High marks for Marysville school
Community's nurturing spirit overcomes off-campus woes
By Anne Gonzales - Bee Correspondent
Published 12:16 am PST Tuesday, December 18, 2007
To Ricky Nagle, the elementary school where she teaches is something special.
Mary Covillaud Elementary School in west Marysville gets children who live amid grown-up problems: homelessness, drug addiction and alcoholism, crime, unemployment and poverty.
But you'd never know that some kids in Mrs. Nagle's first-grade classroom had slept in a car the night before, or came to school without proper clothing or shoes.
You might not guess that some came with empty bellies, or had been crack babies, or came from homes where no English is spoken.
You'd never know it because once they arrive at the public school, they are clothed, fed and then taught. Although the youngsters face some of life's biggest challenges, their test scores have improved dramatically, and the school is winning awards and turning lives around.
Staff members and parents have pitched in to create a family-style environment at Covillaud, painting rooms and making drapes for the library, sometimes paying for homey touches out of their own pockets. They started a clothes closet staffed by volunteers, and many teachers and staffers work overtime for free or pay for classroom improvements.
Teachers and administrators know they may be the last safety net these children will have before falling into the traps of drugs, crime or poverty.
"My children are so kind and so smart," said Nagle, glowing as she described her class. "This school is Marysville's best-kept secret."
In her classroom, the boys and girls are just children – with all their innocence, a hunger to learn and a desire to please.
About a decade ago, it was no secret Covillaud and its students were foundering, given the students' socioeconomics that continue today.
On any given day, 25 to 50 Covillaud students are homeless. Almost 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches. Of 460 students, 133 speak limited or no English. Many were born addicted to drugs and display attention disorders and behavior problems.
"It's so depressing sometimes," said Principal Doug Escheman. "I have to remind myself that I'm seeing the worst of the worst. We just try to keep them from falling through the cracks."
Some might say the Covillaud staff and volunteers are doing much more than that.
Covillaud's academic performance is among the best in the state for its demographics. Its state Academic Performance Index went from 536 in 1998 to 795 in 2007, earning Covillaud a "Distinguished School" award in 2006 and a federal Title 1 Academic Achievement award for 2007. (API scores range from a low of 200 to a high of 1,000.) Attendance is 98 percent.
In 1998, about the time Escheman became principal, 19 percent of the school's second-graders were placing at or above the 50th percentile for reading. Math wasn't the school's strong suit, either: Only 26 percent ranked at or above the halfway mark.
Today, the tables have turned: 75 percent of Covillaud's students test at proficient or advanced in English skills, and 77 percent of them are at that level in math.
Laura Nicholson checked the school's dismal test scores 10 years ago as her son was about to start kindergarten. She met with Escheman to get papers to transfer to another school, but instead ended up choosing Covillaud.
"I fell in love with the kindergarten facilities, and I was so impressed with Doug," she said.
Today, Nicholson's younger son is a fifth-grader at Covillaud.
"If a teacher says, 'This child can't learn because he has trouble at home, or low skills or language barriers,' he (Escheman) doesn't accept that," said Nicholson, executive director of the Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce.
Escheman knows many of his students live in cars, motels or federally subsidized housing. He has seen first-graders miss school to care for infant siblings while their parents gamble.
He has had to sit youngsters down and tell them it's time to shape their own futures, that it will be up to them to make something of themselves, that adults may not be there for them.
"I hear some of these kids talk, and I think, 'Wow, that was me, I've been there myself,' " he said of his own troubled childhood.
The school, Marysville's first, was rebuilt in 1950 and named for one of the town's founders, a survivor of the Donner Party. Then came neighborhood decline. Homelessness and drugs began taking a toll.
"We're seeing more drug babies come through," Escheman said. "They don't know their sounds or the alphabet. We spend a little more time with these kids, and we find they snap out of it by third or fourth grade.
"We're in our sixth year of an extended kindergarten day," Escheman said. "We underestimate children sometimes. The longer we keep them, we find they really learn more."
Donna Cummings, a probation officer assigned to Covillaud one day a week to help high-risk students, said the school has to provide the basics before learning can begin. "You can't educate kids who come to school in winter in a tank top," she said.
Through an on-campus clothes closet, the school gives out about 100 new pairs of shoes each year, and countless sweaters, jackets, pants and socks.
Community groups drop off truckloads of canned food and hygiene supplies, and families "come running," Escheman said.
Nicholson said the simple act of clothing and feeding students boosts their confidence. "If we can give them socks or long pants on the first cold day, it's a big thing," she said.
Covillaud's after-school program offers tutoring, homework and literacy help, visual and performing arts and recreation.
The school hosts night classes for parents and multicultural events. Translators make sure all parents feel included.
Nicholson has seen 70 parents from widely diverse ethnic backgrounds show up for school cleanup day.
Escheman believes sacrifices from his staff are key to the improvements: Like the kindergarten teachers who work more hours every day than what he can pay them. Or employees who paint rooms in their spare time. Or the librarian who spent her own money on a brightly colored rug for the library.
Cummings attributes much of Covillaud's success to the principal. "He treats every kid like his," she said.
When Escheman received a state bonus for improved academic performance, she said, he split it with every employee at the school, including custodians.
Escheman will walk a student across the street after school, just to chat, make a connection and hopefully, make a difference. His students already are making a difference in their neighborhood.
Inspired by TV's "American Idol Gives Back," students held a "Covillaud Gives Back" car wash that raised almost $400. They gave the money to a local homeless shelter.
Fifth-grader Eduardo Soto said math and four-square are his favorite parts of school. He wants to grow up to be a singer, a bull rider or "a principal."
Whenever Escheman walks onto the school grounds, he is mobbed like a rock star.
"Maybe these kids can break out and go to college, be successful," Escheman said. "I feel like maybe we can break the cycle here."
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