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Olympics! Back-To-School Inspiration

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Learning Champions, Ready, Set, Let's Go!

Oh, how I love the Olympics! This one came just the right time, right before back to school. Perfect! 

I believe in miracles and that miracle is you! Tonight, in the Olympics spirit of sharing athletes' back stories, it's time I tell you about one very special school, that first turned around, then transformed. But first, I have news.

I'ts official. My volunteering turned into being part of the preschool staff, half-time starting in Sept., to help needy kids learn to read. So here we go again. I have never retired. Crazy, really. 

To be honest, I had a really rough patch and disappeared when my husband was ill. During that time, I still taught kids at our mountain historic home and was able to make it to my Chapman University reading courses, at least for awhile. All in all I taught bottom tenth percentile and local Miwok tribe kids. Special appearances and homeschoolers, too. Got fresh eggs. 

I learned social media when I finally moved from Ca. to Eugene to be with my family here. That little peanut in the photo, Morgan is worth everything. Her future is my future. Maybe she will be in the Olympics, or President. Starting Kindergarten in a few weeks, I'm going with her Mama and I will probably cry, just like I did when I first dropped off her mama. 

All summer, principals and teachers worked, reviewing the past year while planning this new year. Blogs, stories, anecdotes, chats, edcamps, professional reading, not much of a rest. Unless we are teachers or live with other educators, people think summer is a big break. Not.

What used to happen to me is that I worked so hard all summer, I was exhausted when school started. I remember my first year as Principal, being at school on Labor Day, making sure the new look and culture was all set to go, when one by one, teachers and staff kept trickling in to check me out.

So I ended up ordering fried chicken and we all had a big lunch. I bought a picnic table and placed it right outside the back office door, so it was just in time. This happened pretty much every year after the first one. End of the year was just the same. No teacher wanted to leave. We sat at the same picnic table. That's what belief and family does.

In case you are at a school that needs a little work, lucky you. These are my favorite schools, because the only way is up! Every school has things that can turn around, which has to happen, before transformation. Vision, Mission, then just do it. Mid-course corrections are expected and allow time for change. But start!

Here's the story, an Olympics-type miracle. Credit goes to a group of school champions. You and your school staff are champions. We all are, when we call forth from our depths of heart, soul and pedagogy, and work together in collective spirit.

Spotlight: Miracles Do Happen at Bell Ave. School, by Charlotte Danielson, The Exchange, A Clearinghouse of Practical Ideas For Educators, a long time go.

   "An elementary school with a 50% turnover rate and 86% welfare rate seems an unlikely location for a miracle. And three years ago, the school with all the problems of school failure and vandalism... such a miracle was nowhere on the horizon. More importantly, was a feeling of frenzy.

Bell Avenue is now a school transformed. Visitors notice a calm and purpose, interspersed with a large measure of caring. Student self-esteem is the highest priority in the school, with the many activities and programs chosen for their potential to contribute to it.

Rita sees the Principal's role as one of providing vision to a professional, collegial staff. She calls only one staff meeting a month. The other three weekly meeting times are set for team meetings and an idea fair at which all teachers share successful classroom ideas.

Staff communication merits the highest priority at Bell. The Key Planners group, Site Council, and T-PAAC- Teacher, Principal and Assistants, including custodial and cooks, meets to solve logistical and safety problems and offer Mission ideas. Staff are urged to use "Rapid Reply" notes which are located throughout the school, to send messages to one another.

The staff is organized into teams, each with responsibility for about 150 children. Most teams use a Joplin-type plan in the mornings and homeroom instruction in the afternoons for science and social studies. Teachers do looping, some team teach, some classroom furniture is dumped, in various room organizations. 

The school conducts a schoolwide event about every two weeks, the majority academically oriented, others designed to enhance climate and morale. Kitchen staff is involved in school planning and monthly make a birthday cake to celebrate all kids' birthdays. Parents are included in many aspects of school lfe and home visits are the norm.

Most classrooms have animals and the children are learning to care for them. The presence of the animals, combined with the school's program for conflict managers and emphasis on student learning, have all contributed to the new feeling of calm around the school.

The district's 'learning handicapped' class is located on the campus. It was recently moved from a remote trailer, with no water, to the center of the campus. The kids are in charge of the wildlife compound ouside their door and are nearly fully included in all school programs and activities. Much of their day is spent in the "regular" classrooms. 

The perfect attendance program had at least half of the children there each month, despite great odds. It's a place where students want to be, with a rich learning environent and students succeeding in their work, it is a happy place to be.

The school has access through the energy of its principal and teachers to a variety of resources. They have qualified for two special grants, one for an outcome-based math program and another for drop-out prevention which funded before, after-school and Sat. programs, and children being fed. The nearby air force base and various community partnerships are active at the school.

They have initiated a literary paper, newspaper, garden, student council, wildlife compound, after school program of clubs, grandparents program, Spanish classes, choir, various artist in resident programs, science fair, math bee, speech contest, pet show and wildlife day called Pets on Parade, monthly multicultural events, Chinese New Year dragon parade, table tennis team etc. Each teacher has a pet project they are in charge of. The chidren see this and begin to understand that their own responsibilities lead to growth. 

The results of their efforts are starting to show in the school's test score results. The staff emphasizes that Bell Avenue is a place for learning, and that class instructional time cannot be interrupted except in a true emergency.

In the state testing program, Bell Avenue's sixth graders compared with others of the same SES- scored in the 96th percentile in reading, 97th percentile in language and 95th in mathematics. The increase in scores took place in the last year when the school was being renovated and the program was disrupted greatly, in only year two of the turn around, then transformation.

The test scores tell only part of the story. They are a symptom, perhaps of a wonderful school environment, one in which both students and staff care for one another, and put the highest value on learning."

   "There is something in our spirit that longs to be elevated to new heights of purpose. Extraordinary achievements never fail to inspire us to raise our sights and to color outside the lines.... ultimately the celebration of our own potential." H. Jackson Brown, Jr. 

May this be your championship year at your school. I know you are ready.  I hope you are so inspired, your first day is the best ever and every day after that. Sending you joy and loads of back-to-school love.


Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita


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Modeling the art and craft of teaching reading for 45 years, Mrs. Wirtz taught language arts, speech and reading at all levels preschool-adult, including penal. She served as Pre-school and K-6 Principal. Rita was also a Curriculum Consultant, ESEA, Title I Program Evaluator and literacy trainer. At the university level she taught school administration in the Bilingual Cohort at CSUS and National University, Sacto. Mrs. Wirtz also taught all reading courses for Chapman University for many years in Sacramento and Placerville, Ca., and mentored student teachers. On the national level she was a well known motivational Keynote Speaker and Seminar Leader. Most importantly, Rita walked the talk, teaching with teachers in more than 500 K-12 and special needs classrooms. Rita authored books, publications and Pre- YouTube, videos were filmed by San Diego County Office of Education. Calif. ASCD authored companion book guides, and Calif. school districts correlated her basic skills instruction with State Standards. Mrs. Wirtz' newest book is Reading Champs! Teaching Reading Made Easy, a review of the basic building blocks of English and Reading. Find Mrs. Wirtz on Twitter @RitaWirtz, Facebook and website- www.ritawirtz.com.

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