MERCED -- McSwain School was the top scorer in Merced County in the last round of state achievement testing and has been near the top of the charts for years.
What might be the secret of enduring success for the 858-student school district on the fringe of Merced? In chats with administrators, teachers, trustees and parents, several possible explanations emerge -- individualized attention, high expectations, thinking outside the box, community support, and flexibility.
"We set our bar high and have expectations," fifth-grade teacher Ginny McCollum said. "Kids will meet it if you give them strategies to meet that and they do."
Parent Tina Mooneyham said the school's stellar reputation in academics didn't come by accident or by chance.
"There's a big misconception I've always heard but personally I don't believe it," Mooneyham said. "It (reputation) wasn't born, it was made. Teachers seem like they like what they are doing. I see it all the time. Teachers are good at communicating and work to make kids accountable."
Stan Mollart, superintendent for 14 years and an educator for 35 years, said there is a lot of individualization in the McSwain curriculum. He said since the current state testing was established, McSwain has constantly been at the top.
"We hire good people, support them and stay out of the way," Mollart said. "Because we are a small school, we work as a team. If we find a kid who is struggling, we don't want any to fail."
McSwain scored 874 on the last round of achievement testing, and ranks eighth of all schools in the state, trustee and board President Scott Koehn said. The first time McSwain crested the state expectation of 800 points or better was in 2004 and the district hasn't looked back since.
"I think there's a secret," Koehn said. "It's an ongoing expectation for excellence and it resounds throughout the community. There's a whole culture of flexibility with accountability. It starts with Stan (Mollart) and it continues to produce tremendous results."
Koehn has a student attending McSwain and has observed classroom activities. He said the level of one-on-one interaction between students and teachers is absolutely amazing.
McSwain Principal Terrie Rohrer said students don't stress out or fear the state testing.
"We celebrate learning," Rohrer said. "We try not to teach just to the test but stress everyday best practices. We have to recognize our second language learners; they went up 48 points. They had to overcome the language barrier and learn."
First-grade teacher Susan Avelar said the district embraces new ideas while not throwing out the basics that work.
"We have never stopped doing what has worked in reading instruction," Avelar said. "With many districts learning is very scripted. We are treated as professionals in educating children and given the leeway to teach."
Assistant Principal Laurie Havel said the school individualizes instruction to meet each child's needs.
"What works for one might not work for another," Havel said. "We do build personal relationships with kids and they want to please us."
Careen Kuykendall is the parent of seventh-, ninth- and 12th-grade students, all of whom have gone through McSwain School.
"Parent involvement is such a huge factor, a big part of all of this," Kuykendall said. "It's like a family out here and I just love it. The teachers put so much into what they do."
Bill Halpin has been a board member for 22 years and said it is getting harder and harder to give teachers and administrators the tools they need to succeed.
"When you go to McSwain School, your kids are in 4-H, Scouts and you need to excel in everything," Halpin said. "Our administrators really emphasize reading to kids."
Avelar said her father went to McSwain School from second through eighth grades. She has taught there for 25 years and said former students come back as parents.
"I'm glad they haven't done away with art and music programs which stimulate the brain," Avelar said. She said many parents have made sacrifices so their children could attend McSwain.
Rohrer said the school board allows teachers and administrators to do their job and doesn't micromanage them.
"They have faith and confidence in us and they do all they can to support us," Rohrer said. "Teachers feel like their job is to make students succeed. The key is we're a team. We have excellent teachers who are dedicated and believe all children can learn. We stay student-centered."
Librarian Ronda Douglas said most school libraries have been eliminated. High-achieving schools have good teaching practices and a strong library component. At McSwain, kindergartners through sixth-graders visit the library weekly and seventh and eighth-graders do research there.
"We are better than most and kids benefit from that," Douglas said.
Koehn also credits the McSwain Education Foundation formed 11 years ago. Its recent fall fund-raiser yielded $47,000 which goes directly for use at the school. Teachers were awarded 48 grants totaling $36,800 for use in their classrooms.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.