From all appearances, Lawrence Barnes Elementary School is struggling. The aging building sits across from a Rent-a-Center on North Street in Burlington's Old North End. The vast majority of its students live in poverty. Roughly 20 percent of them are still learning to speak English. As a group, Barnes students consistently score lower on standardized tests than their peers in other parts of the district.
Take the 2006 Developmental Reading Assessment, for example. Second graders from Burlington's Edmunds Elementary School had an easy time with the test; 91 percent of them met or exceeded the state standards. The majority - 64 percent - achieved honors. At Barnes, more than half of the second graders failed the test. Thirty-one percent actually scored in the lowest possible range, with just six percent making honors.
Assessment results like these give Barnes a bad rap. So much so that many middle-class parents who live nearby choose to send their children elsewhere -by applying for a variance to another Burlington school, enrolling the kids in a private school, or moving out of the neighborhood altogether. Dovetail, the district's K-2 mini-magnet program at Edmunds Elementary School, also draws Old North End youngsters out of the neighborhood.
It's difficult to calculate just how many potential students Barnes loses each year, but anecdotal evidence suggests the number is significant. It seems that every Barnes parent or staff member knows someone who's opting out. Barnes kindergarten teacher Shannon Roesch says her neighbor, who works for the district, applied for a variance to send his kids to Edmunds. "I don't want to take it personally, because it's not about that," she says. "But it's hard."
A school-board-appointed task force recently suggested that the students at Barnes and H.O. Wheeler - the other Old North End elementary school - would benefit from having more middle-class students in their midst. This spring, the school board will likely consider socio-economic integration proposals that will include plans to attract kids into the Old North End from other parts of the city. They may even call for closing Barnes, an option that's been hotly debated in the past.
But Barnes parents and administrators aren't waiting for the school board to implement a fix - they've embarked on a grassroots socio-economic integration campaign of their own. Instead of hoping to appeal to outsiders, Barnes boosters are trying to persuade Old North End residents to give the neighborhood school a chance.
Leading the charge is Barnes' energetic and relentlessly cheerful principal, Paula Bowen. A slight, shorthaired woman with a ready smile, Bowen claims her school's bad reputation is undeserved. "Really," she says, "I think it's a PR problem."
Bowen touts Barnes as a diamond in the rough, and encourages parents to look past the school's tarnished appearance to see the unique opportunities it offers. She points out that because it's the smallest of the city's six elementary schools - this year its K-5 classrooms serve between 150 and 160 students - Barnes offers small classes with low student-teacher ratios. That means teachers and staff get to know every student, lending the school a "family-like atmosphere," as she puts it.
Bowen claims her school's low test scores are misleading - skewed by the school's burgeoning refugee and immigrant population. Just a few English Language Learners can have a dramatic effect on test scores. Even when the ELL kids make significant progress, if they're not at grade-level, the tests won't show it. "It's no fault of these students," she says, "but I don't think that it's realistic to think that after being in the country for a year, you're going to be proficient in English."
She doesn't see the school's ethnic diversity as a liability, however, but as one of its biggest assets. Here students from a predominantly white, homogenous state can interact regularly with kids from other cultures. They learn that "you can all get along," says Bowen.
The principal also praises the Barnes teachers, and says that many of the "innovative" approaches promoted at the Dovetail program were actually instituted first at Barnes - multi-age classrooms, for example, and the Responsive Classroom curriculum, a holistic educational approach which integrates academic and social learning. She notes that Barnes was profiled last November in the national Responsive Classroom newsletter. "What is it that people think we don't have?" she asks with a hint of exasperation.
In her mind, all of the school's assets add up to an engaging learning environment. She says she'd be willing to send her two young children to Barnes, though she and her partner live in the Wheeler neighborhood, and may end up sending their kids there.
"Barnes," she says, summing up, "is what you think of when you think of an elementary school."
Getting prospective parents to think of Barnes that way isn't easy. The best strategy, Bowen insists, is to get them to visit the school and see for themselves. To that end, the school and the PTO have sponsored an open house on a recent Wednesday night. They've invited neighborhood parents to tour the school and meet the staff - as well as enthusiastic Barnes parents and their kids - before the March kindergarten registration deadline.
Kirsten Berggren and Robyn Battaile are among the parents greeting visitors in the lobby. They're valuable ambassadors for Bowen, who is a passionate and articulate - but ultimately, paid professional - advocate for Barnes. It seems more likely that volunteers such as Berggren and Battaile will ultimately make the sale to other parents.
The couple lives on Drew Street with their two young children. Two years ago, when their son Kyle was about to enter kindergarten, they applied for a variance to Edmunds. They did it in part because Battaile teaches history at Edmunds Middle School. But Berggren admits that Edmunds' higher test scores were also a factor.
"We were making classist assumptions, and thinking that Edmunds would be a better school," says Berggren, a writer and lactation counselor who has a Ph.D. in anatomy and neuroscience. "We were doing what any other middle-class family in this neighborhood does - we were leaving. We said, '97 percent poverty? That's not something we want to be a part of.'"
But when their son's variance was denied, the couple did end up sending him to Barnes. They were surprised by how much they liked it; they plan to send their daughter to the school as well. "Ky had such a positive kindergarten experience," Berggren gushes. "The quality of teaching has been outstanding. We are so happy."
Battaile agrees. He was particularly impressed when Bowen called them to introduce herself before they'd even enrolled their son in the school - she knew the names of all the Barnes students on their street.
He adds that he loves the fact that his son is a part of such a multicultural environment. "That type of education is going to be rooted and grounded in reality for a long, long time," he says.
Twenty minutes after answering questions from a reporter, Berggren and Battaile are in Shannon Roesch's kindergarten classroom, chatting with Andy Jones and Helen Rock. Jones and Rock are exactly the kind of parents Barnes is hoping to attract. Jones is the farm manager at the Intervale Community Farm; Rock does part-time office work. They own their house on LaFountain Street.
The couple knows people in the Old North End who home-school their kids, or send them to the Schoolhouse, a private, K-6 parent-teacher cooperative in South Burlington. They know others who have moved away in search of better public education.
Jones and Rock have two boys. Davis and his younger brother Ian are running around the room playing with toys. Four-year-old Davis will be starting school next fall.
Jones says he likes the fact that Barnes is so close to their home; it's barely two blocks away. "I grew up walking to an elementary school," he says. "I loved that."
Rock seems equally interested in Barnes. "We're definitely checking it out," she says.
Barnes' only probable competition at this point, they say, is the Dovetail program. Coincidentally, and unfortunately for Barnes, its open house has fallen on the same night as Barnes'. Vince Brennan, a Barnes parent and Burlington School Board member, calls the scheduling conflict "very unfortunate." And it appears to have an effect on the Barnes turnout; at the end of the night, the visitor sign-up sheet by the door is only half full.
Bowen dismisses any suggestion of intentionality on the part of Dovetail's recruiters. She has asked the teachers there to spread the word that she's happy to set up individual tours for parents interested in learning more about Barnes.
But at least one parent who's decided not to send her kids to Barnes says a visit to the school would not necessarily persuade her. Jessica Kell lives on Ward Steet with her husband, Shay Totten, and their three kids. Totten is the editor of the Vermont Guardian. When their oldest, Max, was preparing to enter kindergarten, Kell and Totten visited Barnes. "I liked Barnes a lot," Kell remembers. "I liked the principal." But, she says, "the kindergarten teacher at that time would not have been a good fit for him." Instead, they sent Max to the Schoolhouse. They have enrolled their second son there as well.
When they later decided to send Max to public school, where he could receive special-needs services, Kell says, she visited Barnes again. "There were so many great things going on there," she says, "and I really liked the school, but there were no students there at that time with the same special needs that he has. It just felt like we couldn't send him to a school where they were going to have to make up a program for him from scratch." They applied for and received a variance to Champlain.
Kell says the family is once again considering Barnes, this time for their 3-year-old daughter. But Kell is troubled by the disparity in resources she sees between Barnes and Champlain.
"They have an art room," she says of the South End elementary school. "They have a music room. They have this library where you see parents hanging out in the morning and reading to their younger children."
"I was at Barnes a few weeks ago for a literacy celebration," she continues, "and there's a room in the school that I think is the art-music-community room, but it's definitely not what's in the music or the art room at Champlain. It doesn't even look like a combination of those things. It just looks like a room with a bunch of chairs in it. You don't see materials scattered around and displayed the way you do in the other school. And that makes you wonder where the support is from the district." She says she also worries about sending her daughter to a school that might close in a couple years. It'll be "a tough choice" for her family, she says.
That decision might be influenced by what other area parents do. Kell says she knows several people with kids her daughter's age who live in the Wheeler district, and are already committed to sending their children there. If more Barnes parents she knows start doing the same, she might, too.
In fact, Bowen says she thinks the tide is already turning. This year, 81 percent of Barnes kids are eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program - that's more than twice as high as the percentage at Edmunds, but it's down from nearly 100 percent last year.
Bowen sees this as a good sign. "To me," she notes, "what that says is more people are looking at us and considering us."