schools are worth noting as the Oakland school district administration evaluates the successes of its past reform efforts. Superintendent Tony Smith, while thought to be supportive of the small schools movement, has said publicly that the district operates too many schools. Many, such as SEED, were created when the district was flush with foundation money -- funds that have since been spent. The district has already closed at least five of its new schools.
But how soon can a new school be judged a failure? Two years ago, some might have questioned whether SEED would live up to its promise. Since then, it's become a success story.
Think College Now, an elementary school in Fruitvale, had similar beginnings. Today, it boasts a state test score of 859 and a California Distinguished School award. Its principal, David Silver, testified before Congress this year on the subject of "school turnaround."
But after its first year, in 2004, the school's score was a mere 572.
Silver recalled a conversation he had back then with Oakland's former state administrator, Randolph Ward. "He said, 'You know, you have a good foundation. You have happy kids, a strong culture, teachers who are together, parents who are invested. What you don't have is results.'"
It takes time, Silver said, to hire the right staff, to establish a safe and positive environment and to set higher expectations for students. With those things in place, schools can focus more intently on teaching strategies and student achievement levels.
"It takes longer than people think to figure out whether a school is going to work long term," he said.
SEED opened amid the school district's state takeover and before a quick succession of state-appointed administrators and other district leaders. Carter and other principals of new, small schools -- fearful their work would be cast aside as yesterday's education reform fad -- rallied large groups of parents and teachers to convince the administration of their schools' worth.
Carter said she was acutely aware of the political turmoil at the central office before Smith -- the district's first permanent superintendent since 2003 -- took charge. "My job, up until this year, was buffering the staff," she said. "I don't feel that way anymore."
Every teacher at SEED returned this fall, meaning Carter didn't need to fill any vacancies. It also means she won't have any overwhelmed rookies. Last year, she said, every teacher had at least one year of experience. None of them struggled to maintain order in the classroom, which allowed them to focus intently on teaching. Carter held "data conferences" with each teacher, based on periodic tests given throughout the year, and sent letters home to families to inform parents of their children's results.
SEED's teachers write their own curriculum -- uncommon in a district that requires many of its elementary schools to use the same materials and move at the same pace. Carter said that autonomy creates more work, but it also attracts experienced, creative teachers who are up for the challenge.
Dale Eilers, a third-grade English language arts teacher, is one of them. Eilers has been at SEED from the start, and she said the teaching faculty has improved each year through hard work, collaboration and the support of their principal.
Carter flew Eilers to Boston to learn a writing program. She flew her to Phoenix to watch a teacher instruct students of wide-ranging abilities. SEED does not have a separate "special day classroom" for disabled students.
"Over time, teachers became more skilled and, thus, students became more skilled," Eilers said. She added, "All of the teachers are on board. Everyone wants to be here. Everyone chooses to be here."
Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education.