Paola Flores and Cadence Johnson pay attention during a fifth grade math class where they often work in small groups because there are two teachers in class.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Four years ago, Littleton Public Schools district officials noticed that while most of their schools topped the academic charts, one school was struggling. So they decided to do something different. They gave the school — Field Elementary — extra money. It was called the “Field Initiative.”

It’s an experiment that speaks directly to a familiar debate in education circles: Does more money make schools better? You can count Lyn Bajaj, the principal at Field, as someone whose answer has changed when it comes to this question.

The staffing resources at Field are “pretty incredible” Bajaj says and a big change from her previous school in the neighboring Sheridan district. At her old school, the resources didn’t stretch far enough. Sheridan, as a district, has 84 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced priced lunch. Littleton Public Schools, by contrast, has only 18 percent. It’s one of the largest poverty gaps for bordering districts in the country.

Bajaj was the type of person who liked to focus on what she could control – and funding wasn’t one of them.

“I believed in my heart that funding isn’t what mattered, that good teaching is what matters,” she says.

That is, until she took the principal job at Littleton’s Field Elementary a few years ago.

Even though Littleton is a wealthier district, it does have handful of high poverty schools. In fact, Field Elementary was demographically about the same as Bajaj’s old school in Sheridan’s district: very high poverty and about 40 to 50 percent English language learners.

With the cash infusion, the school could fund different approaches. District leaders researched learning models that helped underperforming-students improve. They're using techniques from other schools in Colorado, like the Cherry Creek District and other states, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina. It’s meant more staffing targeted to specific areas, says Bajaj, who arrived in the second year of the initiative.

“They added an assistant principal, they added English language development teachers, they added a social worker, that added significant instructional coaching,” Bajaj says.

1) More English Language Teachers

Here’s what used to happen before the extra money. English language learners, who make up about a third of every class, were typically missing content because they didn’t speak English. The school’s English language teacher would pull them out of class a few times a day, for up to 45 minutes, to work on vocabulary and try to get caught up.

“So a lot of times they’d go back into the classroom and they missed something else and then trying to get them caught up or help them with something different,” says fourth-grade English language teacher Linnea Nelson.

Now, every grade level has its own English language teacher. Instead of pulling English language learners out, the English language teacher is in the classroom a few hours a day alongside the regular classroom teacher. As fourth-grader Atenencio Chavez Lopez points out, with two teachers, “one of them can help me, and one of them can help the others.”

On this particular day with teachers Camille McCullough and Linnea Nelson both in the classroom, the students are doing a project on animals, noting the differences in habitat, food preferences and physique as Nelson reads from a book.

“A coyote is naturally adaptable because it eats such a wide range of food. What do you think a ‘wide range of food’ means?” Nelson asks Chavez Lopez.

“Big animals?” he says.

“Not ‘big animals,’” she gently corrects. “It means eats ‘lots of different things.’”

Nelson can immediately help them with the definition. A few steps away, McCullough works with more advanced students. She also has time to work more closely with a student who is having a hard time focusing, quietly talking with him about he might pay attention to his animal research. They’re able to talk easily, comfortably with one another without disrupting the entire class.

Fourth-grade English language development teacher Linnea Nelson helps a group of English language learners inside their regular class.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

There are two other small groups in the classroom, one for kids racing ahead, staffed by a literacy coach and another for children with special needs. Groups aren’t divided by language ability but by academic need, so some native speakers could be grouped with English language learners.

Teacher Andrea Scott remembers a student who was starting to speak English, but who wasn’t reading and writing. When he stayed in the regular classroom, she saw him interacting with his English-speaking classmates.

“That’s when I thought, ‘Well, he can’t read and he can’t write, but look at him engaging in all this high level academic conversation that if we were pulling him out during this time period, he wouldn’t have this opportunity.’”

Scott says keeping English language learners in class to interact with their peers has led to dramatic changes. Field students’ academic growth is now above the state average and the school has gone from near the bottom on the state report card to the top. The school’s academic growth scores in English Language Arts are dramatic when compared to the state and district. The school has also earned an “exceeds” rating the past three years for performance on one standardized test given to students who are learning English.

Fifth-grade teacher Sally Moore says with two teachers in the class – even for the few hours a day – one can circulate to help a child who doesn’t understand, assist with a behavioral issue, or highlight something a student said quietly that the teacher at the front of the classroom wouldn’t have been able to hear.

“When both of us are in the classroom there’s a calm,” she says. “Instruction just happens the way you think it should happen all the time.”

2) Extending The School Day For Extra Learning

The second big thing more money bought was what the school calls “Win Win” time or “What I Need.” Field Elementary uses some of its money to tack on extra time for all students during the school day. Teachers use data to figure out exactly what skills a small group of kids needs to work on.

For example, in a first grade class, a small group of students needed help with blending sounds.

“Kevin, can you tell me what family we’re still working in?” asks first-grade teacher Lindsey Hahn.

“ur!” exclaims Kevin, as the teacher turns to the group.

“Put your finger on ‘f,’” Hahn instructs. “Let’s do it, 1, 2, 3….”

“Fur!” everyone shouts.

Under the co-teaching model, the student-teacher ratio in Field’s fifth grade drops to 21-to-1 and in first grade, it’s about 14-to-1. “Win Win” time allows the ratio to drop even lower because that special extra time comes at a different time of day for every grade level.

Fourth-grade teacher Camille McCullough works with Dylan Rodriguez on a research project classifying and distinguishing animals.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

The school’s master scheduler arranges for multiple teachers to help out during those times so there may be five or six children in a group getting intensive support.

“It’s giving that extra support that these kids don’t necessarily have at home,” says fifth-grade math teacher Michelle Killy.

3) Extra Help To Meet Needs And Calm The Atmosphere

The third thing money bought at Field Elementary school is an assistant principal and a social worker. When Bajaj arrived, there were students lined up outside the principal’s office for disruptions and behavior issues. Bajaj says many kids have challenges that make it hard for them to learn.

“Things very dramatic like a parent being incarcerated, or a parent dying or things like the family got kicked out of housing and so now parents are transitioning having to drive them to school,” she says.

The assistant principal helps meet family’s needs so children can learn and also developed a school-wide behavior plan that’s calmed the atmosphere dramatically. Finally, the assistant principal allows Bajaj to be a better principal – she visits classes more often to make sure instruction is top notch. Two Field teachers have been selected as Colorado finalists for the 2016 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

So, several years later and thanks to her experience at Field, Principal Bajaj has had a change in philosophy when it comes to money.

“You still have to have really high quality teachers who work really hard, but when you have the funding for those people, it is a dramatic difference,” she says.

She still thinks about her students at her old school in the Sheridan school district, where the teachers are working just as hard – but without the extra support staff she has.

“It’s not fair that they don’t have the funding” to provide the students there with what her students are getting just a few miles away, she says. “And it’s not fair that they have one English language teacher for 340 kids and I have six.”

Field Elementary principal Lyn Bajaj greets a student after opening the car door for her. School administrators participate in the valet-style greeting at the beginning and end of each school day.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

The teachers at Field wonder how long their good fortune can last. District officials now want to roll out Field’s successes at other schools with high needs. With districts short on funds, that has already meant cutting back resources at Field.

This year the school cut back from adding almost an hour of time to the school day to just adding 30-minutes. Instead of three full-time instructional coaches there are now two. The school has managed to keep its English language teachers at every grade level, the full time social worker and assistant principal.

“The school board has been very strong in their support of the work, and has truly been a partner with Field in building this model,” Bajaj says. “We are all hoping that there will be a breakthrough in the school funding crisis before the district is forced to take cuts from a program that is working.”