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School Search: Solano Elementary

By Susana Benavidez
Published: Thursday, November 19, 2009, at 03:26PM
Solano Elementary Susana Benavidez

A young student uses one of Solano Elementary's computers, donated through a partnership with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It seems like I have been looking for a school since Bella and Iza were kicking in my belly: first there was the traumatic daycare hunt that aged me five years, then the pre-school stressor and now the hovering animal called Kindergarten. To keep other Downtown parents from my fate, this series will showcase schools and day cares that can save your sanity, beauty and youth.

Solano Elementary is the needle in a LAUSD haystack. I considered not sharing it, out of fear that my own kids will not be able to get in when you all rush to enroll. My excitement got the best of me, though, and I decided that this local school is too good to keep to myself.

Back in January we published an excel list comparing test scores and diversity of elementary schools surrounding Downtown Los Angeles and the school that people usually mention as a solution for Downtown -- Castelar Elementary -- did not look so stellar. I didn’t know about Solano back then, so don’t think I was holding back as part of some evil-minded selfish motivation for my own children. Anyway, they were too young back then for those thoughts to cross my mind.

Since then, though, I had heard good things about Solano Elementary, just slightly farther from the heart of Downtown. To investigate, I scheduled an interview with Principal Richard Hickcox.

To get there, I walked a couple of blocks to 8th/Hill and hopped on Metro bus 83. 20 minutes later I was at Broadway and Solano. A quick walk up the hill brought me to the 110 freeway. A moment after doubting Google maps I saw there was an underground tunnel to get across to the other side. That sight activated new fears of gangs and darkness, but as you can witness from this article I made it safely to the other side and the shining educational beacon that goes by the name of Solano Elementary.

The school's ethnicity breakdown is 57% Asian, 33.6% Hispanic, 3.8% Filipino, 3.0 % White, 2.6% Black. They have an Academic Performing Index (API) of 915, they were awarded the Blue Ribbon Award this year, they consistently score above the target test scores and they have low enrollment.

Those are beautiful words to a parent -- Open Enrollment means that you do not have to live in the area to apply to get in the school even though they are not a magnet or charter. The school currently has about 243 students and has pre-school through 6th grade.

Principal Hickcox was beyond generous with his time in speaking to me about his school because after 10 years at Solano, it should be referred as HIS school. His planned retirement is in three years and though his shoes will be hard to fill, I hope that the next up for the job is school coordinator Ms. Garrison. She is not only a 2008 Milken Educator of the Year recipient but also a clear indicator of what a good devoted teacher can do to a classroom. Her 4th graders scored in the 93rd percentile in English Language Arts and in the 100th percentile for Mathematics (2008-2009 school year).

As I followed Principal Hickcox to the auditorium/library/pre-school room it quickly became evident that he is efficient and resourceful; the pre-school room resides in half of the auditorium, there are “offices” for Ms. Garrison and teachers on the auditorium stage and shelves divide the pre-K from the computer lab/library.

The wonderful thing is that Principal Hickcox has taken what the budget cuts have left him with and made it work in the interim (cue monetary donations).

The library is brimming with books and even though it had a lot going on it still managed to look tidy and roomy. Little hands clicked and typed away at the Apple computers that were purchased with a donation from the Los Angeles Dodgers via the Adopt-A-School program. When was the last time you stepped into an inner-city LAUSD school and observed three and four year-old kids easily navigating a computer?

As we made our way into the award-decorated hallway; picture samples that the first-grade students had done celebrating Latino Culture caught my eye. At which grade level do the students learn to read I wondered out loud? “Let me show you”, Principal Hickcox told me as he led me into a class room whose walls were a testament to the hard work of the teachers at Solano; reading and writing prompts remind the student what is required in their thought and articulation process and another poster listed the grading rubric to explain what was required in order to have a successful paper in the class.

The students have major writing assignments, writing workshops available to them, homework club after school, and a six week writing process that preps them for college. They are tested and evaluated on their ability to write a six-week term paper and a two hour on-demand paper (one hour for prepping and one hour the next day for the actual writing process). Does this bring back nightmares of high school and college papers exams? Try doing this at the 1st through 6th grade level. Even the pre-K and Kindergartners have a book of the month to which they are required to respond using art and dictation.

The school motto says it all: “Believe in Yourself, Work Hard, Get Smart.”

There are cracks in the glorious trophy that Solano Elementary, and LAUSD would do well to make sure it preserves and improves such a prize asset.

Since the budget cuts that LAUSD went through, Solano Elementary lost two teaching positions. That forced them to have a Kinder/1st grade and 4th/5th grade combination class. There was even a move to make Principal Hickcox oversee two schools simultaneously, but that idea was fortunately abandoned after pressure from the parents and staff.

So now you’re in the know. There are solutions within LAUSD and though it will not be the answer for everyone, you should do your homework now and see if Solano Elementary meets your needs. With those test scores and zero tuition, it certainly meets mine.

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