Roger Corbett Elementary looked for a “different way” forward and found it

By Joe McCarthy

Roger Corbett Elementary School is situated on Villanova Drive near the airport in east Reno on a tight, two-way, side street. When school is in session, the neighborhood is abuzz with activity five days a week.

The narrow street is packed with double-parked cars near the school’s front door. Sidewalks on both sides of the street are trip hazards forcing pedestrians onto the street to move about. 

Cars inch through, avoiding the parents who are visiting classrooms or picking up kids. Young mothers push baby carriages. Local teenagers scurry about on skateboards, and gray-haired men walk their dogs.       

The Wooster Colts’ baseball field looms large across the street from the school’s front door. The airplanes taking off at nearby Reno Tahoe International Airport provide a familiar hum, as this civilized community goes about its business.  

Corbett’s neighborhood is a combination of older, one-story homes and apartments. Lot sizes are small and tight. Within two blocks of the school, the round-the-clock traffic on Plumb and Kietzke passes by adjacent half-empty shopping centers.

The school’s property is a set of one-story buildings, a concrete courtyard, and a fenced-in playground.  Corbett is the academic home to more than 500 students, preschool through sixth grade, 87 percent Latino with 51 percent of the students categorized as English (second) language learners. The school qualifies for 100 percent free and reduced lunch. Traditionally, Corbett has suffered below-average achievement scores, teacher turnover, and sporadic leadership. 

Corbett Elementary School’s Principal Denise Dufrene, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Corbett’s First Report Card Came in with a 1-Star Rating 

Seven years ago, Denise Dufrene arrived as the new principal, an educator with 24 years of experience in the Washoe County School District. For Dufrene, Corbett was a ripe opportunity, a challenge. Her instincts told her that Corbett was ready for a change. 

At that time, the Nevada Department of Education’s star ranking system of one-to-five stars had just been rolled out. Until that point, schools were evaluated by the provisions set out in No Child Left Behind. The State’s star ranking became a simplified way to judge a school’s overall performance. 

In Dufrene’s first year, Corbett had already received the lowest possible rating, a one-star. “That was devastating to this school, our community, and to the staff. It was very hard to take. I don’t think anyone ever walks into a school and sees people not working hard, who don’t have the best interest of students, who wake up every day thinking that they’re not going to do the best by kids.” 

Dufrene is now able to put that first year as principal into perspective. It was a time when principals were stepping down or moving to other schools. Staff members had little buy-in with new principals. 

“Then I show up at Corbett with a sense of urgency, while also aware that the school’s community, the staff, the stakeholders were not given any say. That is not the best thing for a school community. It was a tumultuous time in our school district. The staff was being replaced at some schools. It was an uncertain time for those of us whose work is already very complex.”

A Different Way

For Dufrene, bias becomes evident in expectations. Myth-busting was an important first step and an ongoing effort.

“I want to dispel the myth about what Corbett is or was. These types of schools are not scary. They are not filled with kids who are destined to become problems for society. They’re just not like that at all. 

“And then to find out that all that work that had already been done wasn’t really moving kids forward academically. That was a very low time.” 

Corbett has never been an unhappy school. Teachers and staff were mostly positive about their work environment. But student achievement was below standards. Dufrene was confronted with a complex management problem.

“People don’t know that even when a school is underperforming, the kids still go to school and love being there.  It’s not a miserable experience, especially not for our families. My own daughter goes here. I had both of my daughters attend school here.”

Dufrene was grateful for a well-adjusted workplace, but effective practices and student performance had to be addressed.

“The work at the time was not especially focused on the type of instruction that the students needed. I found the focus was more on instructional intervention all day long as a way to support student learning, rather than just giving every student really high-quality, grade-level instruction to start.”

Dufrene needed to instill in Corbett’s organizational DNA the right characteristics for long-term success. She was laser-focused on what she does best: fostering in-house collaboration, emphasizing research-driven, student-centered learning strategies and insisting on a commitment to accountability.

Pollo Ortiz’s grandson David has attended Corbett since kindergarten. David is now in fourth grade. “I volunteer here at the school,” Ortiz says. “At home, we do a lot of work helping David learn his sight words, making sure he stays off the video games and uses Dreambox and Khan Academy for his math exercises. He’s made a lot of improvements over the past two years. He likes to read. Some of his favorite books are like Captain Underpants, which is a big book with kids right now. He reads every day. 

“Principal Dufrene has a great group of teachers, they’re all involved with the kids. They’re very supportive and meet with us often. Because there’s a lot of support for our kid, that’s what makes me feel good.”  

Pollo Ortiz, grandpa of David, image, Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Collaboration among staff on research-driven, student-centered strategies began to take shape. Corbett turned a corner.

 “We got into balance, first by looking at our school data, because I really feel like when you read the research around education, and we have just as much research as the medical field when you look at it, it does tell you a story. It’s like preventative health data, like your blood work. It tells you that there are pockets, subgroups that are underperforming in the school and it was mostly our second language learners that were underperforming.”

When schools are underperforming, it becomes easy to say that the kids just have too many barriers, too many things that they come to school with that make it impossible for them to learn. 

Dufrene agrees and said the presumption of barriers fosters a culture of low expectations. 

“I don’t think teachers wake up every day and think I’m going to go there and have low expectations for kids and prove that they can’t do it. But I think what happens is when you work so hard, and you don’t get the results you’re hoping for, you inadvertently start to put the blame on the kids and the families.” 

Discouraged teachers are susceptible to this subconscious trap. ‘If only the kids had families who spoke English. If only the families had more experiences to draw on, trips, traveling or families who read with their kids at home.’ 

Dufrene dispels that misperception. “The prevalence of low expectations was an undercurrent. In a lot of schools, there’s a tendency to feel bad for students. As educators, we hear amazing stories, sometimes they’re heartbreaking. But I believe that the last thing we want to do is feel sorry for the kids or the families because I truly believe that education, the power of education is still alive. I think it changes the outcome for families in a way like no other.”

Dufrene’s personal story informs her passion for public education, “If you can get one family member to graduate from college, the trajectory of that family is altered for generations. I’m the first person in my family to go to college. For me, it’s always been very powerful. When I came here, there wasn’t that understanding, an undying belief that the kids can do this.”

Righting the Ship – a 4-Star Rating Arrived Last Year

“This school is doing great now,” says Pollo Ortiz. “I mean, it went from the bottom of the pile to the top of the heap.”

Close to 40 percent of Corbett’s students on average are now at or above grade level proficiency in English language arts, math, and science. The potential for student academic growth has increased dramatically. 

Now more than 50 percent of those students, especially those second language learners who are currently below grade level are on track to reach grade-level competencies within 3 years. 

This 4-star rating has been a cause for celebration and a challenge to everyone to continue to improve the academic achievements of its students even more. 

The positive vibe in the building is palpatory.   

Corbett’s professional culture has fully adjusted to Dufrene’s high expectations and data-driven decision making. She includes everyone in the process: teachers, staff, students, community members, and families. They all have an important role in educating every Corbett student.

“The work of educating children is hard,” says Dufrene. “Classroom teaching is complex. Now there’s not only hope that the kids can do it but really an undying belief that our students, no matter what, can do this. That is the definite change in the building. It was necessary because otherwise, we’re doing this work and if you don’t believe your outcomes are going to make a difference than what’s the point of doing it?” 

Principal Denise finds time to visit classrooms, Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Corbett today

“It’s been fun to watch the progress of our students and even more to watch the sense of our community. Everyone is rallying together,” said Dufrene reflecting on the school’s progress. “Yes, I really love to talk about the academic components of the school, talking about instruction and what it means to students. And yet the outside influences are just as important.”

Dufrene and her team continue to work on building community support, a never-ending effort. With every new class of students comes a new class of parents and community stakeholders.

“I am amazed. It is so heartfelt to see. We have had the Reno Fire Department coming to do mentorships. We have the Boys and Girls Club as our partner. We have Big Brothers and Big Sisters come to the school and meet with our students. Outside the school, our kiddos need mentors. The Rotary Club really supports us, We also work closely with SOS Outreach’s Outdoor School, a really cool program where we take 25 students up to Tahoe Donner for our kids to learn to ski and snowboard on a Sunday. This is year four doing this. Nothing teaches you about yourself until you learn how to ski or snowboard.”

As for the families themselves, Dufrene says, “Parental involvement is amazing. Our families are so proud of the school community. I really truly believe that neighborhood, elementary schools should be the hub of every community. It should be the center of everything that is going on in the community. We have our kiddos work with our families as side by side partners. We know that as a team, we can move kids and improve academics. We can’t do that alone. We’re only with them for six hours or more a day. We can’t do that without parents. We have many times where our families come in, they watch presentations, they sit side by side with their child. They learn. They see what their kids learn. To me, that’s very authentic. We’ve moved away from kind of the bingo nights where, you know, you have a roster, 200 people showed up, but what about the next day?”

Dufrene is a tenacious leader and administrator who respects the power of collaboration. Her daily mantra as she walks through the hallways, corridors, and classrooms sounds something like this, “If we don’t move together in this work, it isn’t getting done.  We depend on each other. 

“The best teachers are right here at Corbett. That’s the way high performing organizations work. And we are one of them.”

This is the first in a series of reports about Corbett Elementary School. Upcoming pieces will discuss Corbett’s classroom instruction, English language learning strategies, coaching, counseling, and community. 

Joe McCarthy: I am NCN’s education reporter. I have an MS in curriculum development from SUNY Albany. In the 70s, I directed a community college-sponsored inner-city adult learning center in New York and in the 80s developed the first-offender education program for Northern Nevada Correctional Center. My oldest daughter is an instructional coach for the WCSD. She serves several schools in the district.

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