Leaders at Merced High School are crediting three Rs -- rigor, relevance and relationships -- with elevating the school's standing on state test scores and believe even greater academic successes are possible in the years ahead.
Anthony Johnson, the school's associate principal in charge of accountability and assessment, puts it this way: Relationships enable relevance and relevance enables rigor.
"Research says if we want to 'take it to the next level,' you have to have relationships with students if you want rigor and relevance. Relationships make that possible," Johnson said. "If a student knows you care and you're invested in making them successful, they will stretch themselves to the next level."
Principal John Olson heralded the school's recent 800-point performance on the latest Academic Performance Index results from state testing. Merced was the only high school in the county to reach the 800 level.
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"Merced High School is one of the best schools in the state of California -- and that is something that the entire community of Merced can be proud of," Olson said. "Our motto is: positive relationships make learning possible; rigor makes relevance possible, and relevance makes futures possible."
In the past couple years, Johnson explained, teachers are making efforts to connect with each of their students. One of the goals this year is for teachers to acknowledge or greet students at the start of classes, either through shaking hands, a verbal greeting or use of humor. Students are surveyed about their likes and dislikes as a way to break the ice.
"Students are made to feel important," Johnson said. "If they have a connection with the teacher, they will meet your expectations. Students get to see us value things they are interested in. Teachers go overboard to engage them for the entire time in class. They will work harder for you to their benefit."
Kassandra Perez, a junior, speaks about this engagement during class. "When it comes to Merced High, engagement is very important because it helps the student and teacher get to know each other better," Perez said. "When you know your students, it helps in understanding them so they can be successful during class."
Perez said there's so much help a student can get to take learning to the next level. There are after-school tutorials, the library is open for students to get work done, students can ask their teachers for help and there are programs that help with testing.
Johnson said a main focus is getting students accustomed to higher-order thinking. The state standards tests are fact- or knowledge-based while college-level ACT or SAT test questions may have more than one right answer and require deeper thinking skills.
Johnson works with the school's instructional coaches and helps craft personal development programs for teachers. He said the school has an excellent system of collaboration between teachers; the expectations are that teachers will share their skills across different disciplines or subject matter.
"Students are so inundated with information it's impossible to store everything," Johnson said. "They try to see if it's relevant to them and then if they feel it is, they will store the information. Even though our school is not perfect, our efforts and intentions are. From what I've seen, we've set expectations for ourselves and that's excellence and nothing else."
Charles Jolly, a math teacher and instructional coach, said the culture of Merced High is one of high expectations of students and higher expectations among teachers.
"The passion for educating our students through providing rigorous access to the curriculum and relevant instruction that relates to our students' future goals in life drives what we do as educators," Jolly said.
Teacher Pamela Merritt-Bennett said state test scores speak eloquently about the inclusion of all students in these high expectations.
"Some of my students don't always enjoy class but they try to participate because they like me," she said. "That relationship translates into improved test scores."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at
(209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.