Halfway through morning math lesson in Dana Graham’s classroom at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School, twenty-odd pairs of hands are wiggling as her fourth-graders stare expectantly at their teacher. A few kids are still finishing up the division problem at hand, but soon they too pop their hands excitedly into what Graham calls “moose-ears,” joining the rest of the herd in signaling that they also have the answer.
“Now whisper what you got to your neighbor,” says Graham, who is in her fifth year of teaching at Piedmont. One student, smiling broadly, beckons to the visiting reporter observing the class. “Math is my favorite subject,” she whispers. “And the answer is five.”
Piedmont Avenue Elementary, located in North Oakland near such landmarks such as Fenton’s Creamery and Mountain View cemetery, has garnered attention as an up-and-coming school in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). This year, Piedmont was one of 12 OUSD schools that raised their Academic Performance Index (API), a score given to schools based on standardized testing performance in grade-level reading and math proficiency, by more than 50 points. That’s twice the average increase for the district.
Piedmont has not always had a reputation as an exemplary neighborhood school. Even with the 50-point increase this year to an API score of 795, the school is still a few points away from the score of 800 that the state considers to be “proficient.” Also, in 2008, a bullying incident, in which a first-grader suffered a fractured skull at school after being thrown against a tree by an older student, raised concerns about school safety. “When I first got here, school didn’t seem like a happy place,” said Principal Zarina Ahmad, who came to Piedmont after the incident. “We’ve done a lot of work in the past three years to make this school the kind of place where families feel comfortable and kids want to be.”
Today, a well-manicured lawn and a multicolored bike rack in the shape of a fish, greets families as they approach the school. Glossy photos of teachers are posted alongside hallway posters promoting college culture. Anti-bullying signs that read “‘Anger’ is one letter away from “danger’” hang in the bathrooms.
After she became Principal at Piedmont Avenue Elementary in 2008, Ahmad made improving school climate her first priority. She implemented weekly school assemblies on culture and heritage, had teachers name their classes after colleges – Stanford, UCLA–and prompted students to yell their college’s cheer at assemblies. “I wanted to establish the belief in teachers that these are kids’ formative years,” said Ahmad. “Some people think kindergarten is too early to think about college, but we wanted to send the message that ‘your future is now!’”
In addition to promoting school pride, the school has also made significant changes to its teaching techniques for reading and math. Last year, Piedmont began using the Swun math program, a teaching method that clearly spells steps for students and teachers — such as having students work on a problem together and reach a class consensus on the answer before moving on to individual work. Approximately 20 elementary schools in Oakland are using the Swun program, which has been found to promote more African American and Latino students into the proficient/advanced performance levels for math standardized testing, according to a 2009 report by the Oakland Research Department.
About 60 percent of the approximately 350 students at Piedmont are African American, and 13 percent are Latino. One in five students is an English language learner, and the school’s diverse demographics include subgroups from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Mongolia. “A few of our students came here speaking only French this year,” Ahmad said. “We are a diverse school, but it is one of our strengths. Our English language learners improved 51 percentage points in standardized math testing this year.”
Like many schools in OUSD, Piedmont has also faced multiple challenges this year as a result of budget cuts, which forced the school to fire its librarian and attendance clerk, and increase the number of students per teacher. “It’s been tough, but we’ve been lucky to get some outside funding here and there,” said Teacher on Special Assignment Lisa Lefrak. The school recently received a grant from the Rogers Foundation to purchase a 25 new iMacs for the computer lab, where students starting in kindergarten will learn basic computer skills. “There are really special things going on here,” Lefrak said. “People are just starting to pay attention to us because of the API increase, but they really need to come inside to see what’s going on. This is what a neighborhood school is supposed to look like.”
In contrast to many other districts, OUSD uses an “options” enrollment system that lets families submit requests as to which school their children will attend at the elementary, middle and high school level. The program, which has been in place since 2005, is designed to prevent inequity by allowing all students access to a “high quality school,” regardless of their neighborhood or origin. But the program has also been criticized by some community members, who say it prevents local parents from considering good neighborhood schools, due to too much emphasis on API scores.
“I’m happy about the API increase, because it will get parents to look twice at our school,” said Ahmad, who grew up in Oakland, and attended public schools from kindergarten to high school. “But what really rewarding is when parents come up to me and tell me that their kids can’t wait to come to school. That’s what it’s about. We want our kids to be lifelong learners.”
This year, Piedmont is focusing on trying to improve students’ reading comprehension. Ahmad is excited about the school’s new Read Think Apply program, which assigns students different roles during group reading, such as “predictor,” “clarifier” and “summarizer.” Students stop every few pages, during a reading assignment, to be quizzed about new vocabulary and prompted to guess what will happen next. “The goal was to get our kids to enjoy reading,” said Ahmad. “The year I came here, they just weren’t reading. Now they are starting to take books out at lunch or check them out overnight. It’s very encouraging.”
Ahmad said that although some teachers were reluctant at first to try the new math and reading methods, they ended up embracing them when they saw positive results with their students. “I’m not afraid of change,” said Ahmad. “I believe if you keep doing things the same way, you will get the same results. When things work, great. Let them be left alone. When things don’t, it’s time to try something different.”
Parents, it seems, are also paying attention to the changes at Piedmont, and comments supporting the school have popped up on several Internet message boards devoted to elementary school options in OUSD. “I wanted to put in a plug for Piedmont Avenue Elementary School,” one parent said in an online post on the Berkeley Parents Network forum this August. “[Piedmont’s] scores will never reach the sky-high levels of the hills’ schools, as fully 20% of the kids are English learners from East Africa, West Africa, Mexico and Central America, but what a great community of kids and families!”
Graham, who has added her own teaching flair to the Swun math method, is a big fan of the changes Ahmad has brought, including the practice of sharing individual teachers’ and students’ standardized testing scores internally among staff. “I was a little uncomfortable seeing everyone’s scores at first, but not any more,” she said. “I still don’t think standardized testing is the end-all, but it does help keep us accountable.”
A poster chart in the back of Graham’s classroom lists the students by name, with tiny letters indicating mastery of skills in math and reading. “Testing for teachers and students doesn’t have to feel punitive.” She said. “It’s about camaraderie. We’re all trying to promote the best teaching possible.”