Narrator: It’s no surprise that the children who attend Capitol Elementary enjoy going to school. This brightly colored, sparkling new building minutes from downtown Phoenix is a flexible learning environment with spacious classrooms. Instruction here features hands-on cooperative learning with an emphasis on literacy and social emotional growth.
How do you think Lisa and Corduroy feel now?
I’m very proud of you. This is only your fourth day learning English at Capitol School. And you did a great job saying-- trying to say it in English.
Narrator: The dedicated staff is supported by a large group of involved parents and a core of community volunteers.
Narrator: What is surprising is that this school exists at all. It’s a testament to the will of a community that refused to give up and to the vision of a principal named Cora Garrido.
Cora: Good for you.
When I first came to Capitol, there had been a building that was condemned. And at that time, a decision was made to set up the modular units because this was dying community. And people didn’t believe that there were enough children in this area to warrant giving it much attention, and certainly not building another facility to accommodate the needs of these children.
Narrator: The need here is apparent. According to the latest census, this is the poorest district in the country. Every student here qualifies for free meals. More than half are recent immigrants from Mexico who speak little or no English. [Women speaking Spanish] And while some saw the community as a liability, Garrido saw it as a resource.
Cora: We know a lot about instruction, but there's a whole community out there that can help.
Cora: So, what we do is we have Walk the Talk. And the entire staff, custodians, office staff, the nurse, social worker we go out and knock on our family's homes and welcome them to the new year.
See you on Monday.
Narrator: In addition to walking the neighborhood on 110 degree August afternoons, Garrido has scoured the school district looking for help from businesses and other potential partners, people like Bob Kay.
Bob: Do you know anybody in town that handles Gabriel shocks for the big trucks?
Narrator: Kay runs a truck parts firm a few blocks from the school and heads up the local Kiwanis club. He'd been volunteering at Capitol for about a year when Garrido invited him to join a diverse group of teachers, students, parents, architects, and community members who began a year long discussion about what they wanted in a new school.
Bob: I was amazed that they asked me to begin with. You know, here I am a little businessman out wandering around doing little businessman things. And here I was asked to be with bankers, lawyers, people that I thought were far above me.
He was worried about making it a box. And he said, "I can remember that earlier. Let's do it this way." I'm glad that you didn’t get your way.
I am, too.
It was hard for me initially to buy into that whole process because it's like what does a parent know about putting together a building? As an engineer you have step one, step two, step three. And in this process, I was forced to break out of that, so I was out of my comfort zone.
I came at it from a business lawyer standpoint. For me, this was a deal.
Bob: My gosh, you know, when you stop to think about 60 people all with different attitudes and different ideas and things. And the most important things is they worked as a group.
We stayed focused on children.
It wasn’t about what Cora, what Fred, or Greg, what any adult wanted. It was for children.
Narrator: Ultimately, the new school design grew out of Capitol's commitment to cooperative project-based learning.
Teacher: In a quiet buddy buzz voice describe your carrot seeds.
When we began planning, we never spoke of the facility. We spoke of how we wanted to teach. We wanted to teach cooperatively within our classroom, but also within the school, within the grade level, within other grade levels. So when we decided how we wanted to teach, then the building just sort of evolved.
You put them in the order of [inaudible]
One of things that came out of the discussions with the parents and the rest of the design group was the idea that many of the children learn in different ways. And so the flexibility was of key importance. The idea of having a place to build large scale projects and not have to tear them down every time, the idea of having a space where you could have multiple computers that if you needed them, you had more than just a couple. Or, if you weren’t using them, they weren’t in your way, and someone else could use them. And a whole series of kinds of learning that needed more than just the basic classroom. And so, what came out of that was this sort of center exploratory commons area.
Narrator: The school's flexible design allows as many as four separate classrooms to open their sliding walls to share a large common space often used for collaborative projects. At this school the curriculum is focused on literacy, which is delivered through a program called Success For All.
It's a 90 minute uninterrupted reading block for all of our school, we have K through 6. And what they do during this time is the students are tested, and then they're placed according to their reading level.
Cooperative learning is the foundation of the program because we work as teams, and we're learning to work as teams because in real life we have to work with different types of people.
Okay, now pair with your partner.
This way every single child is engaged, and every single child has an opportunity to give their answers.
Welcome, parents, to Family Literacy Night. I know you're going to have fun...
Narrator: Capitol's parents have a strong commitment to their neighborhood school.
Teacher: What I want you to do is go ahead and find a book you would like to read to your parents.
Narrator: They come to Parent's Literacy Night to learn English language skills along with their children.
Narrator: They can also attend special parent classes and offer help on fundraisers and in the classroom.
You want to be a nurse? Really, that's awesome.
Narrator: But not all of Capitol's homeroom parents are actually parents. Many of the school's volunteers are employees of a Phoenix law firm.
We certainly could have written a check to Capitol and helped them buy computers or books. This was really investment of time. We wanted our people get out from behind their desks, down to Capitol where they interacted with the kids and had an opportunity to invest themselves in the process, as opposed to just writing a check. For every one of us that have participated, education now has a very different feel to us.
The art teacher works with us and gets pictures to us once a month, which we display on our second floor, which is our client floor, our fancy floor. And we display the pictures. We put the child's name up just like we do artwork that we paid lots of money for, with the artist's name beside it.
Every first grader was in school. Good for you.
Narrator: Success is difficult to measure here. Since a third of Capitol's student population are the sons and daughters of migrant workers who leave the district every year.
They receive a certificate...
Narrator: But, Garrido points to improved test scores and the school's nearly perfect attendance record as measures of the dedication of parents, teachers, community members, and students. Efforts that are recognized in the awarding of certificates and t-shirts to these terrific kids.
You can see this morning that those little kids just beamed. I hope that we're making a positive difference in their lives. And I think we are. You know, if we save one, that's one that we don’t have to worry about. If we save two, what a miraculous thing that we've done.
Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to Edutopia.org.