A model to follow 

Charles Helmers Elementary School Principal Michelle Velikorodnyy checks in with students at the end of their break before going back to class to continue their studies on Thursday. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
Charles Helmers Elementary School Principal Michelle Velikorodnyy checks in with students at the end of their break before going back to class to continue their studies on Thursday. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
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Helmers Elementary recognized as ‘model learning community’ for student success 

As Michelle Velikorodnyy walked around the campus of Charles Helmers Elementary School, students could be seen playing in the yard, traveling to and from a music assembly and enjoying the last few hours of school before spring break. 

The principal of the school, Velikorodnyy asked students how their day was going or what they were working on. One student asked for permission to use a different area of the yard for an activity. 

In the classrooms, one student was tasked with handing out Chromebooks to his fellow classmates, while in another, kindergarten teacher Jenny Williams was able to corral her students after the assembly to get ready for their next lesson. 

Everyone doing their part and nobody looking out of place. It’s what makes Charles Helmers what it is, Velikorodnyy said. 

“What makes Helmers unique is that all of the teachers and all of the staff members are working together to help every student reach their potential,” Velikorodnyy said. 

Charles Helmers Elementary School Kindergarten Teacher Jenny Williams discusses with her little one before getting ready to head out to lunch on Thursday morning. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
Charles Helmers Elementary School Kindergarten Teacher Jenny Williams discusses with her little one before getting ready to head out to lunch on Thursday morning. Katherine Quezada/The Signal

While that may not seem revolutionary, Velikorodnyy said, it is being seen as exemplary. Last month, Solution Tree recognized Charles Helmers as one of 23 California schools to be named a Model Professional Learning Community, and one of only 600 across the U.S. and Canada. 

Solution Tree is a professional development company and publisher of educational material for K–12 educators. PLCs are schools and districts in which educators recognize the key to improved learning for students is ongoing, job-embedded learning for the adults who serve those students, according to a news release. 

“The educational team at Charles Helmers Elementary truly live the PLC philosophy,” Saugus Union School District Superintendent Colleen Hawkins said in the release. “They are not only a model for our SUSD team, but now they are a model for the state and the nation. We are thrilled that their efforts have received this honor.” 

The Saugus district has made being a PLC a district-wide initiative for addressing the learning needs of students and the learning loss that was felt and still exists as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the release stated. It added that PLCs should focus on: learning; building a collaborative culture; and creating a results orientation. 

Charles Helmers Elementary School 4th Grade Teacher Sarah Goldstein teaches her students simple algebra on Thursday morning. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
Charles Helmers Elementary School 4th Grade Teacher Sarah Goldstein teaches her students simple algebra on Thursday morning. Katherine Quezada/The Signal

Megan Bean has been working in the Saugus district for 19 years, most of them at Charles Helmers. This year, she’s working as the teacher on special assignment, meaning she helps students all across the campus with individualized education plans who may need extra help. 

It’s a role that she said she enjoys as it allows her to get to know most of the student population and work in multiple classrooms. She also gets to see firsthand how the school’s leadership is helping to create an environment conducive to learning. 

“Our leader (Velikorodnyy) works 110% all the time,” Bean said. “She makes sure that all the teachers are working together, that everybody is on pace. She makes sure that the students know what the expectations are. Expectations are very clear at our school, not only for behavior, but academic expectations are very clear.” 

Expectations are one thing, but students at Charles Helmers have been living up to them. According to the California Department of Education, approximately 75% of students at the school in 2023 met the standard or exceeded it in the English portion of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, while roughly 70% did so in the math portion of the CAASPP. 

Those numbers represent slight increases from where the school’s scores were in the 2021-22 school year. Go back to the 2018-19 school year — the CAASPP was not administered in 2019-20 and was optional in 2020-21 — and a slightly different story is told. 

Charles Helmers Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Jenny Williams’s classroom was filled with fun decorations that encouraged learning. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
Charles Helmers Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Jenny Williams’s classroom was filled with fun decorations that encouraged learning. Katherine Quezada/The Signal

Roughly the same percentage of students at least met the standard in English that year, but the school has seen an uptick of students exceeding the standard of 13 points. In math, the percentage of students exceeding the standard was roughly 10.5 points higher in 2022-23 than in 2018-19 and the percentage of students not meeting the standard dropped by about 10 points. 

That, Velikorodnyy said, is due to the collaboration among teachers and a focus on data to approach student learning. 

“Because they’re always looking at data, it’s not based on a feeling, it’s not based on whether or not someone showed up that day; it’s based on their actual results,” Velikorodnyy said. “That helps the teachers know, ‘OK, I need to give this group of students extra support in this math concept. These students already got it so they don’t need a reteach, we’re gonna make sure that this teacher over here gives them an extension activity so they can learn more.’” 

The teachers were able to do this by simplifying what and how they teach.

Charles Helmers Elementary School students were ready to witness a special performance by Brass Pacifica provided by the PTA on Thursday so students could be exposed to different things. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
Charles Helmers Elementary School students were ready to witness a special performance by Brass Pacifica provided by the PTA on Thursday so students could be exposed to different things. Katherine Quezada/The Signal

“After the pandemic, we had these huge gaps in reading and math,” Velikorodnyy said. “And so we really took time to stop and focus on those two areas and to ensure that students had the most important standards for their grade level before we added anything else.” 

Bean echoed a similar sentiment, talking about how structure has helped both students and staff. 

“Everybody knows what they need to be doing. I think that gives kids comfort and gives teachers comfort,” Bean said. “I think all adults, when you know what you need to do, that really makes a difference. And it makes everything flow smoothly.” 

The Saugus district has aimed to help put students and staff in the best environment with upgrades to the campus. The school recently unveiled its new two-story building filled with modern classrooms as well as a science flex lab. 

“That is a real boost and something that the students enjoy being able to participate in,” Velikorodnyy said. “I feel very supported by the district, whether it be the cabinet or the board because they have provided the resources for us to be able to participate in trainings that have helped us to become a professional learning community.” 

A wall of porcelain paintings created by students in 2005 sits in the main entrance of Charles Helmers Elementary School. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
A wall of porcelain paintings created by students in 2005 sits in the main entrance of Charles Helmers Elementary School. Katherine Quezada/The Signal

The process of being named a model PLC took approximately three months, according to Velikorodnyy. She said that after being told that the school does indeed meet the qualifications, she felt like the past few years were validated and that things happening on campus are exactly what district and school officials want. 

And while Charles Helmers is officially part of a fairly select group of schools, the idea for Velikorodnyy is to continue to show that the school can put students in positions for success. 

“I’m really grateful that we were recognized and I look forward to being able to help the students and the staff recognize their hard work so that they can continue to have more progress as we finish up the school year strong and head into the new one,” Velikorodnyy said. 

Bean said she is set to move back to full-time teaching in a classroom next year. But whatever setting she’s needed in, she’s happy to fulfill that job at Charles Helmers, where she said she feels like part of a family. 

“A lot of us have been together a long time,” Bean said. “We don’t leave the school. This is a school you come to teach at and you never leave unless you absolutely have to, because it’s like a family. And I think that’s what makes it so special.” 

Charles Helmers Elementary School students were ready to witness a special performance by Brass Pacifica provided by the PTA on Thursday so students could be exposed to different things. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
Charles Helmers Elementary School students were ready to witness a special performance by Brass Pacifica provided by the PTA on Thursday so students could be exposed to different things. Katherine Quezada/The Signal

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