Covillaud’s Escheman Era

by Lou Binninger

In the 1950s - 60s, California schools were tops in the nation. Today, California is a habitual underperformer, way below the national average, a bottom feeder of the industry. How the mighty have fallen.

Politicians and union raconteurs say it’s all about the money. Government schools need more money and better facilities they say. And, schools are faced with poor children, addict parents, absentee fathers and non-English speaking households to overcome. Good teachers, but lousy parents they say.

In 1997, Doug Escheman, became principal of Mary Covillaud Elementary School founded in 1858. Located in downtown Marysville, Escheman discovered the K-5 school performing horribly. In math and reading, only 1 of 7 students functioned at grade level.

Even in 1999 on the state Academic Performance Index (API), of all state government schools, 10 being the highest, Covillaud ranked a 2. Teachers said it’s due to all these incompetent kids, parents and poverty. However, when compared with schools of the same demographics, Covillaud still ranked 2. Covillaud scored 536 on the API when good would be 800.

Talk of the school was full of justifications for failure. Poor kids, pathetic parents, pitiful performance. What would you do if you were principal?

An old paperback, “No Excuses – Lessons from 21 High Performance High Poverty Schools,” sits on the corner of Escheman’s desk. It’s been there for years.

Contrary to state and district policy Escheman moved Spanish-speaking students from segregated classrooms to learn with other children. Today, more than 45% of his students are Latino with about 37% white, 7.4% multi-ethnic and 5.6% Black.

Yes, there is American-style poverty, some homeless kids and a transient population. The school distributes $15-30 thousand in clothes to students each year. However, the school is now rich with family-building, student-encouraging extra-curricular activities. Covillaud students are now succeeding.

Covillaud’s mission statement today is “All learners will learn.” In other words, no child will be left behind, for real, not rhetoric. Twice each day, for 25 minutes, teachers divert from their planned curriculum to focus on where each student is not thriving. Those weak spots are corrected. Those on task receive enrichment instruction.

Escheman says his school is now a Professional Learning Community (PLC). The late education guru Richard DuFour stated that initiating and sustaining a PLC "requires the school staff to focus on learning rather than teaching, work collaboratively on matters related to learning, and hold itself accountable for the kind of results that fuel continual improvement."

That’s Mary Covillaud today. What counts is what is learned, not what a school district says is taught. Teachers understand what students are to know at each grade level and then are expected to get them there.

Escheman says that great teachers have been attracted to the school wanting to do what they love, see children thrive and be a part of a successful education mission.

Mary Covillaud has been Marysville Joint Unified School District’s best kept secret. By 2002 the school ranked with top schools but did not submit an application for state recognition. Covillaud was noted as a California Distinguished School in 2006. Between 1999 and today scores have continued to rise.

In 2018-19, Covillaud was recognized as one of only four schools north of Sacramento to be a Distinguished School and scored the highest of the four. Covillaud is also an Honor Role School meaning it is among the top 25% of all schools in the state.

Escheman says that incorporating weekly Character First training beginning in 1999 helped students focus, behave and learn. Discipline issues are minimal with only 2 students suspended so far this year.

Of the school’s 510 students more than 40% have transferred in from other areas and districts. They didn’t come for the facilities. Covillaud has the 2nd worst infrastructure in the district including numerous stress fractures in its newest old building.

On November 4, 2008 district voters agreed to borrow $47 million to construct new buildings throughout the district. Covillaud parents were promised a new playground, a 2-story classroom, an administrative office modernization and new parking lots. Although classrooms, gyms and playgrounds were installed in school after school, Covillaud was ignored.

In fact, you will find no 2018-19 Distinguished School banner in the District boardroom or a news release or proclamation celebrating the extraordinary accomplishment of the teachers and support personnel of Covillaud.

The Escheman era is nearly over. The question is how long will it take for the school to resemble the rest of the underperforming district when he retires. In the meantime, parents count your blessings with the Covillaud School staff.