“It is the Marine attitude. We train hard; we play hard,” he said. “In the center of our room, there are the 14 units of leadership that our whole classroom revolves around.
Some of the traits are integrity, courage, enthusiasm and loyalty. Kids try to demonstrate all these traits in the classroom and outside the classroom.
“I think there are two ways to view the military. You can call yourself a Marine or actually be a Marine with high expectations for yourself and be there to help others, leading from the front, not the rear,” he said.
What works for Marines seems to work for students.
“We are empowered, but inside a set of rules, we can act as individuals to a certain point, then we have to act as a group,“ Belieff said.
After retiring from the Marine Corps more than 15 years ago, Belieff says he turned to teaching because he saw the suffering of children everywhere during his travels.
“You see the atrocities around the world and the condition that these young people live in and see how they are treated, it strikes you home right in the middle of your chest. There are bugs on them, people are trying to kill them. You want to make a difference instead of perpetual destruction. You think, maybe I can build some kids.”
So he did.
He went to work 12 years ago at W.F. Killip Elementary School.
“A lot of my kids use the food bank. There is a big turnover in population. The dad is not there. Money is low. There is violence, but we make a difference,” he said.
That difference can be seen in their improving test scores in both reading and math.
“It was shaky at first, but over the years I developed a system that is pretty good – which I call the Dan Factor – the way I teach them, how we learn, how to empower them, I am not just feeding them, they are chewing the knowledge up,” he said.
One of the perks at Killip is a huge garden tended by Belieff with the help of the students.
“I average between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables for the food bank every year,” he said. “It is in my heart to grow things. Farming. I want to grow hothouse tomatoes and chilies.” Many of his students eat the produce he sends to the food bank.
He said, in a way, teaching is growing too.
“It’s growing for the future. That is how I see every day, and we grow them a little every day,” he said.
During the after school enrichment programs, kids play with Lego robotics, play chess and help Belieff in his garden on campus.
Principal Joe Gutierrez says his school has struggled in the past with test scores, but has started to make strong improvement. Of course, there are challenges.
He says that 96.2 percent of his students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Most of the parents are blue collar, working in motels, restaurants and maintenance. There is a lot of turnover among the students – between 42 and 62 percent during a school year.
“We educate all students one student at a time, but we do not have control over how long a student his here. But we can control their education while they are here,” Gutierrez said. “I think the greatest asset Dan takes to the classroom really focuses on the very beginning relationships with his students. He makes sure his students know he is there to help and support them, but he still has very high expectations of them. It works with the majority of the kids.”
Belieff says the teachers and administration are in the middle of a school-wide improvement project.
“We are on the edge of Maverick. It seems to be working. We are actually meeting all our goals and we are seeing all the other schools following us now. Our kids are growing,” Belieff said.
Belieff was born in Tucson, a New Years baby in 1960. He played football in high school, college and the military. He has coached for the past 15 years.
He joined the Army in 1979 to earn come college money. During his hitch he became a member of the elite Old Guard, the unit that escorts the president, ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, drills, Congressional balls and the like.
“We were all hand selected. You have to be a certain caliber to every try out,” he said.
The unit was given a special award by the first President George Bush, the highest award from the president during peacetime.
After leaving the Army, he joined the Marines, where he served happily until he was injured during training and was unfit for combat. He left the Corps and began working on his bachelor’s degree. He is currently working on his master’s degree.
Belieff is married to wife Nora. He has a 22-year-old daughter who is pursuing a degree in biotechnology, a 10-year-old stepdaughter, a six-month-old daughter and four grandchildren.
When he retires in about four years, he plans to move, probably to Missouri where there are 180 growing days a year, he says. FBN