Millard McCollam Elementary is a neighborhood public school in East San Jose’s Alum Rock School District serving primarily low-income students. It might look like a typical school. However, its academic results are far from typical: 82 percent of its students were proficient in English and 87 percent in math in 2013-14. What’s the secret?

mccollam_elementary_blog(feature)It doesn’t have a longer school day, smaller classes, extra funding, autonomy in hiring or curriculum or lots of technology — any of the advantages or innovations that often help schools succeed.

“It’s the teachers,” says Pablo Fiene, principal of McCollam. All are classroom veterans: The least-experienced has been teaching for six or seven years. Teachers who come to McCollam tend to stay at McCollam. “We have a very cohesive staff,” says Fiene. “We work together and focus on student achievement. We’re constantly challenging ourselves.”

From Low-Performing to a Shining Star

McCollam hasn’t always been a high-performing school. Under Fiene’s leadership, teachers began analyzing the district’s benchmark assessments. They weren’t satisfied with the results, he says. Teachers decided “they were willing to work on doing whatever it takes” to improve achievement.

The principal observes teachers and provides feedback, but much of the coaching comes from fellow teachers. Working with the New Teacher Center, McCollam uses what’s called “inquiry-based lesson study” to help teachers improve their craft.

Teams of teachers set achievement goals for each subject at their grade level, develop an action plan and collaborate on lesson plans. At weekly data meetings, teachers analyze what’s working and what needs to be improved.

Teachers have opened up their classrooms. They’re willing to learn from each other…We challenge each other to be better.” – Pablo Fiene, Principal, Millard McCollam Elementary School

A teacher — or several teachers — will identify an “area of challenge,” such as how to effectively teach a concept to English Learners, explains Fiene. One teacher will teach a demonstration lesson. Colleagues will observe, discuss, try new strategies and discuss some more.

“Teachers have opened up their classrooms,” says Fiene. “They’re willing to learn from each other.”

Substitutes cover classes so teachers have a chance to observe and coach each other.

“We work together to make this a place where teaching and learning is the priority, where staff is appreciated, skills are developed,” says the principal. “The school culture is based on respect. We challenge each other to be better.”

Teaching to Common Core standards is making teachers think a lot more about “how we are facilitating critical thinking and analysis,” he says. Students have to support their answers, such as explaining how they solved a math problem or citing evidence to back up an argument.

Supporting Students to Master English

With 43 percent of students still learning English, teachers focus on developing students’ oral language skills with lots of opportunities to discuss ideas with a partner or talk in class. Teachers teach and model “academic language,” the vocabulary students will need to understand literature, history, civics, science and other subjects.

Using the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model, teachers set both language and content objectives for lessons and consistently check that students understand what’s been taught and are able to discuss it.

All classes are taught in English. Teachers use SIOP techniques, such as pictures, charts, graphs, manipulatives, outlines, graphic organizers and adapted text, to reach students at different levels of English proficiency.

High-need students get more teaching time and attention to help them reach mastery. Class size averages 21 in the lower grades, 33 in upper grades. By analyzing data, teachers identify students who aren’t reaching proficiency and work with them in small groups, while other students are working independently. In addition, tutoring sessions are available before and after school for students who need more help.

Parents are encouraged to talk and read with their children in the language that’s most “comfortable” for them, says Fiene.

While many schools are using technology to personalize instruction, McCollam is only starting to get laptops and to experiment with using software to enable students to work at their own levels. So far, the school’s fanciest technology is a set of interactive Promethean white boards. Fiene says that working within a limited budget, he’d rather invest in improving teaching and providing tutoring than in buying technology.

While expectations are high, it’s OK for students to try, fail and learn from their mistakes, says Fiene. As long as students are willing to learn, McCollam teachers will find a way to support their learning.

This series of articles highlights Silicon Valley public schools that are beating the odds for low-income students – serving a majority of high-need students and achieving high levels of performance. While high-performing schools vary in their approach, there are some common components across many of these schools. These include being very thoughtful and purposeful about how time is spent throughout the day, fostering a culture of rigor, using student data strategically to inform instruction, being selective in hiring the right team, coaching and supporting teaching staff to constantly improve and engaging families.

Millard McCollam Elementary School
District Public School
San Jose, CA

Total number of K-5 students in 2014-15: 442

API: 883

3rd Grade – % Proficient and Above
English Language Arts 65%
Math 78%

Latino 54%
Asian 33%
Black 1%
White 3%

English Learner 43%
Low-income 71%
Students with Disabilities 14%