The new school year finds districts throughout the state affected by the current budget crisis. In addition to fewer teachers, programs and services for students have been cut.

But, don’t tell that to the principal, staff, students, parents and community partners at high-performing Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary School in Venice.

The school has received numerous awards, including the 2008 California Distinguished School award (the application received a score of 8.0 out of a possible score of 8.0!) honoring the state’s most exemplary and inspiring public schools and the 2007 Los Angeles Music Center’s Bravo Award for the school’s excellence in art education plus many accolades over the years.

These achievements can be attributed to one man’s vision to higher levels, and the focus, work ethic, energy, initiative and persistence it takes to get there and his strategic insight that learning is a collaborative goal-oriented task.

The Little School That Could, co-authored by Coeur d’Alene principal Dr. Rex O. Patton, is a primer for educators on how to, among other things, make a racially and socioeconomically diverse school work. What might have been considered an overwhelming situation by some, was turned around with challenges met and expectations exceeded.

It all started in 1995 when, under the leadership of principal Beth Ojena, Coeur d’Alene was selected by Redbook, a national women’s magazine, as one of “America’s Best Schools.” The school was acknowledged for developing outstanding programs that met the specific needs of students with physical, emotional or behavioral disabilities.

According to reports at that time, one out of five students at the school was homeless. Ojena recognized the importance of aggressive grant writing in order to secure significant outside funding for programs to better serve the entire student body.

Patton arrived at the school towards the end of 1999 when Ojena left for a position at Urban Learning Centers, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership reform group.

Patton soon found out that, although there had been a lot of innovation in the past, some of the things that were in place were not going to continue beyond that year because there were not enough funds. So, in addition to concentrating on academics, he also had to raise money on his own.

For the first several months, he spent every Saturday writing a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. Due to his efforts, the school was awarded a $465,500 three-year after-school grant, which was the largest amount ever received up to that time by the school.

Grant writing has remained a main priority at Coeur d’Alene. In 1999, the school’s categorical budget from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was $57,000.

Although about 30 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, overall the group does not qualify for Title I or compensatory education funds.

Patton requested a stipend to cover the extra need and monies from a federal grant increased the total to $90,000, which in the last two years was cut to $44,000 and cut again this current year to $22,000.

During each of his nine years at the school, Patton has worked hard to write more than $100,000 in grants and raise at least $150,000 or more. This helps pay for seven teaching assistants spread over 22 classrooms, poetry/creative writing instruction from a certified teacher for third through fifth grades, a new Wonder of Reading library, individual counseling sessions for homeless and at-risk students provided by Open Paths Counseling and Jewish Family Services, one extra day of a psychologist’s time, a full-time physical education coach and assistant for a physical education program for every student, funded by Sports Club/LA, three classes of dance after school, financial assistance with the installation of a two-classroom visual arts and music bungalow and blanket grants for the arts, improving technology, expanding after-school programs and community service.

Separate are the supportive and innovative community partnerships that have made extraordinary contributions and will be the subject of The Little School That Could! — Part II.

There are 454 students enrolled at Coeur d’Alene. Seven ethnic groups are represented and, in addition to English, 23 other languages are spoken. One hundred nineteen, or 26 percent, are English learning students.

Thirty-eight, or 8.5 percent, are students with disabilities, who receive special education services.

The transient population varies from five to ten percent.

That being said, based on the three numerically significant subgroups — Hispanic/Latino, White and socioeconomically disadvantaged — 2007 Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) statistics showed a 73.6 percent proficiency in English and a 77.9 percent proficiency in math.

Equally significant is the increase from 827 in 2005 to 877 in 2006 on the California’s Academic Performance Index (API) with a statewide rank of nine and a similar schools rank of ten. Also impressive is the individual socioeconomically disadvantaged API growth from 732 in 2005 to 800 in 2006.

The philosophy at Coeur d’Alene is that the teachers and staff provide a safe and nurturing environment in which every child is challenged to perform at his or her full potential.

Different teaching approaches are applied to accommodate different learners at different levels. This runs the gamut from Gifted and Talented Education students to Students Not Yet Proficient students.

The program intentionally integrates help where it is needed and enrichment where it is needed so that possibly the same student could receive remediation in one subject while working on an advanced project in another.

Several teachers have been acknowledged for their exceptional classroom instruction and the Bravo award committee was so taken with the poetry/creative writing class that it would like to see poetry incorporated as a fifth strand of the competition, along with music, visual arts, drama and dance.

What sets Coeur d’Alene apart is the deep balanced integration of the arts and technology into the main curriculum and how they work with each other.

“Music has the same written language as math,” says Patton. “They both have individual universal language. When you study music it helps you in math and vice versa. There are strong connections with music and rhythm and analytical skills.”

This is the area where community partnerships are a lifeline of the school, and we hope to write more about that in a future column.