MODESTO — Can a place to hang out during lunch, talking in class or running laps with the team really raise test scores?
Administrators who pore over the numbers say yes.
In state scores released Thursday morning, area schools gained ground overall from last year. Among those cheering the loudest are schools where boots-on-the-ground thinking appears to be making the difference.
In Modesto, Mark Twain Junior High came up 20 points, a source of pride in a disappointing year for Modesto City Schools, Assistant Superintendent Ginger Johnson said. "It's important we look at data and interpret it, even when it's sobering," she said.
Math scores dragged down district numbers overall. But Elliott alternative high school and Mark Twain, on Modesto's west side, beat the odds. Both schools credit their success in part to building relationships with students, Johnson said.
At Mark Twain, Principal Mike Berhorst said the staff moved to a proactive approach to discipline and saw problems go way down last year. Advancement Via Individual Determination classes point tweens toward college, and a "student lounge" with a counselor offers tutoring and helps students track tardiness and missing assignments. "Kids still get in trouble, but we're working on interventions and helping them make better choices," Berhorst said.
Keeping students connected
In Merced County's sprawling high school district, ag, music, drama and sports tap into teens' social focus and put it to use. Merced Union High Superintendent Scott Scambray credited the push with raising attendance and keeping teens connected to school. "When you look across the valley and compare, we're doing very well. I think it's our student involvement. Getting student involvement in athletics, clubs, bands, whatever it takes. Because the research shows, when they're involved, they achieve."
That social bent also shows up in tough-to-shush elementary students. Ceres Unified, however, encourages classroom chatter as a way to make kids think through their lessons.
Ceres Deputy Superintendent Mary Jones credited the strategy for helping lift Walter White Elementary 61 points. "We're really engaging all the students, getting them talking more about their learning," Jones said.
Talking in classes means turning to a partner and explaining what the teacher just said. The twist on learning by teaching has kids "digging deep into the 'what' of what they're learning. Not just learning a formula, but really understanding what it means," Jones said.
And it's a whole lot of practice speaking English at a school where nearly half the students are still learning the language.
At Grayson Charter, 69 percent of students are Spanish speakers, but the school turns the tables, treating the second language as a skill. The dual-immersion school in the Patterson Unified district has brought scores up 166 points over the past five years to 813.
The Osborn Two-Way Immersion Academy in Turlock, another dual-language school, gained 42 points and stands a tantalizing one point below the state target for all schools 800 said Turlock Unified Superintendent Sonny Da Marto.
The single scores released Thursday average all state tests taken at the school, ranging from 200 to 1,000. Scores for districts include all their schools and alternative education programs. The state's goal for each is 800.
Oakdale Joint Unified Superintendent Marc Malone applauded his district's 801. "That makes us the first unified school district in the county to break the 800 barrier," he said.
More than half of area elementary schools 75 out of 126 hit the 800 mark. But only a third of middle schools scored 800 or higher. Four high schools out of 25 reached the mark.
One of those middle schools was Salida Middle, which moved up to 804. Salida administrator John Hall said the district focuses on each school's needs, not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Empire saw all its schools move up, a strong showing Superintendent Bob Price credited in part to having students be part of the team, analyzing their performance and setting targets for themselves.
In the Newman-Crows Landing district, Bonita School rose 42 points into the lofty cadre of 900-plus schools. "Three of our four K-5 sites showed considerable growth," Superintendent Ed Felt said. He said the rise reflected in part the freedom the district gives its teachers.
Great Valley Academy gained 69 points this year. The public charter school has struggled and, with past losses, posted a five-year gain of 31 points. School co-founder Cy Cole said adoption of schoolwide curriculum last year helped push up scores.
The highest numbers were chalked up by Lakewood Elementary (927) and Aspire University Charter (921), though both slid some in year-to-year scores. The two Modesto schools have been kings of the hill for years.
Aspire has high scores throughout its charter school system, which at other sites predominantly serves low- income students. Aspire's "College for Certain" mission "is truly changing the odds for students across California," said Chief Executive Officer James Willcox.
Across California, more than half of all schools are meeting the state goal of 800, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson said Monday.
But the march forward is measured. "We have made small gains in year-to-year student achievement but are not seeing the accelerated growth needed to reach the (federal No Child Left Behind) target. Patterson continues to chase a moving target," said Veronica Miranda, Patterson assistant superintendent.
In Turlock, higher scores lifted Cunningham Elementary 30 points, including double-digit growth among English learners and poor and special-education students, Da Marto said. The gains moved it off federal watch lists, an increasingly rare achievement as No Child Left Behind targets soar.
The goal was to have 78 percent of all students be proficient in 2012. Each child must test as basically a "B" student by 2014. Only 15 of 126 elementary schools and no middle schools made all their federal goals. Among high schools, only a small Ceres charter made the cut.
Even Lakewood, where half the children qualify for Gifted and talented education services, missed some federal No Child Left Behind targets this year.
"California's request for a waiver from the requirements of NCLB is still pending," Torlakson said. "While we're waiting for the flexibility we need, we're not going to allow a flawed system to distract us from the work we're doing to help schools improve."
Along with the annual scores, Torlakson also unveiled the California Department of Educations School Quality Snapshot, at www.cde.ca.gov/snapshot, a free online view of academic results and other information about a schools performance.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339.