St. Helena students have taken their last loop.

The school board voted 3-2 last Thursday to end “looping,” a system that gave students in grades 1-2 and 4-5 the same teacher for two consecutive years.

Disappointing test scores led administrators to recommend eliminating looping, which requires teachers to be familiar with curricula at two grade levels. Starting in the 2019-2020 school year, teachers will have to master only one grade level, which administrators hope will produce better test scores.

Trustees Jeff Conwell, Maria Haug and Julio Olguin voted to eliminate looping. Trustees Jeannie Kerr and Lisa Pelosi voted to keep it.

Supporters of looping raise some good points, but test scores show that “the looping model is not performing as expected,” Olguin said.

“Test scores are not the end-all (and) be-all, but they are a vital metric for any educational system that is merit-based, such as ours,” Olguin said.

Haug said that based on lackluster fifth-grade math scores, “64 percent of our students are not going to be eligible for high-quality STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) jobs in the future.” While she feels emotionally attached to looping, the data makes it clear that things need to change, she said.

Pelosi and Kerr voted against eliminating looping, saying they would like to see it continue with greater accountability.

About 80 percent of the teachers at the TK-5 level support eliminating looping, according to Superintendent Marylou Wilson.

A majority of teachers believe “that being a grade-level expert would help alleviate many of the demands that the new curriculums and teaching pedagogy present each year,” Brandon Farrell, president of the St. Helena Teachers Association, told the board in a letter read by Marc Luelsdorf, the association’s vice president.

A handful of people, including looping teachers and students, spoke in support of looping. They said it helps teachers build relationships with students and learn their strengths and weaknesses, while giving students stability from year to year.

Test scores are affected by English learners and socioeconomic factors, not looping, said Ana Canales, who’s been teaching for 27 years and looping ever since the district introduced the system in 2011.

“We’ve grown beyond the information age into the relational age,” said Canales, who’s retiring at the end of the school year. “It’s not about the information anymore but the relationships of the people who have the information. Children between the ages of 6 and 10 are developmentally hard-wired to learn about relationships outside of their family unit. Why squander this opportunity?”

Fifth-grader Jacob Zuniga has spent the last two years with looping teacher Ashley Wright. He called her “the best teacher I could possibly have, and I want other kids to enjoy her for the same amount of time that I have.”

“Having the same teacher for two years, you get into a routine that is not really interrupted by a lot of things, and you get to know your teacher’s expectations,” Zuniga said. “I can easily get back from summer vacation and begin working on what I’m supposed to be doing because I know what my teacher expects of me.”

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St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.