Blue Ridge Elementary School puts readers in the tub

School uses different approaches to help meet ambitious academic goals.

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New Blue Ridge Principal Kim Doepker has implemented changes in the classroom during her first year at the school.

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Bath Tubs and books at Blue Ridge for Jonathan Salazar, left, and Citlali Esquivel during an independent reading session at the school Friday morning. Under the direction of new principal Kim Doepker, Blue Ridge has undergone some new and unique changes.

WALLA WALLA - Two girls in Kate Hohimer's first-grade class curl up with some Junie B. Jones titles in the bathtub that is the centerpiece of the classroom's reading corner. On a large area rug where the tub rests, other students lounge while flipping through their own books, with The Adventures of Captain Underpants another popular series.

Because it is a bilingual class, the students leaf through Spanish titles, where Captain Underpants goes by "El Capitan Calzoncillos."

Blue Ridge Principal Kim Doepker is on a brief visit to the class. She points out how Hohimer can direct her attention to a small group of students, who sit around her at a table. They are completing worksheets outlining the steps to make a phone call.

Able to check on each student's work, Hohimer calls attention to a minor correction on one girl's page.

"Necesitas una mayuscula aqui?" Hohimer asks the girl if she needs to capitalize the second word of a sentence.

"Puedes aser esa minuscula," she said. It should be lower-case.

In a moment, the students at the table and in the reading area will switch. By giving students a chance to read, and also offering them more individualized attention, Hohimer is using strategies with a record of boosting student learning.

The techniques are not unique to this classroom. Throughout the school, similar strategies have been in place since the start of the year to help meet ambitious goals set by Doepker during her first year leading the school.

Those goals include raising test scores by 10 percent, implementing proven strategies to improve language and literacy, and having staff teach "bell to bell," or taking advantage of all classroom time.

About seven months into the year, the school is on its way to meeting those goals. The language strategies are in place throughout the school, with all students getting direct reading support each day.

Those strategies are also helping meet the goal of raising test scores by 10 percent.

District communications director Mark Higgins said the district's annual assessment of math and reading reflects a dramatic increase in Blue Ridge students' scores this year.

In reading, fourth-grade students improved by about 35 percent, with 64 percent passing. In math, the increase is nearly 40 percent, with 66 percent passing.

"The intervention strategies that Kim put in place are really making a difference," Higgins said. "The kids are at risk considerably less than when they started the year."

Those numbers have given Blue Ridge staff confidence to take the state's exam, the Measurements of Student Progress, later this spring.

Deopker also took on the job with an eye for the future. And she made establishing a dual-language program a personal goal.

In the fall, kindergarten students will launch the school's new dual-language program. The program will start in kindergarten only, and include more grades as students progress.

The model teaches English and Spanish to all students, and will eventually replace the school's bilingual program, where Spanish-speaking children learn in their first language through third grade.

Doepker arrived at Blue Ridge with 20 years experience in education, and left an assistant principal position at Pioneer Middle School to lead Blue Ridge. She also arrived aware of the school's challenges.

Blue Ridge remains the highest poverty and highest minority school in the district. Recent data shows it is the lowest performing of the elementary schools on the state's standardized tests. And the transfer of Connie Taylor-Randall as the school's principal last year left many Blue Ridge families feeling vulnerable and ignored.

For Doepker, tackling those challenges always points back to the school's main focus, which is teaching for success.

"Our standards are just as high here as they would be at any elementary," Doepker said. "And we're not going to lower those standards."

The dual-language program will have an immediate effect on the school's youngest students. But there are changes in the works for the upper grades as well.

Next year, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes will begin "platooning," a model of teaching where students leave their homeroom to learn specialized instruction from another classroom teacher. So a teacher who may show strength in science or math would also teach it to other students.

Blue Ridge will be the first of the district's elementary schools to implement a platooning model, and it is being modeled after a similar program at Columbia Elementary in Burbank.

Other changes are already present throughout the school. A strong focus on reading has put extra support employees in classrooms throughout the day as a way to offer more individual instruction.

In Joyce Moreno's kindergarten class, three support staff members sit in small groups with the 27 students to go over language lessons. Moreno is testing students individually in another room.

In the mornings, support staff members visit the younger grades. In the afternoons, they work with the older students.

"We wanted to do this SWAT team approach," Doepker said.

For Moreno, the approach has been a positive.

"It's more effective," she said.

The collaboration also helps teachers and support staff talk about students strengths. The focus also allows staff to discuss strategies that are or aren't working.

"That has to be at the front of our teaching. Why are we doing this, and is it going to help our kids," Doepker said.

Although still relatively new to the school, Doepker said she has felt welcomed and supported, a gesture she hopes to return.

"This school, the staff truly is a family," she said. "They are a strong, strong group of people."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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