New principal aims to stay at Jefferson

Danisha Keeler is a rising star. The 34-year-old had only 10 years of education experience when she was named principal of Jefferson Elementary, a struggling North Natomas school in a low-income neighborhood.

“The school was in ... Program Improvement and destined for a takeover,” said Dolores Buck, a PTA member and longtime school volunteer whose grandchildren attended Jefferson. A school enters Program Improvement when it fails to improve state test scores over time. Sanctions can include being taken over or having its leadership and some of its teachers replaced.

Keeler took the reins midway through last school year after Juanita Reynolds left to become student services administrator at Natomas Unified. Keeler, who had been Reynolds’ vice principal, had worked closely with the principal for much of a year, focusing on improving student behavior and establishing a new instructional schedule that included extra help for students who need more support.

The result: a 95-point increase in the school’s Academic Performance Index compared with two years ago. The school had a staggering 71-point jump in API during the 2012-13 school year, bringing the score to 742 – the largest increase in the Sacramento region. Jefferson has moved significantly closer to the statewide goal of an 800 score out of 1,000.

Jefferson remains in Program Improvement, according to the state, but it could shed that designation if it meets academic performance goals for test scores, participation and graduation rates for another school year.

The August announcement still has the Jefferson Elementary Jaguars buzzing. Fourth-grader Nyla Williams told a visitor about the T-shirt she won emblazoned with the words: “I rocked the CST test.”

“I really rocked it,” she said. “I did good.”

Keeler is a constant presence on the elementary school campus, greeting students in the morning and sending them on their way in the afternoon. In between, she oversees recess and sits among the kids at lunch. On Fridays, she likes to wear her Jefferson T-shirt and play “wall ball” with the kids during recess.

“They think it’s cool to beat me,” she said.

On Tuesday morning, Keeler, a blue fountain pen stuck in her hair and Green Bay Packers lanyard around her neck, was encircled by students wanting hugs or attention. One little girl excitedly told her about the new pair of glasses she just received through Visions to Learn, a program that offers free eyeglasses to students in need.

“Walking, walking, walking,” Keeler instructs a group of students, while passing out aqua-colored “Jeffy Jag” tickets to those not at a run. She checks a box on the square piece of paper for those “being safe” or “being productive.” Kids put the tickets – given out by all school staff – in a jar for a weekly drawing. Winners can pick a prize from a list that includes having lunch with a friend or teacher, or being the principal’s assistant for a day. Keeler said there is a long list of students opting for the latter.

Later that day, Keeler sat in a small chair at the back of Raymond Beltran’s third-grade class during a English lesson. She typed notes into her laptop as she observed the lesson and quietly took a few photos of the room’s bulletin boards. She dropped a blue card with comments about the teacher’s lesson on his desk before slipping out of the classroom.

“She is doing a great job,” said parent and PTA member Jessica Bustillos. “She’s really hands-on.” Keeler attends PTA meetings and is responsive to parent requests, she said.

Keeler grew up in Del Paso Heights and earned her master’s degree at Sacramento State. Before she became Jefferson’s principal, Keeler worked as an elementary school teacher for six years, an instructional coach helping teachers and analyzing data for three years and a vice principal for six months.

She said that parent participation has been a “huge” part of the school’s success. She opens the library once a month for a “Coffee and Conversation” event that is open to the public. She usually invites a community agency that can offer services or information for the school’s families. Every Friday, Jefferson holds a morning assembly open to families, staff and students.

“It’s a big improvement over prior years,” Buck said.

Keeler extended the school day for students in need of extra help and set aside a class period each day for students to break into groups to work on subjects in which they struggle. The school also began an incentive program that includes prizes for the classes with the best attendance. Students who run into Keeler in the halls know how to finish this mantra: “Be here every day on time. On time every day.”

The new principal also increased the use of technology in classrooms. She used school site money to upgrade the computer lab and supply each classroom with an iPad and Apple TV multimedia player, which projects lessons on a screen or wall. She plans to add more computers as funding allows. Keeler also increased staff collaboration time, stressing the use of data to decide which students need help in particular topics.

The result has been improved scores and staff morale, with teacher turnover coming almost to a complete halt.

“The environment was so negative, there was a huge turnover (in previous years),” said Amber Allison, who teaches kindergarten at the school. “Those of us who chose to stay believe in Jefferson.”

First-grade teacher Jason Crabtree said he can count five principals at the school in the past five years.

Keeler says she has no plans to leave Jefferson anytime soon. “I love being at school, and I love being with kids,” she said. “I love being at Jefferson. If I could stay here, that would be amazing.”

School staff say additional resources from the district helped improve scores and morale at the once beleaguered school. The district directed more money to four underperforming schools after Chris Evans took over as superintendent in 2012, Sanders said.

Natomas Unified officials hired teacher’s aides for kindergarten classes and brought in a part-time school psychologist and intern to support students’ emotional health. In the last few years, district officials began a parent support program, housed on the campus, that has offered parenting classes as well as courses to help them learn English. The school district also upgraded the school environment, adding landscaping, painting the lunchroom and repairing an old stage at the aging school.

Before the makeover, “our cafeteria looked like a truck ran through it,” Buck said. “That’s where our kids had meals.”

The upgrades to the school and improvement in academics are changing the community’s perception of the school, according to teachers. “Finally, people realize Jefferson is not a bad place to go,” Crabtree said.