Yountville Elementary School: small but progressive

September 27, 2017
Napa Valley Register

Yountville Elementary is the Napa Valley Unified School District’s smallest elementary school, but it strives for mighty things.

Acombination of things have made the school a success, said the half-time principal, Tara Bianchi.

Yountville itself is a wealthy community, the school, known as YES, is the only school in town, it has a progressive curriculum and a strong family club. The school has existed since the late 1800s.

Bianchi said the family club usually raises almost $100,000 a year. In her experience, the YES family club likely raises the most money per child of any other NVUSD elementary school.

“Our parents are very generous,” she said. In addition, “There are some successful community members that support our school” and contribute financially.

The town of Yountville is another key partner, she said. It runs the before- and after-school programs and includes the school in many local activities.

“People just love this school,” Bianchi said.

Last Thursday, a miniature robot scooted along a sheet of paper printed with colored lines as a group of fourth- and fifth-grade students puzzled over its next move.

Would the robot — called an Ozobot — turn right when it reached the blue line? Back up? Or even do a ‘360’?

Those observations – along with ideas of what else the Ozobot might do – were part of a robot engineering lesson taught last week by the school’s visiting science specialist.

“How can I improve this robot’s design?” asked science specialist Jeff Macloud of the class.

The students were gathered in the school’s science lab, which was funded and equipped with donations from the school’s Family Club. The same club also pays for Macloud to visit to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects every Thursday.

“If we upgrade something about this robot, what would it be?” wondered fourth-grader Emma Foster. “I’d add a remote,” she decided.

“I like this project because you learn about how a robot works and how it moves,” said Annalise Liskey, a fourth grader.

Working with a mini robot in the classroom is fun, said Elysiana Medina, a fifth grader. “You can experience it. It’s not just a video.”

“I want to make a robot that can follow voice commands,” said Gabriel Pacheco, a fifth grader.

“Stay on task,” Macloud urged his students, as they talked in small groups at separate tables. “You gotta work together as a team.”

“Now’s your chance to be an engineer and think about how you’d fix” any problems with the robot, he said.

Yountville’s only public school

While the regular classroom teachers at Yountville Elementary School also teach science, Macloud was hired to provide additional lessons and projects at Yountville’s only public school.

With just 125 students in grades kindergarten to fifth, the school’s enrollment for some grades is low enough that a group of third- and fourth-graders are combined in one class and a group of fourth- and fifth-graders are combined in another class.

The school has a staff of 20, including six teachers and Bianchi.

An estimated 60 percent of the students live outside of Yountville, said Bianchi. Out of seven students randomly interviewed during a Sept. 21 science enrichment class, all live in Napa.

About 50 percent of the YES students are Hispanic, officials said. About 25 percent of the students are eligible for a free or reduced-cost lunch program.

The smallest class this year, kindergarten, has 21 students. The largest class is the fourth/fifth grade combo class, with 29 students.

Erin Cassell is the combined fourth/fifth-grade class teacher. This is her second year at YES, but her 16th in the NVUSD. She previously taught at one of the districts biggest school’s – Canyon Oaks Elementary in American Canyon.

“I am enjoying the small-town feel” of YES, said Cassell. “The kids really know each other,” she said, which is especially helpful with project-based learning. “It really helps with team building and collaboration.”

The school is so small that in recent years the district considered combining YES with Stone Bridge School or closing YES entirely. But after an outcry from school families, the community and other supporters, the school remains open and enjoys strong community support.

Bianchi said the school has a greater number of students from Napa “probably because younger families find it difficult to afford to live here.”

A number of those parents work in Yountville, St. Helena or nearby, and drop off their kids on their way to work, officials said.

The small school environment is certainly a draw, she said. “People like a smaller school because it’s like a family here.”

In addition, as a New Tech Network school and AVID program school, “We’re a little more progressive,” said Bianchi.

According to the New Tech Network website, such schools use project-based learning to “empower and challenge students to learn and succeed, to collaborate and communicate, and to engage in the world around them.”

Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) is a college readiness program designed to help students develop the skills they need to be successful in college. The program places special emphasis on growing writing, critical thinking, teamwork, organization and reading skills.

And there’s one other thing that makes YES stand apart from the rest.

“It’s the only school that has a white picket fence,” said Bianchi. “It kind of sums up the feeling of our school,” she said. “It’s a sweet little school with a white picket fence.”

Tags: , , ,