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Gap-Narrowing Calif. District Gives Teachers Freedom to Experiment

According to the Los Angeles Times, Corona-Norco Unified School District, the 10th largest school system in California, has managed to avoid "the pitfalls common to similar districts with diverse student populations and budget constraints." About half of the students at Corona-Norco are Latino and low-income, and the district's budget has taken a $140 million cut in the last four years. Yet the district is getting attention for its above-average graduation rates, steady gains in state and college entrance test scores, and for the "academic ascent of its minority, low-income and special education students." The district was also recently named a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

The Times explains that teachers, parents, and administrators "attribute the district's strength to strong relationships that may only receive lip service elsewhere." For instance, the district and unions have little friction—in fact, in 2010, teachers and administrators took a 5 percent pay cut to prevent teacher layoffs.

The district has no prescribed lesson plans, instead giving teachers the freedom to experiment in the classroom and help in developing curriculum. In addition, the district uses a dual-language immersion program, which aims to close the achievement gap early on.

Colleen Hawkins, director of curriculum and instruction, told the paper that the idea behind their district's approach is to make teachers feel connected to what they're teaching. "We don't go buy something and impose it on them," she said. "They are invested in it and created it. They own it and own the results." Third grade teacher Patty Evalle also told the Times that the approach allows for teachers to connect with students in "their own way." "We can be who we are as teachers," said Evalle.

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