BY PATRICIA KONING (LIVERMORE INDEPENDENT)
State Assembly Member Tom Torlakson took a break from the election on Tuesday to visit Marylin Avenue Elementary School in Livermore. “This is a good way to spend Election Day, seeing something inspirational,” he said. “This visit reinforces what I’ve known for some time—how well targeted resources can help a school.”
Torlakson, a Democrat representing the 11th District, is serving his third and final term in the California State Assembly. He previously served two terms in the State Senate and is now running for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
For his compaign manager Gloria Omania, the visit was a homecoming and a reunion. She attended Marylin Avenue as a child. Her sixth grade teacher Jim Kashiwamura, or “Mr. K” as she knew him, stopped by the school to say hello.
Torlakson and Omania toured the school with principal Jeff Keller, Livermore School Board president Stu Gary, superintendent Kelly Bowers, and several staff members. A highlight of the visit was the staff room, which is covered wall to wall with graphs and charts of assessment results and student achievement. Keller explained some recent successes, like the fact that second graders, on average, made 15 months worth of progress in their reading ability over the course of the 9-month school year.
Torlakson wanted to visit Marylin Avenue because over the past three years, the school has received $850,000 in funding from the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), which Torlakson authored in 2006. The legislation (Senate Bill 1133) was the result of a lawsuit settlement over State education funding.
“I’ve been sharing the Marylin Avenue story with many people. This is what we mean by reform that works,” he said. “What I’ve learned from visiting Marylin and other schools receiving QEIA funds, is that smaller class sizes really do enable differentiated learning.”
Marylin uses the QEIA money to lower class sizes, hire new staff, and provide professional development. “The extra professional development time was critical,” said Keller. “Our teachers had to learn how to drive data and prepare many kinds of assessments. We were able to send our teachers to several conferences that really helped us change the culture at the school.”
Keller also used the QEIA money to increase Marylin’s second science specialist’s hours from approximately 30% to full-time. With two science specialists, science instruction does not interrupt the literacy block that happens during the first two hours of each school day. During the literacy block, the science specialists assist with reading intervention.
Marylin has made impressive academic gains. In the 2009 Academic Performance Index (API), Marylin raised its score by 40 points, from 744 to 784. The school was one of about 50 statewide to emerge from Program Improvement (PI), from nearly 3,000 schools in PI. Over a three-year period, Marylin gained 117 points on the API, making it one of the top schools in the state in terms of point gain.
Keller is confident that this year the school will pass 800, the target for all schools in the state. “We will gain 30 to 60 points on the API when the results come out in August,” said Keller. “I know this because we’ve been measuring our students all year.”
Keller and Gary also talked about how Marylin has benefitted from strong community support. A community outreach worker, funded by the United Way and City of Livermore, has helped parents become more involved in their children’s education. The school contains a food pantry. In addition, Open Heart Kitchen provides weekend meals for children. The Rotarian Foundation of Livermore’s mobile health unit pays regular visits to the school to ensure that students receive preventative medical and dental care.
Torlakson described Marylin as a model school, both for its academic success and the level of neighborhood, city, and community involvement. Marylin’s small class sizes and extra resources are a rarity among public schools.
“We have to turn around what is happening to education in this state,” he said. “I’m convinced I’ll be able to help the legislature see its way back to adding money to education instead of cutting and to give more local control by changing the threshold for passage of a parcel tax to a simple majority.”