State superintendent touts Garden Grove’s Eisenhower Elementary as a model school for reopening safely

State superintendent speaks to students in a garden
During his visit to Eisenhower Elementary, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond learned how fifth-grade teacher Lesly Spangler is using the school’s garden to support students’ academic and social-emotional needs.

Greeted by a crowed of energized students, educators and district leaders, California’s top education official paid a visit to Eisenhower Elementary School in the Garden Grove Unified School District on Thursday, praising the campus as a model for safely resuming in-person instruction in a community hit hard by the pandemic.

Tony Thurmond, the state superintendent of public instruction, learned firsthand how Eisenhower’s staff worked together coordinating phone calls, school tours and home visits to bring all 550 students back for full-time instruction five days a week following the winter’s COVID-19 surge.

He also saw how the school, led by Principal Beth Cusimano, is leveraging targeted interventions to address learning disruptions while pursuing engagement strategies to build relationships with students and families.

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond
“Eisenhower Elementary provides an extraordinary example of what can happen when school staff wholeheartedly puts student and family needs at the center of their work,” State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said Thursday.

“It is heartwarming, and I know what I saw here today is exactly what California needs, and what our nation needs, to see examples of how we can make this work,” Thurmond said.

“You know what’s tricky is you make it look easy, and I know that it’s not,” he said.

During the afternoon visit, Thurmond observed how fifth-grade teacher Lesly Spangler uses the campus garden to help students reconnect with one another while simultaneously learning science standards.

He then watched sixth-grade teacher Jennifer Zarkades foster student collaboration on a narrative writing assignment and student support coach Roben Alarcon provide targeted literacy interventions to offset learning loss with a small group of second-graders.

‘An extraordinary example’

Located on Lilly Street in Garden Grove, Eisenhower Elementary serves a student population that is 84.7 percent Latinx and 13.4 percent Vietnamese. Most are first-generation or immigrated as youth, and more than 90 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Still, Eisenhower Elementary is known for offering a robust academic program that’s produced growth on state assessments and other measures. Along with its one-to-one computer-to-student ratio, the school offers robotics and coding programs to equip and engage students.

Eisenhower was also selected for the prestigious Disney Musicals in Schools program, resulting in elaborate musical productions each year.

When Garden Grove Unified started its phased approach to reopening in October, Eisenhower was one of the first to return with proven mitigation measures in place. Since resuming in-person instruction in April after the winter surge, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 among students and staff.

“Eisenhower Elementary provides an extraordinary example of what can happen when school staff wholeheartedly puts student and family needs at the center of their work,” Thurmond said.

Showcasing innovation

As schools across California develop plans for learning recovery and acceleration, the superintendent encouraged them to seek out strategies like those modeled at Eisenhower.

“The caring team on this campus are focused on the physical, academic and social-emotional well-being of students,” he said. “They do this by engaging students through exploratory outdoor education, incorporating targeted early literacy intervention, and going the extra mile to work with families to provide tools and resources to best support students at home.”

Thurmond’s appearance in Garden Grove is part of a series of on-campus visits aimed at showcasing schools that have safely resumed on-site instruction while taking innovative approaches to bridging learning gaps and addressing mental health needs.

Other guests included Garden Grove Unified school board President Lan Nguyen, Vice President Walter Muneton and Trustee Teri Rocco, along with Superintendent Gabriela Mafi, district and school staff, union representatives and PTA members.