MODESTO — For more than a decade, Cecilia Ball followed a ritual every time she drove past Shackelford Elementary School on her way to work at Fairview Elementary south of Modesto.
The moment she turned onto Crows Landing Road, she closed her car's vents and turned on an air freshener. Even then, the putrid smell of the old Modesto Tallow Plant, across the street from the Shackelford campus, could sneak into her car.
"Every time I passed (Shackelford), I thought, 'How can those poor kids learn?' " said Ball.
The tallow plant opened during World War I and closed in 2006. Generations of families lived and went to school with their noses under siege. Some had it worse than others.
"I lived west off Hatch Road, by Dallas (Street)," said Paul Caruso, a former county supervisor who owns a shopping center along Crows Landing Road. "Every day, I got out of school and the smell of tallow and went home to the smell of (Modesto's) sewer plant."
Ball became Shackelford's principal in 2007, the year after the stink subsided. She took over one of Stanislaus County's perennially lowest-performing elementary schools a campus that seemed ripe for a turnaround.
Strong love for school
Just a couple of years earlier, the Shackelford neighborhood finally got sidewalks, sewers and storm drains, repaved streets and street lights. It since has been annexed into Modesto.
Ball found a group of teachers and support staff that loved the school. Second-grade teacher Sharon Couture soon will retire after teaching at Shackelford for 35 years. Betty Sanders, third grade, has been there 19 years. Jennifer Avila, third grade, and Terry Heffernan, fourth, both came aboard 16 years ago. The school secretary, Rebeca Jacobo, is a 17-year veteran.
All endured the era of the stench. Every one of them could have done a couple of years as Avila said she was urged to do when she was first assigned to the campus and then transferred to a less fragrant school.
Instead, they stayed. The tallow smell couldn't drive them out.
To the contrary
"Once we got to 'Shack,' we didn't want to leave," Sanders said.
No one said it would be easy or even pleasant, though.
"Especially in the heat, the kids begged to stay inside," said Rosio Flores Solario, who joined the staff as a teacher in 2000 and is now the instructional coach.
"You couldn't blame them," Heffernan said.
Gains twist in fresh breeze
So with the tallow plant and its barf-inducing odor gone, the school couldn't help but improve its Academic Performance Index numbers, right?
Yes, but only to a point. In 2005, the year before the plant closed, Shackelford had an API score of 592. In 2011, it reached 713 a six-year gain of 121 points.
Last year, though, the API score plummeted 43 points to the county's lowest at 670.
What happened? First, the school took on three special-education and three regular classes, Ball said. Enrollment rose from 385 to 550 today.
More than anything, it proves that the tallow smell horrible as it was represented only one of the neighborhood's multitude of issues.
The school's Latino population has grown, from 86 percent in 2006 to 91 percent today. Yes, there are many caring and hardworking parents. But Shackelford families are 100 percent poor. The students all qualify for free or reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches.
More than 40 percent of the kids come from homes where neither parent completed high school. They cannot help their children with homework, the teachers said. Many parents speak little or no English.
Some have immigration issues. It's not uncommon to learn a student is living with a relative because the parents were deported. Some parents have criminal backgrounds, and the neighborhood is rife with gang activity.
Only so much they can do
Couture said the children can make her day and break her heart at the same time.
"I would like to take home the many 'needy' kids so we can give them the care of enough sleep, healthy food, clean clothes, support with homework, love, etc.," she said.
Caruso, a Shackelford alum, set up a trust through the Rotary Club. He donates roughly $2,000 each year, "for the community to get up off of its knees," he said.
Hoping for progress
Staff and the district hope that the 43-point drop in the API score is just a blip and that progress will resume with this year's testing cycle.
"We had some steady growth, and hit a little snag last year," said district Superintendent Pam Able, Shackelford's principal from 2001-04. "We just need to have high expectations for all the students. English learners need to get intervention sooner than later."
At least now, when the teachers teach and the children settle into their desks, they don't have to gag and hold their noses. That impediment to education is gone.
Six years later, though, the question Ball once uttered to herself daily while passing by the Shackelford campus remains as relevant as ever:
"How can those poor kids learn?"
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.