John Muir Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Teresa Pitta said she hopes to one day teach herself out of a job.
This week's release of the state and federal government's accountability report card for schools showed that Pitta, who teaches remedial reading, is on the road to making that happen.
In 2010, the district's Academic Performance Index (API) was 806, a number that can range between 200 and 1,000. It's a composite of test scores throughout the school and indicates yearly progress.
The state has set the bar at 800 for schools making the grade.
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For the first time in eight years, Muir also met the federal target for school improvement.
Before that, the school was in program improvement, a designation given to schools when a certain percentage of students aren't proficient in math or English language arts from year to year.
What makes John Muir's achievement significant is that five years ago the school had an API of 650 and was the lowest performing elementary school in the Merced City School District.
Moreover, 85 percent of the school population is comprised of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches, meaning they come from low-income families, according to the California Department of Education. Historically, students from that subgroup perform lower than students who aren't living in poverty.
It's an especially difficult population because children are often dealing with parents who may not have high levels of education, involvement or they live itinerant lives, said Sandi Hamilton, the school's principal.
Now, the school is one of four in the 17-school district with APIs over 800.
Greg Spicer, associate superintendent for the Merced City School District, said that's quite an accomplishment.
"They were able to take a group that is high poverty and with a number of English learners, and they were able to make the grade," he said. "It's hard work. They had to be very focused on what their target needs were."
The school started to make significant improvements three or four years ago. It all came together because teachers began working together, Pitta said.
Pitta pinpointed the time when conditions began to change with the arrival of Hamilton. Before Hamilton's arrival, the school was more fragmented, Spicer said. But Hamilton helped to unify the staff.
Spicer compared it to a group of talented basketball players who lacked teamwork. Now they are playing like a team, he said.
Pitta, who began teaching in 1977, said she didn't want to discuss the past leadership, but said Hamilton has made a difference in how teachers work together and how they target students who need additional help.
Before Hamilton took over as principal, Pitta said, she would have the same students in her classroom all day, but now students are broken up into separate groups based on their proficiency level.
Pitta teaches Reading 180, a class for students who are two years below grade level.
Now teachers are responsible for the whole school, she said.
One of the improvement measures instituted by Hamilton was to have data conferences with each student, something Pitta has found to be effective.
"My students know their scores and they mark them down and they make goals," she said. "They want to get better. The euphemism is to get kicked out of reading 180."
Another strategy teachers are using is interventions -- meeting with a group of struggling students for 30 minutes a day to provide help for children who need it.
The school also received a seven-year grant referred to as Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), a grant available to schools that are failing, which has provided additional funding for staff development, class size reductions and other teaching tools.
This year, the school also received an additional $312,000 in one time QEIA funding that went toward staff development and hiring clinicians for a monthlong "boot camp" with students who aren't performing at grade level. Camp runs till the end of the month.
"(Kids) get an extra shot in the arm," she said.
This year the school's game plan is to have weekly sessions so they can gauge where students are in terms of absorbing state standards, Hamilton added.
Part of Hamilton's success with the students is that she's always looking ahead.
Last spring, she met with fourth- and fifth-grade students and went over their standardized test scores. She asked them where they wanted to be next year and how they could get to grade level -- a plan that's always a work in progress.
The school's namesake could have been talking about the complex but effective strategy the elementary school applied to raising test scores when he said: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.