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Local schools explain their giant jumps in Academic Performance Index scores

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Posted: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:14 am, Wed Oct 24, 2012.

Schools in Lodi and Galt are under immense pressure from state officials to bring their API scores up to the 800-point target and keep them there.

It may be one test, but it represents an entire year of learning, and many decisions about how local schools are run are based on the results.

API scores are used to document schools' progress. Underperforming schools sometimes require more funding and guidance from the state, while schools with higher scores are often recognized for their work.

But how do those schools with the top scores keep them so high? And how do some schools manage to make impressive leaps?

School principals say it's a matter of keeping a very close eye on what skills students struggle with, and heavily focusing on improving those skills.

Carol Rivas, principal at Needham Elementary School, says her teachers are focusing on afterschool tutoring, either in their own classroom or with a reading intervention coach.

This year, the school's score increased by 37 points to 748.

The school opens early in the summer and during breaks for half-day sessions to get students back in the school mindset early. Each student with an improved score gets a certificate at an annual ceremony.

Teachers identify each student's scores, and focus on those who are about to bump up to the next level.

"We're small enough to do that, to be specific about who kids are and what they have to become to reach proficient and advanced (levels)," said Rivas.

According to the Similar Schools Rank, other schools comparable to Needham have an average score of 706. This ranking compares the school in question with 100 other schools with similar demographics and educational challenges, such as class size, language spoken at home, and socioeconomic status of students.

Vinewood School holds the highest score among elementary schools in Lodi Unified School District, at 859. Principal Norm Tanaka points to parental support and a campus focus on achievement to explain the score. They also focus intervention on specific skills, like geometry or spelling. Other schools similar to Vinewood have an average score of 870.

Teachers at Larson Elementary School are trained in a method called differentiated instruction, a key way to keep learners at different levels interested in the same lesson, said principal Brandon Krueger.

The school also offers a literacy club and Science and Math Olympiad programs after school.

Former principal Cheryl Nilmeyer made a buzz with student goal contracts.

"Students were really informed about what the test means, and how to get through it," said Krueger.

This year, Larson's scores improved seven points, to 843. Similar schools have an average score of 857.

River Oaks Elementary School in Galt leaves the certificates and celebrating to each individual class, says principal Lois Yount. Teachers plan together in grade-level groups and collaborate about individual students. Yount said lessons are taught and retaught each week until students master the concepts.

River Oaks earned a score of 860, the highest in both Sacramento and San Joaquin counties. Similar schools earned a score of 828.

Among API scores, Elkhorn School is listed as a middle school. They earned a score of 995 points.

Vernon E. Greer Elementary School had the highest jump in their district, moving up 43 points to 823. Principal Emily Peckham said it was possible thanks to professional learning communities. Grade-level teams meet each week to analyze their students' progress. Most classrooms have an instructional assistant to lower the student-to-teacher ratio.

Greer also runs specific intervention programs similar to what others schools are offering, focusing on foundation skills like phonics and reading comprehension.

"We've really worked (the students) hard last year and they really rose to the occasion. We focus on using lots of encouragement, and celebrating small successes," said Peckham.

Maria Cervantes, former principal of Heritage School, said the key to the school's 62-point jump is a special understanding of what teachers must do.

"It takes high expectations for oneself as an educator, and high expectations for students. It means completely believing all students can achieve. After 12 years, a majority of the staff shared those beliefs and expectations," she said.

Heritage, like some other schools, uses testing data to show which areas students experience the greatest challenges in. Heritage has the highest number of English-language learners in Lodi Unified, so a big focus is on vocabulary and exposing students to academic English.

"At five years old, a child might not understand it, but they are exposed to it. By the sixth grade, it shows," said Cervantes.

Cervantes said she was so driven to use data to plan lessons that some teachers chose to work at other schools, leaving Heritage with a staff committed to the style.

"We do not have the ability to modify, change or control what happens outside of school. We do have the ability to impact the instructional day," said Cervantes.

This year, their school earned a score of 717 points. Similar schools earned 730.

Millswood Middle School boasts a jump of 59 points, up to 771 total. Similar schools earned 794. One technique principal Sheree Flemmer shared was a unique testing environment.

Students set their score goals on their desks during the test. There were no activities after the test, encouraging students to take their time. Teachers moved around the desks, helping students stay on task and referring them back to their practiced strategies. "The main thing we as a staff have to remember is that in this profession, we are never done. There is no such thing as 'good enough,'" said Flemmer.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com. For more information about local education issues, read our Education Café blog.

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