- Associated Press - Friday, August 14, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Kristen Medina walks her son into school and waits with him outside his classroom, same as every year for the first day. But she soon discovers something is much different at Booth Elementary School in Reno.

Not only is the principal new. So are half the staff, teachers and administrators.

She doesn’t know it yet, but much more is about to change - drastically - with $1 million in extra funding coming for students over the next two school years.

More teachers, a longer school year, new classroom technology, and Washoe County’s first full-day preschool at a public school. Like many parents, Medina is unaware of all in store.

She’s never heard of Nevada’s fledgling “victory schools” program paying the $1 million tab, but she’s well aware of the school’s stigma that earned it all this extra help.

“I think a lot of schools like this get a reputation,” she says Monday morning as her son, Andrew Escalante, stands by her side without a trace of timidness, waiting for the bell to ring so he can start second grade.

“I like school - and math,” says Andrew, wrapping his hands around the straps of his Batman bag, pulling it tightly to his back.

Andrew started, like many students at the central Reno school, behind. He moved back to the United States from Mexico after three years, starting midway through kindergarten and struggling to pick up English.

Nearly one in four Booth students is struggling to learn English, more than double the average of Washoe County School District.

A full 100 percent of Booth students live in poverty. A quarter are homeless, which could range from living in a shelter to couch surfing with relatives or living in a weekly hotel.

Medina has relied on the school’s donations for her son.

“When you have a 7-year-old boy, they go through backpacks and tennis shoes like no one’s business,” she says.

The school has grown to provide for its needy students with the help of many local organizations, but the victory program is intended to provide unprecedented instructional supports for Booth and a few other high-poverty schools struggling to educate their students.

Fewer than half of Booth’s students have attained grade-level reading skills, with only 57 percent being proficient in math, ranking it among the lowest-performing Washoe schools, according to the Nevada Department of Education.

This year’s $1 million in extra money will be funneled into classrooms to - above all else - get students literate, like Escalante.

When he started at Booth midway through kindergarten, he received special attention for six months, specifically for reading.

“His teacher couldn’t believe his improvement,” says Medina, who also did all she could now that they were back in America.

All students aren’t so lucky, says Booth’s new principal, Yuen Fong. It’s not that parents don’t care, he says. They’re just against the wall, or don’t realize the value of education.

Fong speaks from experience, being the first in his family to earn a master’s degree and second to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“Growing up, I was one of these kids,” says Fong, whose father emigrated from China with no education, meeting his mother who grew up in Chicago but never made it passed elementary school.

He had three siblings, and the whole focus was on the family restaurant, working there until 9 or 10 p.m., Fong said.

“Education was not a priority for my parents. Growing up, I don’t think we ever did homework,” added Fong.

As an adolescent, he made the conscious decision to be educated.

“I saw how much my dad worked - very hard. Just struggling to get by. We’d end up teaching my mom how to add and subtract. She just didn’t know,” remembers Fong. “I wanted a better life.”

Fong has carried the experiences of his youth into his career.

“I know kids have it in them,” he said. “These kids do have to work a little harder, but it will pay off in the end.”

This belief led Fong here, taking on Booth, the extra money from the state and the strings that come with it. All eyes are on the school.

State lawmakers gave the money and expect results.

Fong comes with a proven track record. He previously ran Stead Elementary School for six years. Like Booth, Stead has many students living in poverty or learning English.

In Fong’s time at Stead, the rate of third-graders proficient in reading increased from 46 percent to 59 percent in 2013-14. The state’s 2014-15 test results haven’t been released yet. The school made 10-point gains in most grades for reading and math, according to Nevada’s standardized tests.

Booth’s new assistant principal, Annalisa Walker, also chose to come to the school this year after 22 years in the district.

Booth’s two new school leaders spent Monday walking to every classroom, introducing themselves and setting the standard: No. 1 - Students must keep their bodies and objects to themselves. No. 2 - Only use kind and encouraging words.

Fong will repeat those two rules every day in the morning announcements. If Fong has learned anything at schools with many poor, immigrant and transient students, it’s that children need consistency, rules.

More than 40 percent of Booth’s students showing up Monday will be gone before June, disappearing without notice or transferring other schools locally or abroad.

The transiency rate is startling, Fong said. But he’s come to realize school is the one place these children can count on knowing what’s around the corner. It’s the consistency children thrive on.

“There’s a lot out there we can’t control, but I have them for six hours,” says Fong, who notices students acting out before long breaks. “They’re worried because they know they’re going to be gone for three weeks. Who’s going to be home? There’s no routine. They need that structure, that routine.”

Once the school is able to establish that routine and put students at ease, education can begin, he said.

Medina repeats her routine on Monday, walking behind her son into class for the first day. She stands in the back of the room, lingering with all the other moms and dads as teacher Julia Lazear takes roll.

“I may forget your name. You may forget mine,” Lazear tells the second-graders. “That’s all right. We’ll figure it out.”

When Andrew’s name is called, he promptly replies, “Here,” with a raised hand.

“Hi, Andrew. Welcome to Booth,” Lazear replies.

___

Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com

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