8 Stanislaus schools honored as distinguished

Eight Stanislaus County elementary schools on Wednesday were named California Distinguished Schools, the most prestigious state award given annually to public schools.

Six earned the distinction for the first time -- Capistrano and Sipherd elementary schools in the Empire district, Whitmore Charter School of Technology in Ceres, Fox Road Elementary in Hughson, Sierra View Elementary in Oakdale and Sherwood Elementary in Modesto's Sylvan Union School District.

Rose Avenue and Martone elementaries in Modesto City Schools were honored for the second time since 2000.

Two others in the region, Elmer Wood School in Atwater and Sullivan Creek Elementary in Sonora, also were named.

Fox Road's award was the first for the Hughson school district. Principal Mark Taylor said the district promised to buy the school a new flagpole to display the award banner. The school also flies a Title I Academic Achievement Award banner, given to reward success at schools serving disadvantaged students.

"We're going to have a nice big flagpole," Taylor said. "This staff is just elated. We're walking on cloud nine right now."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell announced that 343 public elementaries were chosen as 2008 California Distinguished Schools from nearly 840 that applied. The program alternates each year in recognizing elementary and secondary schools. Honorees keep the title for four years.

To qualify as a Distinguished School, a campus must meet state and federal testing goals based on students' standardized test scores. Teams of educators from across the state visit each school to interview teachers, students, support staff, parents and community members.

O'Connell said he called each school principal with the news.

"Many of the schools we are recognizing today as the 'best of the best' have overcome significant educational challenges, showing that it is possible to provide opportunities for success to all students," O'Connell said.

One of those schools was Capistrano in Empire, where 85 percent of students come from low-income families and nearly half are learning English as a second language. The school had faced federal sanctions for failing to meet testing goals, but turned student achievement around by the 2003-04 school year.

"I knew it could happen here, but these are the types of schools you don't expect to see as a California Distinguished School," said Principal Rebecca Ramos-Austin. "These students have done something miraculous."

She credited teachers and staff for implementing math, spelling and reading programs beyond what is required.

The winning schools will be honored at an awards ceremony and dinner at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim on May 16.

Since the recognition program began in 1985, 48 Stanislaus County schools have been named Distinguished Schools.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.