By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | la dAILY nEWS
07/06/2008 - NORTH HOLLYWOOD - It's 10 minutes into the school day and Rosalba Manrique is already shouting.
With 600 sets of eyes staring back at her during a Monday morning assembly, the petite and usually soft-spoken principal is hammering home a crucial lesson.
Asking her pupils about the school they attend, she is not satisfied when they simply answer in unison: "Fair Avenue Elementary."
"How come you stopped saying the second part?" Manrique yells. "You go to Fair Avenue - a Distinguished School.
"You are distinguished students. ... You cannot forget that!"
For Manrique, the state's Distinguished School award, given to only a handful of the most-improved schools every year, is more than a label. It's one of the tools she uses to prove to pupils that their personal circumstances won't hold them back.
Like many schools in Los Angeles Unified, the vast majority of Fair Avenue pupils are from low-income, minority families in which little English is spoken. But unlike most other schools, Fair Avenue has found a way to thrive and fuel success.
In the past nine years, its pupils have increased their achievement on statewide test scores by 30 percent.
And English-language learners at Fair now score about 25 percent higher than the average English-language learners in LAUSD.
That achievement has propelled Fair Avenue from languishing among the bottom 20 percent of all schools in California to climbing to the top 40 percent.
Making the shift hasn't been easy, however. It began under a former principal and has continued under Manrique for the last five years.
Key to the change is an attitude instilled by both principals that teachers and staff should not allow their pupils' challenging backgrounds to serve as excuses for faltering achievement.
"Yes, we have families that are homeless, that live in a garage, parents that cannot help their kids with homework because they cannot read or write," Manrique said.
"Those are our challenges, but we simply have to face them and do whatever it takes to help our children succeed."
Just 15 years ago, Fair Avenue was a very different place.
In a community bordered by porn shops, strip clubs and warehouses, its pupils were among the lowest performing in the northeast San Fernando Valley.
Maxine Matlin, now a district administrator, became the school's principal in 1994.
One of her first tasks was to show all fourth-grade teachers that their pupils' test scores fell at the bottom of fourth-grade classes in the area.
"The funny thing is people knew they were struggling, but there was a belief that there was nothing they could do about it," Matlin said.
So Matlin redirected the instructional program to reinforce core subjects like reading, writing and math.
Her next task was how to get parents involved. Planting grass was the answer.
Already, several attempts to grow greenery on the school's barren front lawn had failed, and everyone told Matlin she couldn't do it.
"They had to visually see you were willing to work," she said. "It took three tries but by the end of it I had fathers who were gardeners mowing the lawn and painters painting the front of the school ... everyone got involved."
Turning the school around took a lot of effort - at times 18-hour days and seven-day workweeks. Not everyone signed on for that, and Matlin lost a few teachers, but the ones who remained believed in the school's new mission.
Today, Manrique - who took over from Matlin in 2003 - credits the hard work by teachers and staff with continuing the turnaround.
Many arrive at school early and stay late to tutor students for free after school or visit them at home.
Parents credit the school's office workers, who often serve as part-time counselors.
And teachers credit parents' involvement, and tireless administrators who often work evenings and weekends.
In a recent surprise visit, LAUSD Deputy Superintendent Ray Cortines said he sensed an unusual energy at the school.
"When you have been doing this as long as I have, you can walk onto a campus and feel the pulse," Cortines said. "I feel it here, and it feels good."
And as schools districtwide look for ways to turn around sagging student test scores, Fair Avenue's transformation is proof that change is possible.
"The successes and challenges that this school is facing are the same as the ones that the state of California faces as a whole," said Mary Perry, deputy director of education research organization EdSource.
In a recent study EdSource found disparities in academic performance among students who are poor or don't know English on most campuses statewide.
"They are defying the odds."
Jessika Monroy's little white Mary Janes swing back and forth over the peeling linoleum floor of her bare-walled kitchen as her mother watches in amazement.
The 6-year-old Fair Avenue kindergartner is not distracted by the Spanish chatter that can be heard through the thin walls of her one-bedroom North Hollywood apartment.
And she is unfazed by the loud honking from the crowded street below as she sits at a poker table usually used for dining but that today will be her desk.
Maria Marcela Monroy sits close by on the mattress that she uses as a sofa. She tries to help her daughter with her homework, but can't.
"Ay mami, tu no sabes," Jessika tells her mother.
Nine months ago Jessika spoke no English and had trouble writing her name. Her mother speaks no English and has little more than an elementary education.
But on this day, writing a short story for homework comes to Jessika with ease.
"Writing is my favorite," the hazel-eyed girl says.
Exhausted from her shift at a drum factory that started at 6 a.m., Maria Marcela wishes she could help her daughter.
But knowing that Jessika is at Fair Avenue is a great relief.
"We want her to have everything we didn't have."
The next day, Jessika sits in Classroom No. 14, tiny pencil flying along the paper as she mouths along to every word from teacher Leticia Escamilla.
Like Jessika, most of her classmates started at Fair Avenue nine months ago speaking almost no English. Today they are eagerly working on a story about butterflies.
"What kind of butterflies should our story have?" Escamilla asks in English.
Twenty little arms shoot up instantly.
"Blue butterflies," one boy shouts.
"Beautiful ones," a pig-tailed girl offers.
"Can they be enormous?" Jessika asks.
Escamilla walks by each knee-high desk to make sure her pupils spell their words correctly.
"Yes mijos, very good," she says. "English is tricky, but we won't let it trick us here."
As a mother of seven and an East Valley native, Escamilla understands their challenges.
After working at five schools in three districts - and almost every time being disappointed by a lack of effort to improve student achievement - Escamilla sought a position at Fair Avenue last year because of the school's reputation.
She knew she'd made the right decision when she was encouraged to visit her kindergartners' homes.
"It has been like an adrenaline surge," she said.
The familial vibe at Fair Avenue has made a world of a difference to Griselda Mesa.
Before transferring her two children to Fair Avenue, she felt intimidated and ignored by other schools' staffs. When her oldest daughter's grades began to slip, Mesa struggled for weeks to get a meeting with an administrator.
But at Fair Avenue, all Mesa had to do was ask and her daughter was assessed and put into special-education classes.
"I have seen the changes in my children," Mesa said in Spanish. "It is because of the teachers and the principal. You know they care."
That hard work by teachers and staff has led the community to view Fair Avenue as a neighborhood center.
The school's parent center is a hangout for stay-at-home mothers and even a few fathers. With strollers in tow, parents begin arriving at the center's bungalow minutes after dropping off their older children.
They sip coffee and eat pan dulce. Later they learn about nutrition, parenting and homework tips. At night the center reopens for parents taking English classes.
As he looks outside the doorway of his fourth-grade classroom, Rafael Ortiz can see the changes in his community.
A teacher at Fair Avenue for a dozen years, he has noticed pupils come to his class better prepared and teachers are enthusiastic. During this day's open house it's apparent more parents are involved.
"I don't know about other schools, but I don't understand why they are not raising their scores. It is obviously possible."
Inside Ortiz's classroom, conversation is constantly buzzing. From science to grammar, nearly all of Ortiz's lessons involve a discussion that later leads to reading and writing.
For Ashley Quezada - who two years ago was at risk of flunking at a different school - the teaching style is demanding.
"But it's fun here," she said.
Ortiz spends several afternoons a week tutoring and gives up his summer vacations to teach remedial classes.
He also often is in his classroom past 5 p.m. preparing lesson plans for the next day or listening to students vent about issues outside of school.
"I do get drained - mentally and emotionally. You are not only a teacher, you are a counselor, a psychologist, a father and an uncle," Ortiz said.
But in the classroom Ortiz is rewarded for his efforts.
At the end of a grammar discussion Ortiz calls on 10-year-old Gamaliel Martinez to name a rule of quotations.
The boy's first attempt is filled with stutters laced with a heavy accent. Ortiz moves on to other pupils, but he later returns to Gamaliel.
This time, Gamaliel's face lights up as he answers.
"Punctuation goes inside the quotes," Gamaliel says shyly.
"Good," Ortiz says matter-of-factly to the nervous boy.
After his pupils leave for lunch, Ortiz's pride can be seen in his face.
"They know we care," he said. "I think that makes a difference."
Like her predecessor, Manrique works long days, often starting at 6 a.m. to get ahead on paperwork. She has also been known to make early-morning visits to pupils who are habitually late or absent.
The early start frees her to make frequent classroom visits, to observe teachers who are doing well and offer pointers to those she feels are lagging.
The day doesn't end for her until after 6 p.m.
Not everyone is a fan of Manrique's relentless drive.
Roberto Garcia, a teacher at Fair Avenue and a representative of the teachers union, said Manrique can be too hard on teachers.
He said some teachers, who have been struggling with a class or a group of students, have complained about Manrique's frequent classroom visits.
"Her tactics border on harassment, and we have lost a lot of good teachers recently," Garcia said.
But Manrique makes no apologies.
"If I see that a teacher is not doing their job I am going to visit them, send coaches to their classroom," Manrique said.
"We do whatever it takes."
For the principal, Fair Avenue is more than just a school. It is a community.
"What makes us unique is that we are not just an entity where we teach kids how to read, write and do math," Manrique says.
"But we are a group of hardworking teachers devoted to children. We want the best for them and we have a community that works with us."