Montecito Union School: A Community Treasure

To the delight of their parents, some 452 fortunate students, aged five through 12, have marched off to attend kindergarten through sixth grade at Montecito Union School, arguably one of the finest elementary schools in the United States.

Montecito is blessed with two equally respected public elementary schools: Montecito Union and Cold Spring Elementary (K-6 with 165 students). Local school choice is further enriched by top-notch private schools like Laguna Blanca Lower School (K-5), Crane Country Day School (K-8), and Our Lady of Mount Carmel School (K-8). Today's focus is on Montecito Union School (MUS).

The Team at the Top

We sat down recently with Tammy Murphy, School Superintendent; Nick Bruski, Chief Academic Officer; David Williams, Dean of Students; and Virginia Alvarez, Director of Business at MUS. The first thing you notice about Ms Murphy is her energy and enthusiasm. She is a lifetime educator who has spent 26 years helping children and 20 years as an administrator. She is open and accessible, a good listener, an accomplished communicator and a team builder with a demonstrated track record of success.

While both Murphy and Bruski are beginning their second year at MUS, Alvarez is a 10-year MUS veteran who says that the level of satisfaction among the faculty, the students and the parents is the highest she has ever experienced. The former position of school principal has been restructured into two separate roles – a Chief Academic Officer (Nick Bruski) and a Dean of Students (Dave Williams). Bruski will focus on curriculum and faculty development; Williams, a former computer technology teacher who has spent 20 years as an assistant principal, will focus on student discipline and day-to-day school operations. Says Alvarez, "This is the right structure for the right time in our district."

One year ago, parents were displeased and a little uneasy over the resignation of principal Kris Bergstrom, the retirement of Superintendent Dick Douglas and an ambitious new Strategic Plan for Montecito Union School. With that controversy now resolved, the focus has shifted to implementing the highly ambitious strategic plan: Core beliefs embedded in the plan include providing a comprehensive experience that allows students to reach their greatest potential in academics, the arts, athletics and development of social skills; teaching character attributes such as personal responsibility, integrity, persistence, accountability, courage, and leadership skills; and service to others as an essential component of a MUS education.

Student Performance

Of the 117 elementary schools in Santa Barbara County, last year MUS was ranked #1 in the 2011 Academic Performance Index (API), scoring an impressive 960 out of a possible 1,000 points, edging out Mountain View at 958 points as #2 and Cold Spring at 951 points as #3. So, what are Montecito Union's secrets to success and how can they be applied to other schools?

“MUS is different,” Bruski says. “We believe in education of the whole child, including reading, math, language, history, social studies, science – and arts, music and physical education. To teach nutrition, we grow our own food in an organic garden. Our real challenge is not memorization, but to teach children critical thinking skills. At the same time it's important for kids to retain a sense of creativity and flexibility when it comes to new ways of thinking and complex problem solving.”

California's Standardized Testing and Reporting Program, known as STAR testing, measures student performance in grades 2 through 11 in English and language arts, math, science and history. The statewide average for math proficiency is 48%; at MUS 89% of students score at the Proficient or Advanced levels. In science, the state average proficiency is 54%; at MUS, it is 96%.

The children who attend MUS tend to be the offspring of relatively affluent college-educated parents who place a premium on educational achievement. They pay high property taxes to locate within the Montecito Union school district. Parents donate time and energy to attend Board meetings, actively engage in parent-teacher conferences and volunteer for classroom duty.

Nearly all children speak a common language: English. Only 22 of the 452 students are enrolled in English language learning; about half are Hispanic with the rest from scattered countries around the world. None of the children are undernourished. Most live in two-parent households. Students are expected to do their reading and homework assignments. Specialists are available for those who need extra help or fall behind. Classes are small enough for teachers to know every child personally, averaging only 17 students per teacher. There are 27 classrooms, all equipped with flat-screen TVs, document cameras, visual presentation systems and white boards, plus a state-of-the-art computer lab. In the 4th through 6th grades, students have access to individual computers on a one-on-one basis.

MUS students live in safe neighborhoods free of violent crime. Cell phone usage is prohibited during school hours. MUS is a tobacco-free, drug-free workplace for teachers and staff. Disruptive behavior in the classroom is rare. Problems of anger management, rampant absenteeism, boredom and lack of individual attention are virtually non-existent. Only 18 MUS students qualify for the free federal lunch program; most bring a lunch or purchase one from the Mobile Café. Nick Bruski, who is completing his Doctorate from UCLA, was formerly the principal in Oxnard at Rio Rosales Elementary School where half of the 570 children in the K-5 school were on the free lunch program.

Report cards for all students are issued three times each year. Homework is required beginning with 30 minutes per day in the first grade; 30 to 45 minutes in second and third grades; and 1.5 to 2 hours for fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

Teacher Accountability

It is the teacher in the classroom who will have the greatest impact on a child's social and academic achievement. The average teacher has taught at MUS for 18 years, compared to an average tenure of 10 years in other California elementary schools.

According to Murphy, "Good teachers want to come to this culture. What's not to like? We have a unique workplace. There is ample opportunity for professional growth. We can and do attract the best teachers in the state." Performance measurement and teacher evaluations are critical to success, because it is impossible to efficiently manage what you can't measure. For the first time last spring, a comprehensive survey of 48 questions was sent to parents to provide feedback on instruction and overall school performance. Ninety-six percent of parents were either extremely satisfied or satisfied. While pleased with the parent's strong support, teachers and staff are focused on continual improvement in the school's culture of exceptionalism.

Bruski spends time in the classroom with every teacher 8 to 10 times a year. Formal evaluations are conducted with tenured teachers once every two years, and more often for non-tenured teachers. For all new teachers in California, tenure starts after two years.

One-third of MUS teachers will be eligible for retirement in the next few years. Fortunately, MUS does not have to rely solely on attracting new teachers who have limited experience. Says Bruski, "We get applications from experienced teachers from all over California whenever an opening occurs."

Teachers are all members of the California Teachers' Association (CTA) union. They are under contract to MUS to provide 184 days of service per year at a guaranteed salary. Mandatory union dues set by CTA of $67 a month per union member are deducted from each teacher's earnings by the school system. The present teachers' union contract was renegotiated and approved by the Board on May 12.

Last year, Bruski, Murphy and 26 teachers attended a five-day educational summit at Harvard University with 300 professionals from around the world exploring "best practices" in visible thinking. Since then, the MUS Educational Foundation has funded another 10 MUS teachers to attend classes at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Attendance at summer classes at Columbia University for nine teachers has also boosted teaching skills in reading and literacy.

Culture of Exceptionalism

The vision for the Montecito Union School District is to make the Montecito Union School a place where students love to learn, teachers love to teach, and parents are engaged as partners in the intellectual and personal development of their children.

California has almost 10,000 public schools in 1,000 school districts, educating some 6.2 million students. "The difference," says Bruski, "is that MUS has the passion and dedication of students, parents, teachers and administrators to be the best we can be. As a California Distinguished School, MUS has the best of all worlds: involved, engaged parents; the best students in the state; an exceptional faculty; and adequate resources, readily available. When you are at the top, the challenge is still 'continuous improvement'."