I meet 11-year-old Carlos Delrio at the back of campus at Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento, where his mom drops him off every day before school. He’s a sweet boy with a cute, pudgy face. Carlos is a superhero fanatic, always carrying around a pack of trading cards with his favorite caped crusaders.
Today, we head to his sixth-grade class where his teacher, Sarah Wagner, greets us and the other students outside her door.
"Good morning, Carlos,” says Wagner, with a handshake and a smile.
Carlos is one of about 200 students at Oak Ridge considered an English-language learner. There are 500 students in all at the school. He speaks Spanish at home, and has a hard time reading and writing in English. He also has a learning disability, so it takes him longer to understand certain concepts.
Under the state’s groundbreaking new school finance system, schools like Oak Ridge now get more money -- and more control over how to spend that money -- to help support these high-needs students.
Oak Ridge has an additional $185,000 to work with this year.
Three times a day, Carlos leaves his regular class for extra support.
Oak Ridge’s Supporting Cast
Carlos spends most of his time in a traditional classroom. Oak Ridge, like some other public schools in California, believes students with special needs benefit when they are integrated with other kids.
But Carlos still gets special attention.
Oak Ridge is spending its additional revenue this year to extend the hours of instructional aides so they can help him and other at-risk students.
When it’s time for his first support class, Carlos jumps to his feet and heads to Room 27 to see Jocelyn Ramirez, the school’s special education instructional aide.
“I know him a lot better,” Ramirez says. “I know what he’s able to do and not able to do. That really helps me customize what I’m teaching him.”
Ramirez is helping Carlos and three other students cut out shapes to learn about fractions. He receives 40 minutes of basic math instruction in this class, and I notice he is clearly more engaged and more comfortable -- joking with the other kids and helping Ramirez with the assignment.
“When Carlos comes into my room, he’s 100 percent himself,” Ramirez says. “He loves learning, and working in a small group really helps him because it gives him more time to focus.”
But she admits Carlos has a long way to go academically -- he still can’t add or subtract in his head.
That’s troubling because the state’s more demanding academic standards, called Common Core, require kids to use their critical thinking skills at a much higher level.
One Step Forward, One Step Back
Before the school day began today, I sat down with Carlos' regular classroom teacher, Sarah Wagner, to talk about the help he's receiving at the school.
Wagner says that while she’s grateful for the school’s dedicated support staff, she wishes Oak Ridge would spend even more state funding on additional interventions for the students who need it.
Wagner has 32 kids in her class, and says she cannot give Carlos the attention he deserves.
“It’s hard because at the end of the day, as a teacher, you just want to feel like you’ve made a difference in their lives,” says Wagner, who begins to tear up. “I worry that I’m not doing enough for him.”
After recess, Carlos heads back to Wagner’s class for English, and at the end of the day, he’s honing his reading skills with another small group of kids in Room 27.
“It’s not where the kids start. It’s seeing how far they come,” says Katherine Craig, Carlos' reading resource teacher at Oak Ridge.
In his larger class, the other sixth-grade students are reading a complicated mystery novel. But in Craig’s room, the 11-year-old chooses a Dr. Seuss classic, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.”
"In my class, they can feel the freedom to read and enjoy any book they choose," Craig says. "It really helps them gain confidence and motivation that they can read, and that they can be successful."
When Carlos began receiving Craig’s support, he was reading only 14 words a minute, and could barely get through a sentence. Now he’s up to 26 words a minute and can finish small paragraphs.
“All these people care about him, this community cares about him.” Craig says. “I think it’s wonderful for Carlos to see he is making growth in reading, but it’s in a different way. It just takes time.”
Oak Ridge and other public schools in the state will soon get a clearer picture of whether their support is paying off.
California debuted a new state standardized test last year, and educators are expecting to receive more robust achievement data, which may significantly influence their spending decisions for next year.
This report is the second in Budgeting From the Blacktop, a four-part series by Ana Tintocalis taking a deep look at Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento.
See how much your school district spends per student, and how that compares to the national average (map via NPR):