Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Educators analyze 'breakthrough' at Lincoln, other Vallejo schools

Focus on students one key to success
Educators analyze 'breakthrough' at Lincoln, other Vallejo schools

By TONY BURCHYNS/Times-Herald staff writing
Article Launched: 09/09/2008 08:34:33 AM PDT

Remarkable leaps in Academic Performance Index scores at some Vallejo public schools have left teachers and administrators reflecting on what they did right and how other schools can do the same.
The scores, released last week by the state Department of Education, showed what the superintendent called "breakthrough achievement" at Lincoln, Dan Mini and Federal Terrace Elementary schools, Vallejo and Springstowne Middle schools and Vallejo High.

The shining star was Lincoln, which posted an astronomical 139-point gain to reach 847, outperforming every school in the district to rank among the county's best.

The rankings are based on last spring's standardized reading, writing and math tests given to public-school students in grades two through 11.

Faced with high numbers of English-learners and students from low-income families, these Vallejo schools seemingly beat the odds, but there was no reason to doubt their potential, Superintendent Mary Bull said.

The trick now is to figure out how to replicate that success across the district to schools still struggling to meet performance targets.

"When you get what I would call 'breakthrough achievement,' then you want to know why," Bull said. "The good news is ... Vallejo kids can achieve success. The question now is, what did these schools do differently?"

The success stories are based on varying re-sources, programs and strategies, but common threads seen by teachers and principals were better staff communication and efforts to identify and address students' needs.
"One of the significant things is, we had an intentional focus on students and their academic needs," said Gigi Patrick, principal of Vallejo Middle School, where 60 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. "Our students are coming in with other struggles ... and many are English-language learners."

Meeting with students, placing them in appropriate classes and having them come up with goals helped boost her school's score by 40 points, Patrick said. The school's goal had been a 10-point increase.

Revamped programs, increased parental support and more collaboration among teachers led directly to Lincoln's dramatic improvement, said Katie Asami, one of Lincoln's two teacher leaders, who run intervention programs.

"I think what's very key to remember is we are a very small school," said Asami. "We only have 204 students. What that means is that every adult in the school by mid-year knows every child in the school. There is a lot of informal and formal talk that goes on among the staff about what each kid's needs are, ... which is harder to do at larger schools."

A before-school math tutoring program implemented last school year helped 86 percent of Lincoln fourth-graders score above grade level on California's standardized math test. None tested below grade level. Also, the school offered an after-school homework program for 45 minutes each day.

Substitute administrator Bob Collins said Lincoln teachers reach out to parents and parents reach back, as evidenced by a packed back-to-school night last Thursday.

Two years ago, the district threatened to close the school, but parents rallied and signed petitions to save it. That created a togetherness that has carried forward, Collins said.

Springstowne Middle School gained 36 points on its Academic Performance Index score to reach 725. "That's huge," Springs-towne Principal Jocelyn Hendrix said. "It is the largest gain the school has ever had."

Hendrix arrived at the school last year on a mission to turn around low scores. Through intervention efforts and other strategies the school saw double-digit improvements among African-American, Filipino and Latino students.

"The staff was very focused on the standards and being able to show the kids what they were doing," said Hendrix, adding it was the teachers who made the difference.