What makes a school great? Our little gem offers answers

I went to the Aug. 13 community forum of parents, teachers, neighbors and alumni at Bret Harte Elementary School. I went because I live in the community. I went because my 2-year-old will attend this school in three years. This is our school.

Here’s what I saw at the meeting – parents who love their kids and care deeply about their school, topnotch teachers who care deeply about their students, community members from Oak Park and Curtis Park who care deeply about their neighborhood school.

I saw a principal who is in constant motion. He brings in the best research-based strategies to support and improve the academic success of his students. He supports his teachers and staff. He walks the halls and stops by classrooms and meets with parents and chats with the kids. He cares deeply about every single person in the school.

This is our school, but this is not the school described in a Sacramento Bee article in July that got widespread attention for claiming our elementary school was failing. That article was so focused on telling a sensational story about test scores that it forgot to look at metrics that capture what parents actually want to know.

Parents want test scores to tell us about the quality of a school: How good is it for my child? And, how much does this school need in terms of resources? Test scores can be useful for understanding which schools need additional investment and resources. But they are pretty much useless for assessing school quality.

Study after study shows test scores are mostly predicted by out-of-school factors, like income and parental education level. That means they basically measure what resources students have before they enter school. Parents don’t want to know how many resources their child already has. Parents want to know whether a school will provide their child with additional resources. Will this school support my kids, keep them safe, help thrive, nourish their growth?

Test scores tell us none of that. What does? Things like teacher quality and dedication and retention (Bret Harte teachers are excellent and have been there for an average of more than 15 years). Things like parental and community involvement. Things like the quality of interactions between teachers and students and among peers. Things like providing each student with the resources they need to succeed.

Bret Harte has all of these elements. If we want it to thrive, then we need investment, not fearmongering.

So let’s get involved. Go to a PTA meeting. Join the Garden Council. Attend a School Site Council meeting. Meet the parents and teachers and principal and listen to them.

You’ll hear that they love Bret Harte. You’ll hear them talk about what the school needs to do even more for its kids. You’ll see a little gem of an elementary school nestled between two neighborhoods, reaching across them, ready to thrive.

Alison Ledgerwood is a Curtis Park resident and a professor and chancellor’s fellow in the Department of Psychology at UC Davis.

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