October 12, 2013 Updated: October 12, 2013 at 6:41 pm
The world can be a narrow place for Monroe Elementary students, but the school works on broadening it.
When teaching a lesson about museums, for example, Laura Sanchez learned that some of her fifth-graders had not been to one.
"When you have students who live in lower socio-economic areas, they're not provided with the same life experiences. So we have to create that experience through pictures and technology," she says.
It's not that the children aren't smart, said Monroe Principal Marlys Berg.
"Even though they're from lower socio-economic backgrounds, their parents have still tried to provide them with knowledge, using the library or videos," she said. "Like any parent, they want the best for their children. But when they're working on survival, it's food versus a museum."
While the challenges at Monroe, a Title 1 school in Colorado Springs School District 11, are plentiful, they are not insurmountable, according to staff. Eighty-eight percent of Monroe's 465 students are impoverished and 43 percent are English language learners. The school has 50 percent mobility - families move in and out seemingly as fast as a high-speed Internet connection.
"They often don't let the school know they've moved. They just don't show up or come in," Berg said.
Monroe was on turnaround status in 2010, the lowest state ranking for academic performance. After rallying and advancing to "improvement" status in 2012, the school has fallen this year to a "priority improvement" plan, the second from the bottom.
The school faces deficiencies that those in higher income neighborhoods don't face. Parental involvement, for example, Berg said. Not many parents of Monroe students have time to volunteer. They're working several jobs and often have younger children at home, Berg said.
Family nights for siblings of students, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are one solution.
"We get 300 to 400 people. We feed them and give them additional skills to help at home with reading or games," Berg said.
Providing language translators and emphasizing the importance of parent-teacher conferences has contributed to nearly 100 percent attendance, she said.
"We try every way we can to get them here," Berg said. "It's at least a one-time contact with the parents."
The school does everything it can to "bring the world to the kids," through guest speakers, sponsored field trips, programs such as the Kiwanis' "Bringing Up Your Grades" challenge, and enrichments such as a homework club and a walking group.
Berg, who has led the school for five years, said she seeks teachers who are caring.
"We're very honest with them. It takes a lot of work, and the students need adults who care about them," she said.
Teacher Catie Snowbarger said she likes the community atmosphere.
"One thing that happens to overcome the challenges is we're allowed to make everybody feel comfortable and like they belong. All of the kids are together and ours - it's just a real community feeling," she said.
Teachers work to keep kids interested in the material and on task. Sanchez periodically stops her lessons for "one-second parties" - the kids raise their hands in the air, wriggle them and say in unison, "Oh, yeah!"
She gauges their comprehension of the material by asking them to use their fingers to indicate their level of understanding, dishes out praise such as, "I love your brains," and has students partner up to teach each other what they have just learned.
"The level of thinking they can do is inspiring to me," Sanchez said. "They've had enough real-world experiences to have insight into issues and opinions - and they're bold enough to give them."
Free/reduced-price lunch: 88 percent
Minorities: 77 percent
English language learners: 43 percent
• Received the 2013 Alfred P. Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility