What makes it a “distinguished school”? Touring AIMS College Prep Elementary School

AIMS College Prep Elementary School is one of the top public schools in Oakland. It is one of four distinguished public schools in The Town. When we look at the demographics for each school, AIMS is the only one with more than half of the students from low-income families (64.4%), while the OUSD average is 72%. None of the other schools had more than ¼ low-income students. When we looked at the best Oakland public schools for Black students in English Language Arts (ELA), there was AIMS elementary again, at the top of the list, with a Black student population of 40.6% while no other school on the list had a Black student population over 20 percent. 

To better understand how AIMS is getting these kinds of results, we went behind the scenes for a school tour. We visited classrooms and spoke with students, educators, and administrators to better understand what’s going on. Below is some of what was said and what we learned. We’ll start with the students. 

Mavis, Mayte and Bethlehem (left to right)

“They taught me so many new words”

Mayte, Bethlehem and Mavis are friends and students in Mr. Cabrera’s fourth grade class at AIMS elementary school. 

“I really like math,” says Bethlehem, when asked what she likes most about the school. “Especially fractions.”

Mavis says she also likes math because “it’s easier than ELA, to be honest.”

Mayte is an English Language Learner (ELL) English Language Development (ELD) student and native Spanish speaker. She sits in the middle of her two friends, a little more shy and a little more hesitant to speak. 

“In my opinion, I really like to be here,” Mayte says. “I don’t really speak English, and they taught me so many new words.” 

Mayte undersells herself – she’s made some incredible progress. Two years ago, when she was a new student, Mayte had all her assignments run through Google Translate. Mr. Cabrera says she grew so much by being integrated in the classroom and having the same workload as other students. 

While it’s important to be mindful that Mayte is learning English, he said, it’s also important to not make too many concessions at the same time. 

“Holding her to high standards while also being understanding,” Mr. Cabrera says. “I give her the exact same assignments as everybody else. The exact same deadlines and expectations, while being understanding when there are some comprehension or vocabulary issues.”

ELD students and Special Education students receive differentiated instruction and 1:1 support as needed. “We want to make sure all of our students are getting equitable instruction, we maintain our rigor for all of our students,” says AIMS Head of School Natalie Glass. “We want all of our students to feel like they can attain the same academic achievements as any student here. And they have shown they can do that.”

In each classroom at AIMS elementary, students are in different academic tiers so teachers can be sure to check for understanding and assist in the students’ mastery of skill. Interventions like Saturday School and tutoring are available for students as well.   

“Teachers get the raw data of where students are at and they are allowed to reflect on whether they need to re-teach that lesson or slow down,” says Axia Vang, AIMS Head of Academics.

The three fourth grade students say they love Mr. Cabrera’s class because, as Mavis says, “He gives us chess time.”

“He only lets us have chess time if we deserve it,” Bethlehem clarifies. “We did an ELA test yesterday and the class did really well. We were going to have chess time, but we actually had an ice cream party instead.”

AIMS College Prep Elementary School students.

“We run a tight ship but that doesn’t mean it’s not a positive atmosphere”

The ice cream party was a reward the students really enjoyed, building their own sundaes dripping with chocolate and caramel sauce. Brian Cabrera, the 4th grade teacher, said setting goals and rewarding progress and results is an important part of the school’s culture. 

“There is a lot of positive reinforcement, a lot of clearly letting the students know what kind of improvements they are making,” Cabrera says. “In that way, students of different levels know they can improve and get positive feedback, letting them know they’re moving toward their goal.”

Cabrera said “It’s an honor” to work at AIMS because the culture is about “helping kids improve no matter where they are – we’ll meet them where they are – and our aim is improvement.” 

“We run a tight ship but that does not mean it’s not a positive atmosphere,” Cabrera says. “It’s a wonderful place to work and a wonderful place for children to be.” 

Glass, the AIMS Head of School, says teachers at AIMS enjoy being at the school, and she sees them working and planning together without being asked. “As a leader, I think that’s very unique,” she says.  

Vang, the AIMS Head of Academics, says the school’s culture allows “teachers, students and staff to be who they are.” 

“They get to express themselves and be comfortable being who they are,” Vang says. “When we let each individual shine, it really adds to our culture.”

In Mr. Cabrera’s classroom, he says the students are motivated when they are learning lessons relevant to their lives. He mentions how interested the students were to learn about how decimals and money are related. 

In ELA, the students write essays that pertain to them and their everyday lives. For example, for Women’s History Month, the assignment was to write about a woman they admire. Most of the students wrote about their Mom.

“A lot of families are attracted to how we are able to maintain a high level of rigor.”

The AIMS Elementary Head of School is Natalie Glass, in her seventh year at the school. She’s also the parent of a 7th grader.

“I always say if I wasn’t an employee of AIMS, my child would still go to AIMS,” Glass says. 

Glass says she is impressed with how her son’s character has developed since he started at AIMS as a first-grader. 

“I don’t have to tell him to do his work,” she says. “When he graduated 5th grade, he had all the study skills, social skills, and confidence.” 

Glass says a draw for families to AIMS is how family-oriented the school is, with many siblings and extended family members attending. Word of mouth is strong. But the main attraction for families is academics, she says. 

“The high standards we are able to maintain,” Glass says. “A lot of families are attracted to how we are able to maintain a high level of rigor.”

Parents are engaged, Glass says. “They genuinely want to be involved,” she says. 

The success of the school comes down to the strong culture, Glass says. 

“The people are great, the staff are amazing,” Glass says. “People leave and we get new staff, but it’s the culture here. When you’re new, you have to buy into the culture of AIMS, and for me that means to work with people who are professional, who have integrity, and who enjoy what they do. And I love the families we serve.”

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