For over 100 years, Ocean Beach Elementary has been in the business of educating the children of Ocean Beach, the sleepy seaside community of San Diego that is more characteristic of a small Oregon coastal town than it is the second largest city in the largest state in the United States. Take a stroll through OB, as it’s referred to, and one gets a sense that not much has changed in the last 30 years, which is why the local residents love it so much.
Change does not come easy in OB, and that’s just the way they like it.
One thing that has changed, though, is that Ocean Beach Elementary has quickly become a destination school, with parents—who have a choice of schools in the neighborhood—ushering their kids there instead of the several other elementary schools in the OB-Pt. Loma area.
It wasn’t always that way. Until recently, other schools in the Pt. Loma Cluster were the preferred destinations by OB parents. However, enrollment at the school has grown from 266 during the 2006-07 school year to the current enrollment of 410, including 72 new students this year alone.
That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though, given the academic performance of OB Elementary students as measured by the State of California Department of Education. Despite its growth, OB Elementary saw a 2009 Base Academic Performance Index (API) score of 908, and a subsequent Growth API of 924 for 2010 (please don’t ask me to explain the difference…….but feel free to read about it here).
During that same time frame, OB Elementary has scored 10 out of 10 on both the statewide ranking and the “similar schools” ranking—schools with a similar demographic makeup statewide.
Compare those rankings to the 2006 base API of 794, a statewide ranking of 7, and a similar schools ranking of 6, and you get an idea of just how far the school has come. Suffice it to say that the improvement in the school’s academic performance during this time period has been nothing short of excellent. All of this with a veritable explosion in enrollment.
Ocean Beach Elementary is thriving in an economic environment that is causing so many others to fail. The school’s recent success is not due to an increase in state or federal funding. And it’s not due parents pouring in resources as they do at private institutions. OB Elementary is succeeding as a public school in a public school system because the teachers and limited administrative staff have made their students their only priority. What’s best for the kids, in their view, is what’s best for the school. Which is, sadly, a rather novel approach in education today.
The school is captained by Principal Margaret Johnson, a tough but incredibly compassionate woman who has managed to instill in her staff the educational values that she espouses. It’s a wholly team oriented approach where the egos are checked at the school’s front gate. Educating these kids is considered a group effort, and everyone is expected to contribute something, from the teachers to the parents to the school’s administrative assistant.
The result is an environment that challenges the kids while at the same time inspires an excitement and an eagerness to learn. “You have to challenge the kids or they’ll be bored,” Johnson says.
But that was not always the case. When Johnson first took over nearly seven years ago, her first mission was the tedious and often thankless task of changing the culture of the school. She quickly realized that there was a very strong core group of teachers able to help spread the workload. However, there was a need to bring the staff together to make better use of available data, develop and try new strategies, and plan and write curriculum together. As staff members retired and enrollment increased, she was able to bring in new teachers that shared her vision of what education should be. Seven years later she has a staff that believes in what they are doing, and the results have been staggering.
The educational approach at OB Elementary calls for as much individual instruction as teachers can muster, but mainly follows the theory that kids learn better when broken down into smaller groups. Ideally, groups of no more than six students are formed in each class for various lessons. This allows the teacher to move from group to group and provide more individualized attention to each. The students are also more likely to learn from each other, with the more advanced students of the group often pulling the others up closer to their level.
The result is a group of students with a vested interest in each other’s success and an environment that fosters a sense of community and responsibility to one another. It is an entirely different way of looking at the concept of “No child left behind.”
A strong involvement in “professional learning communities” is also encouraged. The professional learning communities are grade level collaborations between teachers at the various area schools where they can exchange ideas and methodologies. Think of it as a sort of coaching clinic for teachers where everyone has an opportunity to learn from one another. The groups usually meet once a month, and involvement is largely dependent on how much money is contributed by the school.
Johnson goes out of her way to learn each student’s name, and personally tracks each class and each student’s progress throughout their tenure at her school. Her entire office is lined with both benchmark assessments and the state test results for each individual student broken down by grade. Students who are struggling are quickly identified and steps are taken to get them the extra help they need in order to succeed, whether that be after school tutoring, or extra parental guidance, or any other creative solution the teachers and staff can come up with. And it works. The results speak for themselves.
Johnson brings something else to her school: A strong belief in the value of art and music, and their importance in helping a child to learn. It is a belief that is so strong that the bulk of the school’s fundraising efforts are aimed at supporting the arts. All of their fundraising is done through the PTA, which, Johnson says, is seeing more and more parents get involved every year, and almost all of it is put into art and music.
OB Elementary has partnered with Young Audiences of San Diego and the Center for World Music to write grants to help fund the school’s arts and music programs. These grants pay for the dance instructors who come to the school twice a week and teach the kindergarten and first graders dance; and for the second graders who are learning about theater and getting acting instruction; and the third and fourth graders who are learning the fine arts. Next semester the school will be partnering with a group to bring in music instructors.
And the students absolutely love it! “We know it makes a difference for our kids,” Johnson says. “Not all kids come to school going ‘whoo-hooo! I can’t wait ‘til we have math today!’ But they might come to school knowing, ‘I’ve got dance! I’ve got DANCE today!’”
This emphasis on the arts, Johnson says, is “on the philosophy that children that are involved in arts and music and other things are also very good students.”
Triumph in the face of personal crisis
The momentum the school has generated has come despite a family crisis that kept Johnson away from the school for large chunks of time during the 2009-10 school year. Her son, Kevin, now 27, was working as a zip line instructor in Boulder City, NV, when he fell 80 feet to the ground on October 3, 2009. He was medevaced to University Medical Center in Las Vegas, where he was given a one in a thousand chance to survive.
Kevin spent the first three weeks after the accident in a coma, the initial damage so bad that his left leg had to be immediately amputated. His mother rarely left his side, leaving the hospital only to sleep in the casino hotel room that served as a makeshift home base throughout the ordeal. His recovery went well, though, despite the initial dire prognosis, and he was eventually transferred to Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas, where the long rehab process began.
The accident also caused severe brain trauma and memory loss. For three months, every time he awoke in the hospital he was greeted with large signs reminding him where he was and what had happened to him. Months of grueling cognitive and physical therapy ensued, but Kevin is a high spirited fighter, and he showed steady progress on both fronts. He was fitted with a prosthesis for his left leg while doctors and therapists tried to save his right leg, which was not in good shape.
He was released from full time hospital care in February, 2010. In the meantime, the search was on for a doctor who could save his right leg.
A specialist in Denver took on his case, and every effort was made to save his one remaining leg. Kevin and his mother flew back and forth between San Diego and Denver over a dozen times for treatment. On a trip last September with his father (who lives in Costa Rica, and thus could not be there as often), the doctors found a recurrence of osteomyelitis, a major infection in the bone. His chances of regaining the use of the leg were slim, so Kevin made the decision to have it amputated as well.
Just after Thanksgiving, Kevin was fitted for a second prosthesis, and he’s been full go ever since. He’s working toward getting his “cheetah” legs,– legs he can run with–he’s met the love of his life, and is determined to become a physical therapist himself so that he can help serve as a positive influence to others who are facing similar circumstances that he has gone through.
His story is a reminder of what’s possible with grit and determination and a positive outlook, and has served as an inspiration to everyone even peripherally involved with his family over the past year.
Budget woes aplenty
Through all of this, Margaret Johnson still has a school to run. The State of California is still facing down a fiscal crisis and a budget deficit, and school districts are looking at ways to further cut costs. Much of December and January was spent attending school budget meetings, and none of the news has been good. The district has already cut to the bare bones, but to this point massive teacher layoffs have been avoided.
This time, it may be unavoidable.
The San Diego Unified School District is looking at another $120 million being cut from its budget next year. The current plan outlined by California Governor Jerry Brown would result in 1,300 school district employees losing their jobs, including more than 500 teachers.
Budget issues have occupied an inordinate amount of Johnson’s time over the past few months. The district superintendant has arranged seminars to help school administrators prepare for what’s coming. The district office is already scarce on resources and personnel, so the responsibility for planning is falling directly on the schools themselves—the district is shifting to a site-based budget methodology.
Johnson explains it thusly: Based on enrollment, each school is told how many teachers they’ll be allotted, and how many administrators. Their cafeteria and custodial staffs are provided for by the district on the district’s terms.
As it stands, the budget that has been submitted calls for Ocean Beach Elementary to cut three full time teachers—based strictly on seniority– meaning they will have only 14 teachers and one principal available for their 410+ students projected for the next school year. In recent years, the school saw a reasonable and effective student to teacher classroom ratio of 20:1. Due to the recent budget cuts, they currently stand at 24:1. With the proposed cuts coming down the pike, that ratio will rise to nearly 30:1.
The school’s enrollment also determines its “categorical budget,” from which the school itself has to prioritize what positions it is willing to “purchase,” which is determined by the school site governance team, consisting of a group of parents, teachers, and Johnson. For example, the OB Elementary governance team felt it was important to “purchase” a library assistant in order to keep its library open. Other schools are closing their libraries down completely. They have prioritized keeping a guidance assistant on site, yet have made the decision to eliminate their one day per week guidance counselor and one day per week school nurse. They have been told that “nursing services” will be provided through the Point Loma Cluster, but it is still unclear how that will work.
Other discretionary funds are also prioritized, which go to pay for things like a copy machine and school supplies.
But despite the pitfalls she is staring down, Johnson maintains a positive, can-do attitude. In her mind, there is no excuse for allowing students in her school slip through the cracks and fall behind. Even with a shortage of teachers, she is determined to find a way to make do.
As challenging as it has been to turn Ocean Beach Elementary around, the challenges of maintaining that level of success that has been achieved will be even greater in the years to come as the schools face economic shortfalls once thought unimaginable. But with Margaret Johnson’s ability to think outside the box, the incredible and invaluable support of the Ocean Beach community, the school’s parents, and her staff’s creativity and dedication to their students, there is little doubt that despite the obstacles being thrown at them, Ocean Beach Elementary’s kids will continue to succeed.