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This is not your grandfather's McKinley Elementary School.

McKinley turns 100 years old this year, but it is a much different school from what parents and grandparents might remember. In fact, it is a much different school from the one attended by students just a year ago.

And, it is far different from the original one-room school located on the corner of Vallejo and East Washington streets or the two-room "modern" school that replaced it in 1912.

New McKinley Principal Matthew Harris is planning a major outdoor party to celebrate both the school's past, its innovative present and its bright future on May 7.

"There are so many positive things going on here that we can't wait to share with the community," Harris said. "We want to invite anybody with any ties to McKinley to share them with us." In fact, he adds, the entire community is invited.

McKinley is now a school for fourth through sixth graders, with first through third graders attending McDowell School before moving to the historic school now located on Ellis Street. McKinley has a student population of around 230, with more than 80 percent being English learners.

McKinley is also a school on the rise, with improving test scores and many innovative programs.

For one thing, McKinley has the youngest students in the Petaluma City Schools system as home to the district's transition kindergarten program, a program designed to allow the district's youngest 5-year-olds an opportunity to have a year of low-key familiarization with school before they move up to the full-fledged kindergarten program. But, the transition kindergarten is only one of several new innovations at the school.

The school is in the forefront of the district's plans to make all students biliterate by the time they graduate from high school. At McKinley, every student, including native Spanish speakers, receives two hours of Spanish language instruction every week. McKinley is now home to some of the district's most academically gifted students, who study in the fourth grade Gifted and Talented Education program.

According to Harris, being home to the transition kindergarten program is important to his school. "It exposes people from all over the district to McKinley and allows them to discover who we are and what we are doing here," he explained.

In its first year, the transition kindergarten program has 30 students and room for more. "I would just love to have more students," Harris said.

The addition of a Spanish-language teacher has also been a popular change at McKinley. "The Petaluma City Schools District's goal is to have all high school graduates receive a seal of bi-literacy on their diploma," Harris said. In addition to teaching Spanish to English speakers and English to Spanish speakers, the plan is to make native Spanish speakers better educated in their own language. "Even if you speak Spanish, that doesn't necessarily mean you know academic Spanish," Harris explained. "We want children to be able to read and write in both languages."

Initially, the school has only one Spanish language teacher, teaching 13 classes, but Harris said it is only the beginning.

This has also been the first year that a GATE program has been offered at McKinley, providing the district's most academically gifted students an opportunity for instruction designed to meet their own advanced requirements.

Harris explained that McKinley is eligible for federal Quality in Education Act funds that are available to all Title I schools. A provision of those grants is that the school keep its class sizes low. What that means for the GATE program is that the number of students in the fourth-grade class was capped at 17. As fifth- and sixth-grade classes are added, they will be limited to 23 students. While the smaller class size means more individual attention for the students, it obviously limits the number of students the school can accept into the program.

"We have had very positive feedback," Harris said of the program. "Next year's class already has a waiting list."

McKinley has also joined the technology age, going high-tech with every fourth grader using his/her own iPad. The school plans to expand the technology to other grades. A Major Impact Grant from the Petaluma Educational Foundation will allow them to purchase 30 more devices for use by fifth and sixth graders next year.

A source of pride for faculty and students is the school garden. Developed with the help of donations from the community, every student takes a proprietary interest in growing vegetables and plants in planter boxes where, before this year, there was only a barren patch of dirt near the school play area.

The school garden is just one of the ways the community helped to revitalize McKinley. For several years, McKinley sixth graders have not been able to afford a sixth-grade summer camp. This year, a series of fund-raising events, culminating with a dinner and auction at Lagunitas Brewing Co., resulted in not only enough money to send this year's class to camp, but also provided seed money for next year's class trip.

In addition, a group of Petaluma Rotarians has been volunteering to come to the school on a regular basis to teach the students about real life and how what they're learning can be applied to business and the real world.

For Harris it has been a whirlwind first year.

"It has been quite a ride," he says.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@ar guscourier.com.)