Officials at the Newhall School District were pleased to learn that McGrath Elementary School is a finalist for honors as a National Blue Ribbon School.
If the designation is awarded, McGrath would join other Newhall District honorees, including Newhall, Stevenson Ranch and Wiley Canyon Elementary Schools.
The school, named after longtime educator and former District Superintendent Dr. J. Michael McGrath, sits high on a hill overlooking east Newhall, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Santa Clarita Valley. When it first opened seven years ago, school and district administrators knew that the student body represented the biggest challenge facing public schools today.
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Seven hundred students were brought to their new neighborhood school after years of being bused across town to three different schools. Establishing a new and cohesive identity for the school and creating a new school culture was the first order of business. Principal Larry Heath and the original teaching staff were faced with a student population with a high number of children living in poverty, the highest proportion in the district who were English language learners, and numerous students who came the state’s “Program Improvement” list of failing schools.
Fast forward to the current school year. McGrath Elementary still has a challenging student population – almost all are on the federal free/reduced lunch program, indicating the deep poverty levels in the community. Over 60% of the students are English language learners. The transiency level at the school is still the highest in the Newhall School District. Yet last year McGrath was awarded a State Distinguished School designation for high achievement and its students achieved an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 859, which is well above the California’s goal of 800 for all schools. And now the school has been nominated for the federal Department of Education’s prestigious Blue Ribbon recognition, one of only 33 in the state of California.
The next step after nomination is for the school to make the state’s Annual Yearly Progress” (AYP) goals under No Child Left Behind. At the end of the year over 67% of students must reach proficiency in English language arts and over 68% must reach proficiency in Math.
Principal Larry Heath is confident. “Our teachers are totally dedicated to their students and will not let them down. We will make the targets required and we will be designated as a national Blue Ribbon School. We have been on a steadily upward trajectory since we opened seven years ago and this is one more stop along the way in the story of a great school.”
McGrath is eligible for a Blue Ribbon as a “Dramatically Improving, Disadvantaged School.” These are schools that have 40% or more students in the free and reduced lunch program, have parents who did not earn a high school diploma, or are English language Learners. McGrath qualifies for all three categories. Yet these schools have also shown significant academic growth from 2004 to 2008 and have high numbers of students scoring at proficient or advanced in English Language Arts and Mathematics on the state’s STAR achievement tests.
“McGrath has been a shining example of a highly effective school and their accomplishments are proof that every student, from any background, can succeed academically. The teachers and administrators there have found the keys to success,” said Michael Shapiro, president of the district’s Governing Board.
“Everything came together at this school over time,” explained Marc Winger, superintendent. “A great teaching staff, highly creative principal, extended year opportunities for students, and an effective and integrated after school program that provides the extra time that English language learners need. The staff has coupled all this with our district’s mainstay staff development efforts in writing and second language acquisition strategies, resulting in a winning combination for kids.”
“The schools I have nominated to the U.S. Department of Education have stepped up to the challenge of closing the achievement gap and are deserving of this prestigious national honor,” said State Superintendent of Public instruction, Jack O’Connell. “They were selected because of their success over the last five years in increasing the percentage of their students achieving at the proficient and advanced levels in mathematics and English-language arts. I heartily congratulate all those who contributed to this success, including parents, teachers, staff, and administrators and, of course, the students themselves.”
The winning schools are scheduled to be announced next September by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The Blue Ribbon Schools Program (BRSP) recognizes elementary and secondary schools that are both academically superior and have demonstrated dramatic gains in student achievement, while serving an economically disadvantaged population of students. Schools recognized through the BRSP are national models of excellence for other schools to emulate. All of the 2011 nominees were either previous California Distinguished Schools or California Title I Academic Achieving Award schools.
In order for a nominated school to become a BRSP award winner, the school must meet also all of its 2011 Academic Performance Index and Adequate Yearly Progress targets, for the school overall and for each numerically significant subgroup, such as socioeconomically disadvantaged children, English learners, and children of color.
Because BRSP is part of the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools with a large population of disadvantaged students that have either shown dramatic improvement in student achievement from 2006 to 2010 or schools that have maintained a superior level of achievement from 2006 to 2010 are given priority for selection in this program.
The U.S. Secretary of Education has administered BRSP for more than 25 years to recognize outstanding schools. For more information on BRSP and to review a list of 2010 winners nationwide, please visit http://www.ed.gov/programs/nclbbrs/awards.html .