Making the Grade: inside Blaine Elementary

November 2, 2009 (CHICAGO) So often we hear stories of violence among students, falling test scores or budget problems. Those are very real issues, but they don't tell the whole story of what happens inside Chicago Public Schools.

This week, ABC7 is taking you inside four Chicago Public Schools to show you the challenges and successes of their students who are "making the grade".

The first stop is Blaine Elementary School on Chicago's North Side.

"This school is my second home, but according to my family this is my first. We spend a lot of time here but we enjoy what we're doing," said Principal Gladys Vaccarezza.

For Vaccarezza, Blaine Elementary School on is literally a way of life.

The native of Argentina started here as a teacher, worked her way up through the ranks, and became principal in 1993.

"We have very good attendance. The children feel good here. You are going to see a lot of smiling faces. That's one of our goals," Vaccarezza said.

Blaine has a diverse student body of 800 students. Test scores are high; more than 90 percent of students meet or exceed the district average in the ISAT tests.

Nevertheless, there are still many challenges.

"The funding is very limited, so we have to be very creative," Vaccarezza said.

And creativity is something the Blaine administration and staff focus on. The school strives to integrate arts education throughout the curriculum.

"If you look at the afterschool program that we offer you're going to see that the children have many opportunities to be in drama classes, music, band, percussion," Vaccarezza said.

"We get to share things and do projects and learn more new stuff, and most of it is fun," said third-grader Bailey Rodriguez.

Zandra Beltran is Rodriguez's teacher.

"I love building the relationship with my class," Beltran said.

Beltran never thought she'd end up a teacher. The Columbia College grad tried other things like banking and retail, but always came back to education -- a career with a lot of demands.

"About 5:30 in the morning I wake up. I'm getting myself ready, packing lunches and things, and then I have to wake my kids up because they come to Blaine here as well," Beltran said.

Once in the classroom, Beltran is all about her students, and just because the school day ends does not mean Beltran's work day does.

"Yesterday I was here till about 4 p.m. just cleaning up and getting ready for today, and sometimes we're here till 3 p.m. sometimes, 4 p.m. to race home and try to cook, help with homework, run them off to bed, then sit down and do my own work or grading, I usually don't get to bed till about 11 p.m., and then you do it all over again," Beltran said.

But, Beltran says, seeing her students grow makes it all worth it.

One of things she thinks makes Blaine School successful is the relationship the school has with parents.

"We have a lot of communication. I think that really helps a school ... I think the fact that we have so many parents that are willing to take the time to understand where teachers are coming from, understand what they need to be successful in the classroom."

"She teaches us a lot; she explains if we have hard problems and she explains it to us so we can understand it," said one of Beltran's students.

"She's very nice, and some teachers take minutes off of recess, and she doesn't," said third-grader Lilli Herman.

Beltran also tries to teacher her students lessons in life.

"I want them to really experience and try things and not to be afraid of it, and not to be afraid of failing because it doesn't mean it's the end. I want them to know it's okay to pick yourself up and keep going," Beltran said.

Beltran says her inspiration to go into education was her mother, who was in the field for more than 30 years.

Principal Vaccarezza says she gauges each day by the number of smiles she sees on the students' faces when they leave. The more smiles, the better the day.

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