Shortly after noon Monday, several teachers really wanted to tell me why Robertson Road School was singled out by the state for being one of California's lowest-performing schools.
They wanted to explain the frustrations they've endured, working so hard with their students and making a 24-point gain from 2008 to 2009 in standardized testing, only to get slammed.
They said they had plenty to say ... if I'd just wait a while. I was asked to return to the school at 4 p.m., after they had a chance to meet as a staff.
At 4 p.m., though, instead of talking freely and openly about the issues that make progress so elusive at the west Modesto school -- and explaining why they believe the state's actions are completely unfair -- they produced a collective statement, handwritten on a piece of yellow paper from a legal pad.
I do not blame the teachers at all for this, any more than you can blame them for the school's persistently low test scores that led to last week's state intervention warning. A Modesto City Schools official attended the meeting and instructed them not to talk.
So they clammed up. Too bad. An opportunity for real, open discussion vanished in favor of hunky-dory spin control.
Those who did chat -- Principal Michele Gutierrez and campus union rep Robert York -- did so guardedly.
What you have at Robertson Road Elementary is a veteran, hardworking staff of teachers. One of the teachers joined the staff in 1973. The newest staff member came aboard in 2002. They love the kids and the neighborhood, and see the school as a sanctuary for learning in an area rife with gang colors, drugs and bullets. You don't see staff bolting for higher-scoring pastures.
Likewise, the children of Robertson Road Elementary are engaging and friendly.
"They like school," Gutierrez said. "When we're off track, they're here. The key is getting them here and ready to achieve."
York began teaching at Robertson Road 15 years ago.
"When I first got here, it was probably 80 percent Cambodians and Hmong," he said.
Teachers had these students from kindergarten through sixth grade, and while they came from homes where English wasn't spoken, "it was a more stable (student) population," York said.
Now, he said, most of the second-language learners speak Spanish. They come and go more frequently.
"We can have a kid kindergarten through fourth grade, and we've worked hard with the student to make a lot of progress."
Then, York said, that student leaves and another comes in, sometimes directly from Mexico.
"And we get that student's test scores," he said.
York, who teaches sixth grade, said some of his students might read at a fourth-grade level. "But they still take the tests at the sixth-grade level," he said.
"The state doesn't look at faces at the desks," she said. "It's a number."
Gutierrez, who became Robertson Road's principal four years ago, set about finding ways to encourage more parental participation. She's overseen a fall festival to build unity within the neighborhood. She's urged parents to attend literacy nights when they come to the school and read to their children. The school offers parenting classes and ones to help English-language learners.
"We try to involve parents as much as we can," she said. "We do it through conversations, inviting them to school to watch their children in their classes. We have 'second cup' morning coffee sessions. We've had speakers come in to talk about junior high, high school and college."
She began monthly meetings for parents; some draw as many as 50 people.
"Parents love their children," Gutierrez said.
Still, parents who don't speak English are unable to help out in the classrooms, York said.
Gutierrez believes strongly in her staff and their dedication to making a difference in their students' academics and lives. They believe they've made inroads and are about to reap improvements even though testing will begin only nine days after spring break ends in April.
But now, Robertson Road's staff is reeling in frustration after the hammer that came down last week. Of the four options imposed upon the district, two involve replacing the principal -- Gutierrez -- who has been working hard to create a foundation for learning. Staff members must work under the threat of drastic sanctions by the state -- which, by the way, hasn't exactly been purring like a Mercedes these days.
A teacher who asked not to be identified told me that much of the frustration comes from the fact that standards are being set and enforced by people who spend little time in the classrooms. Neither district officials nor the state ever ask for teacher input, the teacher said.
Monday was the prime example. The district stifled staff at a time when their voices need to be heard.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.