Turnaround planned for Turlock school

TURLOCK -- Cunningham Elementary School will be different next year: a new principal, much of the staff replaced.

Turlock Unified School District officials said they are making the moves to turn around a school in trouble. Parents and teachers call the measures too drastic and say it puts the school at risk of even more upheaval.

Cunningham scored a 696 on the just-released Academic Performance Ranking, and ranked a 2 compared with similar schools (on a scale of 1 to 10). It wasn't the district's lowest-scoring elementary school; Wakefield scored 659. And Osborn Elementary just beat Cunningham with a score of 698. Schools earn scores from 200 to 1,000 and strive for the target of 800.

Union representatives said they understand the need to evaluate the school and its policies regularly.

"We are, however, extremely unhappy with this decision to blame staff and throw Cunningham into disarray," Turlock Teachers Association President Julie Shipman wrote in a letter to the district.

She pointed out that the school is on Tier III; the state doesn't require big moves such as the "turnaround model" Turlock is implementing until a school is listed on Tier I. If Cunningham later is so listed, the district will have to rework the school again.

Cunningham Principal Tim Norton is moving to a retiring assistant principal's job at Turlock Junior High School; Norton referred calls about Cunningham to the district office.

Turlock Unified representatives interviewed Cunningham teachers and staff; decisions about who would be moved were expected to be complete this week.

All jobs said to be preserved

Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services Lacrisha Ferreira said nobody will lose a job in the transition; some employees -- she said fewer than half -- will be relocated to other schools.

"To use a sports analogy, we want to make sure we have the right players in the right positions," Ferreira said. She said the district has assigned Al Silveira, principal of Sandra Tovar Medeiros Elementary School, to lead Cunningham.

"He's the principal at our best-performing neighborhood school," she said.

Shipman said it's more than a matter of changing jobs. She said the district hasn't prepared any new curriculum, and she criticized Superintendent Sonny Da- Marto for "top-down decisions" that don't include input from teachers or parents.

Ferreira said the district does have a plan, and she said Cunningham isn't alone. The district has instituted changes at its other low-performing elementary schools: Osborn, Earl and Wakefield. For instance, Osborn is becoming a dual-immersion Spanish school and Wakefield is expanding the school day and school year.

"Are we happy with the performance of these schools? No, no, no and no," Ferreira said. "We need to do something different. ... We have a real sense of urgency."

Some parents think the school's actions are too hasty.

Among them is Ron White, whose son is in fifth grade at Cunningham. White's wife teaches third grade at the school.

"She's nervous about this," he said of talking in public about the situation. "But I don't think it can get any worse."

White and other parents said they're not against change to make the school better. But they maintain the district is making changes without considering what's best for Cunningham, and is moving some of the better teachers and administrators.

"What scares me is they're not being open and honest with the parents, they're trying to skip a vital part of this model," White said.

GATE parents confused

He moved his son to Cunningham to attend the school's Gifted and Talented Education honors program. He said one of the GATE teachers was the first to be told he'd be moving.

Another GATE parent, Erin Vandergriff, said she is confused by the changes.

"Many of us have moved our children from their home schools and transported them across town to a very neglected campus in hope for the best education for our children," she said in an e-mail.

Parents said they hope for some clarification at a meeting set at the school today.

"Part of what concerns me about this turnaround model is a key component is parent involvement," White said. "That's what they don't want, what they've tried to avoid. This is all their idea."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.