It's Napa Time!
In the summer of 2010, Victoria Christie was talking with various colleagues, when one of them, searching for the proper analogy to describe a poor performing student, said that the boy was “so low, it was like he was from Napa (Elementary School).” The man who made that remark did not realize that a few weeks earlier, Christie had been named the principal at Napa. Still, she chose not to embarrass him, and let the comment go unanswered.
Recounting the story today, Christie is both amused by the irony of the situation, and confident that anyone paying attention would not choose to cite Napa as exhibit A of a failed school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Last August, it was revealed that Napa had the highest one-year increase in API scores between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 of all schools in the LAUSD, 130 points. Among the schools in Cohort 2, which includes Napa and 16 others based in the central and west San Fernando Valley, the next highest increase was 38 points at Cohasset Elementary.
Located on a small, crowded street of middle-class homes in Northridge, Napa currently has 480 students, virtually all of them Latino. The vast majority of Napa’s families live in a housing complex on nearby Parthenia Avenue, not far from where Christie, a 1973 graduate of Chatsworth High School, grew up. Most of the students at Napa speak English; most of their parents do not.
Christie laughed and said she was on “Rosetta Stone, Unit Two,” in her own effort to learn to speak passable Spanish.
As a consequence of the extraordinary rise in Napa’s API score, and because it was one of the top 25 Title 1 schools in the LAUSD with the greatest increase in the percentage of students achieving advanced and proficient in both English Language and Math between 2006-2007 and 2010-2011, Napa has been designated a School on the Move by a team led by Donna Muncey, Chief of Intensive Support and Intervention. The team included Estelle Luckett, Director, Student Integration Services, Deborah Ernst, Director, Federal and State Education Programs, Ada Snethen Stevens, Director, Pilot and ESBMM Schools, and Jodie Newbury, Program and Policy Development Advisor- School Portfolio Management.
According to Muncey, the 12 schools identified by her team as Schools on the Move had in common administrators who employed innovative practices to attain higher levels of achievement. Journal profiles on each of these schools will be posted by early July on the District’s redesigned website. It is her goal that other principals will access the information with the intent to incorporate practices that can help raise achievement levels at their particular schools.
“Principals and teachers who want to get better are always on the lookout for new ideas,” said Muncey. She added that she hopes representatives from other campuses visit one or more of the Schools on Move to observe firsthand the successful and innovative work being done in the classroom.
“This effort is in line with the new contract between the District and UTLA that both encourages and endorses greater autonomy for our schools,” noted Muncey. “Principals can and should learn from each other at the site, using other schools as one way to reflect on their own work and set new directions.”
When Christie arrived at Napa, after six years as principal of Hamlin Elementary School, which during her tenure was named a National Blue Ribbon School and achieved an API score of 886 (the California standard is 800), she had no anticipation of accolades or honors. According to the principal, the school was burdened by a bad reputation, morale was poor among many faculty and staff, and the campus looked shabby.
Improving reputations is a job for expensive PR firms. But Christie did have the means and will to address the other concerns.
She arranged with the Facilities Division to have the interior and exterior of the school painted, along with new white stripes on the playground. This month, she received a shipment of dozens of new chairs – procured with help from the office of Board Member Tamar Galatzan -- to replace the circa 1962 models that were still being used by students in several Napa classrooms.
“So many things were broken,” said Christie, shaking her head at the memory of Napa’s deteriorating condition back in the summer of 2010. “Our teachers and students deserved a clean, well-functioning plant.”
Throughout that summer, Christie met with faculty members, one by one, to discuss her ideas for the school. She let them know that she would institute weekly grade-level meetings, where participants would plan together, including discussing the needs of particular students; hire six teaching assistants, one per grade, who would visit each classroom every day; use data to drive instruction; establish block schedules; and apply Specifically Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE) strategies to English Learners.
“When school started, the teachers were already on board,” said Christie.
They also soon discovered that Christie, who spent two of her three decades so far with LAUSD as a teacher, liked visiting their classrooms – and often.
“I try to get into every classroom twice a week,” said Christie. “I’m not there to ‘check on’ teachers, but to observe.” The advantage of frequent visits is that even nervous teachers eventually get used to seeing their principal take a seat in the back, and Christie is better able to assess over time what works, and what might need adjusting. The principal said that on occasion she will suggest to a teacher that she try something different.
“I see my job as encouraging, motivating, and inspiring teachers,” she explained.
Christie also makes a point of interacting with Napa students; she is out on the playground every day at recess, and it’s not unusual to see her engaged in a spirited handball game with much younger players.
“I want to be the type of principal kids can talk to,” said Christie.
Building a strong relationship with Napa parents has proven to be more complicated. As in the case of students and teachers, Christie has intensified her outreach to parents and guardians, including re-launching the PTA, but the challenge of coordinating work schedules and other issues have inhibited the effort.
Much of Christie’s communication with parents has taken place over the phone.
“I always return calls, and I always listen,” she noted. The school also sends a bi-monthly newsletter to families.
In September 2010, when Christie officially started, the entire Napa community was faced with a major threat to the school’s Quality Education Investment Act funding from the state. Specifically, Napa needed to raise its API score by 51 points to qualify to receive the funds, which amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars, in 2011-12.
Christie used the potential catastrophe to motivate parents, teachers, and especially students to achieve the API gain necessary to procure the funding for another year. Students were encouraged to set their own goals for the score they intended to achieve on the API test, which would in turn enable the school to meet its target. The magic number of points became a kind of mantra at Napa.
In the event, Napa more than doubled the target, a result that was celebrated by the Superintendent and the Board as a splendid example of what a school can achieve even in the midst of a devastating budget crisis.
Now Napa is faced with the welcome but still tricky challenge of how to manage rising expectations. Christie has set a goal of raising the school’s current API score of 798 to 805 for 2011-12. If you walk around the campus or visit classrooms and hear students chanting “805,” “805,” that’s what they’re referring to.
“We are doing the same things we did last year to keep the momentum up,” said Christie, adding, in a determined voice: “We are not going back.”
As to her own future, Christie said she might want to someday work with new principals, or perhaps serve as principal at another school. But she’s not going anywhere until Napa consistently meets her own standard of excellence.
“I’m not leaving this school until we are solid in the 800s,” she said.
She has also set key markers for the school moving forward, which have no direct connection to higher test scores:
1. Continuing to work with dedicated teachers to identify Tier 1 instructional strategies that are most effective in the classroom, and expanding them.
2. Continuing to increase parent involvement and provide a greater role to the parent center.
3. Continuing to make the school more physically attractive, including landscaping.
With the dedication to excellence already evident from parents, students, teachers, and administrators at Napa Elementary, there is little doubt that these goals will be met – and exceeded.
Photo Caption: Led by Principal Victoria Christie (second from right), staff and teachers at Napa Elementary have set their school on the path to academic excellence.
By: Tom Waldman
Posted: April 24, 2012