Many of Merced County's public schools have met or exceeded the state's Academic Performance Index target, according to test results announced Wednesday by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
Merced High School logged 800 points, the API target figure set by the state Department of Education, the only high school in the county to reach that level. The school will celebrate its newfound fortune soon at a barbecue for teachers and staff members.
Merced High Principal John Olson was dismayed several weeks ago when it was estimated the West Olive Avenue campus had attained only a 798 ranking. That dismay turned to jubilation with the official 800 figure.
"800 — isn't that exciting?" Olson asked. "I am very proud of that. I'm most proud of what teachers have done in collaboration and taking it to the next level. We have grown 68 points in the last three years — and it's difficult to sustain growth."
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Hopeton Elementary School in the Merced River Union Elementary District had the county's highest API score, an 891 out of a possible 1,000 points. That's an 82-point gain over 2010 figures for the school of 82 kindergarten through third-graders on Turlock Road in Snelling.
Helio Brasil, Merced River superintendent for 11 years, said the school has always scored over 800 points since the rankings were devised 12 years ago.
"I'm thrilled," Brasil said. "We have an outstanding teaching staff and up-to-date technology, along with an extremely supportive parent group. We are committed to do all we can and stick to 20-to-1 class sizes. Our interventions are finally paying off."
Steve Gomes, Merced County superintendent of schools, said 14 of 16 school districts in the county increased their API scores. He said the increase in test scores is a tribute to teachers working in an environment fiscally deprived by the state of California.
"Imagine what they could do if schools were fully funded," Gomes said. "I wish our legislative bodies could work in the same collaborative manner as teachers so they could achieve parallel positive results."
Kathy Pon, assistant superintendent of instructional services and public affairs for the Merced County Office of Education, said she's pleased with how many school districts exhibited double-digit growth in API scores.
RoseMary Parga Duran, Merced City School District superintendent, said she was happy overall with the results, saying schools are making steady progress.
Annie Dossetti, the Merced district's assistant superintendent for educational services, said state test scores show increases in all four major content areas, and that several schools made substantial gains. The district's API score was 763, up five points from last year. Three of the 17 schools had API scores over 800 points.
"We made the most gains in math, history and social science," Dossetti said. "Our goal is to have all school sites over 800. Four other schools are within 15 to 20 points of 800. The target is continually moving; our teachers and staff are dedicated and intervene whenever appropriate."
Paula Heupel, Chenoweth Elementary School principal, said the Merced school's 853 API score shows they are still making progress. "I'm just thrilled," Heupel said. "Nobody can do this alone. Our families believe in education. Our school is doing its best not to leave any child behind."
Peterson School's 854 score shows the school has a strong group of individuals, Principal Teresa Saldivar-Morse said. "The bar keeps going up and it will grow again. We want to make sure all students are making gains," she said.
Scott Scambray, Merced Union High School District superintendent, said he feels like a proud parent. The district, with campuses in Merced, Atwater and Livingston, had a 766 API ranking. Besides Merced High's 800 points, other schools include Atwater, 778; Buhach Colony, 768; Golden Valley, 775; and Livingston, 777 points.
"We expect all our schools to reach 800," Scambray said. "It's much more difficult for high schools to get to 800. It's a total team effort by all employees in the district. The district has gone up 70 points in three years. I'm very proud. But we still have a long way to go."
George Sziraki, the high school district's assistant superintendent of educational services, said Merced High's 800 points is remarkable and reflects a lot of hard work focused on improving student achievement.
All the district's schools grew by about 20 points or more, Sziraki added.
The Atwater Elementary School District scored 801 on the API ranking, and five of the eight campuses logged over 800 points, including Peggy Heller Elementary, with 851 points.
Atwater Superintendent Melinda Hennes said teachers are strategically addressing needs of each individual student. The 62-point growth at Aileen Colburn Elementary is phenomenal, as is community support there for education.
"The board of trustees has set a course of action with a focus on student achievement," Hennes said. "We've worked really hard to make that happen. I'm proud of our teachers and kids. Everybody made tremendous growth this year. It's a testament to the power of teacher collaboration."
Kristi Kingston, Plainsburg School District superintendent-principal, likes the district's 842 API score. The Planada-based district has 135 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students. "It's a great score, not too shabby," Kingston said. "We're a fantastic place with great kids and staff."
Stan Mollart, McSwain Union School District superintendent, said he's very pleased with the district's 859 score. The district has 854 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students.
"We keep pushing the scores," Mollart said. "We have good teachers who work hard. Being a small school helps to a degree. There is more communication and we catch things faster. I'd like to think our scores will go up and up."
In Los Banos, Charleston Elementary School Principal Lou Ruiz praised his school's 860 API score and thinks they will grow in the years ahead.
"We have a pretty happy atmosphere and good attendance every day. Kids want to come to school," Ruiz said. "I'm proud of our teachers. There has been a lot of change at our site and district with a reduction in force, bigger class sizes and new curriculum last year."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.