Two local elementary schools - Dr. J. Michael McGrath and Castaic Elementary - have been recognized by the State of California as a California Distinguished School. Jack O'Connell, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, announced the honored schools this morning.
It was the first time McGrath qualified for the distinction and Principal Larry Heath was proud of the honor.
"We've been very careful to gradually improve our efforts each year," Heath said. "We started with curriculum and focused in on what kids need to understand and made sure teachers at each grade level looked at them and coordinated their assessments."
Heath said that a strong afterschool program as well as intersession programs offered to help children spend more time working on difficult subjects, is most likely the impetus of the students' success.
"We've had 200 kids stay every day after school, as late as an hour or more beyond," he explained. "With intersession, those kids get an extra month of school and very targeted instruction."
"We've been looking at what works," he continued. "It all gets back to teachers being able to look deeply at what's working and giving up their favorite way of approaching curriculum and embracing that what's really working."
McGrath was built six years ago to serve the east Newhall community. For five years it has been making steady academic growth with a challenging student population. In 2005 its Academic Performance Index (API) was 726. Today its API is 857. The state considers an API of 800 and high performing. To garner the Distinguished School recognition, a school must show not only overall significant progress but also progress for every instructional subgroup such as English Language Learners and Hispanic students.
McGrath participates in the federal government's Title 1 compensatory education program for schools with high percentages of students living in poverty. Seventy-three percent (73%) of McGrath School's student population participates in the federal free and reduced lunch program, a poverty level indicator. Sixty-one percent (61%) of the school's students are classified as English Language Learners.
Castaic Elementary Principal Denise Davis said that a child-centered approach helped them earn the honors.
"You can hear it out on the playground, the staff is asking each other 'how is Charles doing? How can we help?' It's all geared toward the child."
Davis said that their school was able to close the achievement gap between white and Hispanic/Latino students by 80 points, bringing their API scores up overall. A program called ExCEL - Excellence: A Commitment to Every Learner - also made a difference.
"It just helped overall," she said. "For one hour a day, these students got undisturbed time and we were able to focus on their needs and progress."
Schools were identified for eligibility on the basis of their Academic Performance Index and Adequate Yearly Progress results, which are the state and federal accountability models, respectively. The applicants were also identified by their success in narrowing the achievement gap that exists between higher-performing and lower-performing students.
"These schools have persevered despite state budget cutbacks that have cut deeply into the budgets of local school districts," said Jack O'Connell, State Superintendent of Public Instruction.. I encourage educators throughout our state to review the signature practices that Distinguished Schools are using to improve student achievement."
The 484 public elementary schools named as Distinguished Schools will be honored during an awards ceremony and dinner at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim on June 4. More information about this recognition program can be found at www.cde.ca.gov .