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An educational partnership
January 24, 2013, 05:00 AM By Heather Murtagh Daily Journal Staff

Little fish crackers had been passed out to the kindergarten students when George Ellis started putting stickers on the hands of his pint-sized students.

Hot dogs, ostriches, zebras, French fries and hamburgers were among the small sticky pictures placed on the hands of the 5 year olds at Belle Air Elementary School last week. Ellis was setting up a lesson about unfair situations. Minutes after passing out the stickers, he began to excuse students to recess by the sticker. Student teacher Jamie White, who was given an ostrich, was able to leave a little sooner than some of the kids resulting in a not-so-quiet comment of the unfair nature from a student near the door.

The kids are starting to learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and how things can sometimes be unfair. But White is also learning. She's a student at Notre Dame de Namur University who is part of a partnership between the college and the San Bruno elementary school. Working together came at the end of the 2011 academic year when the school was faced with making a big change.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind rules, a school not meeting the achievement benchmarks is classified as program improvement. When a school goes into its fifth year of program improvement, it must make some big changes. One option was to create a partnership. David Hutt, superintendent of the San Bruno Park Elementary School, reached out to Robert Ferrera, director of the multisubject program at Notre Dame de Namur, and suggested the team work together.

As a result, Notre Dame students are spending two semesters at the San Bruno school. They work as student teachers while supporting teachers who can spend more time meeting individual needs of students. Since partnering together, the school has seen significant changes — including a 50-point jump in state testing scores. As a result of the boost, the school is eligible to exit program improvement in the fall if all targets are met this year.

Belle Air Principal Michael Rothhammer pointed to a partnership with Notre Dame de Namur University as making a huge difference. By working together, each of the school's 12 classrooms has both a teacher and student teacher creating a lower teacher to student ratio. It also creates an opportunity to differentiate how topics are taught to better meet the needs of individual students.

Ferrera said the program has made remarkable progress but still could be improved.

For example, many changes were made quickly.

Joanne Rossi, NDNU dean of the school of education and leadership, explained that the reading strategies at the school we're working at first. But, without a foundation, there was no way to know what changes needed to be made or the impact of those changes. Now there's a new reading program, concentrated efforts in language arts and workshops to encourage parents to become or remain involved in their children's education. There is also after-school tutorial services provided by NDNU School of Education undergraduate students to continue to support student achievement.

Parent Brenda Ramirez has noticed the impact of the changes. She likes that there is always a translator available for families who speak Spanish, increasing the comfort level of parents. Ramirez also noticed increased collaboration among teachers who are looking out for all students, she said.

Teachers, both those working at the school or helping through student teaching, have also seen benefits.

Ellis, for example, was working one-on-one with a child who missed an art project Thursday morning while White watched the children at recess outside. Without extra help, that opportunity wouldn't be possible. White, on the other hand, is seeing just how much preparation and lesson planning goes into everything in the classroom. She's also getting experience working with students with a wide variety of backgrounds — something she really wanted.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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