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Life and reading skills taught in Calipatria

January 28, 2002|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH, Staff Writer

CALIPATRIA:— Imagine a school where the students hold doors open for others and address all adults as "ma'am" or "sir."

Picture a school where there's not a scrap of litter in sight, not a word of graffiti on a wall and the entire student body is conservatively dressed and willingly conforming to the dress code.

Try to envision a school where students and teachers alike are enthusiastic about coming to school.

Not on this planet, you say?

Wrong.

Bill E. Young Jr. Middle School in Calipatria is all of the above — and much more.

It's not rocket science to make the connection that the attitude of all concerned at Bill Young goes a long way to explain that school's performance on the Academic Performance Index report released earlier this month.

Along with six other Imperial Valley schools, Bill Young scored in the top 10 percent of its respective comparison group.

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API was implemented in 1999 and is used by the California Department of Education to identify schools that are doing well and to determine what schools are in need of intervention.

Designated as an under-performing school in 1999, the staff at Bill Young was galvanized into implementing sweeping reforms to curriculum and the results are showing.

Though he'd deny it, much of the school's success is due to the energizing presence of Joe Derma, who came on board as principal when the school moved onto its new campus at the start of the 2000 school year.

You only have to spend a few minutes with Derma as he goes about his day on campus to understand why everyone at Bill Young is enthusiastic and "on the same page."

Derma runs a tight ship with no room for slackers and it's clear he regards the reading program at Bill Young as the jewel in the crown.

Third period throughout the school, which caters to fifth through eighth grade, is given over totally to the "creative reading" program.

"This program is designed to build up the students' reading levels," Derma said Thursday as he moved about campus at lightning speed. "We had found through the course of testing that reading was our lowest-scoring area in the past."

Clearly elated with the program's success, Derma explained how the program is layered to reflect varying student levels of reading and comprehension ability.

"Typically, you might see fifth- and sixth-graders together in one class. As they test out of each level, students are promoted to the next level."

According to Derma, one of the central reasons for the program's success is actually a simple one. Because the entire student body is working on the creative reading program at the same time, there is ultimate flexibility for the children to move through the program's levels without disruption to other classroom schedules.

Derma's pride is obvious as he leads the way into Thela Sullivan's advanced literature class during third period.

The pride in Sullivan's voice is equally obvious as she describes her 25 students as "a large group of cooperating individuals."

She went on to detail the work her students do during third period.

"They produce a school newspaper twice a month and they produce a yearbook and a school literary magazine. They also mount an in-school television program three mornings a week called "Young In The Morning."

Ask advanced literature class student Maria Ramirez what she likes best about the class and she's quick to answer with a bright smile

"We get to work independently and express ourselves," she said.

Being one of the first schools in the Imperial Valley to implement the creative reading program, Bill Young is used as a training model for other schools in the Valley.

Bill Young Jr. Middle School is not only about reading, writing and arithmetic. It is about discipline and respect for others.

Derma describes his school's discipline policy as one that does not stand alone in isolation from other elements of school life.

"Parents are real excited about our new discipline policy and the fact that we are about character education as well."

Each month Derma and his team highlight a "word of the month" and teachers are required to teach one hour a month in their homeroom class with that word as the theme. For this school year, words run the gamut from "courtesy" to "success."

Greeting students with a brisk "sir" or "ma'am" as he strides through the quad, Derma is enthusiastic about his word-of-the-month program.

That enthusiasm has spread to folks in the town of Calipatria as well. Derma explained that local merchants display the word of the month in their shop windows.

"To make our education system successful, we need to have the whole community involved," Derma said.

The word of the month for January is "initiative," and Derma explained how the students are expected to put the word into action.

"If we see a student pick up a piece of trash that someone else has dropped, then that's initiative and we'll acknowledge that," he said.

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