First-grade teacher Alma Arreygue's walls are chock-full and every piece tells her something about her students.
Self-portraits fill one section -- "I have them do that to check maturity level," Arreygue said. Do the figures have ears and elbows or just a smiley face and stick arms?
Blocks of colors are signed and stapled to another wall -- "That checks their colors, and how they're doing with letters and with (writing) their names."
For the kids, it's fun. For Arreygue it's "informal assessment," expertly woven into the packed and paced curriculum.
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The pressure is on, as the scores schools must achieve ratchet up to reach every student being proficient by 2014. Nowhere are the stakes higher than at Robertson Road Elementary, which last year was put on the state's list of 188 low-performing schools.
"We got all that publicity, and we were all very saddened by that. But then we got ourselves up, brushed ourselves off and focused in on what we needed to do," Arreygue said.
Arreygue brings 34 years of teaching to the task, but she still will be monitored and mentored by an outside teacher development firm hired by Modesto City Schools to improve teachers' skills at the school. That and changing principals were part of the district's turnaround effort for the school.
Those moves might have helped the school qualify for up to $2 million in grant money available to the 188 low-scoring schools. But the district did not apply for that money, saying it needed more time to plan.
Principal Gregg Elliott agrees with that go-slow approach, saying he wants to involve parents and teachers in the planning.
Not all teachers wanted the planning and the pressure, Arreygue said.
"At the end of last year, we were all given a choice of remaining. The majority of us stayed," she said. "With teams of people coming in and looking at us -- it is a burden. ... I'm working as hard as I can, and now double that."
Sixth-grade teacher Paulo Pimentel was laid off last year after five years with the district, but a teacher leaving Robertson Road opened a slot for him. Last week, he was "getting situated," and his walls were a bright, empty white.
Pimentel said initially he had mixed feelings going to Robertson Road "just because of all the bad rap. But my impression coming here totally exceeded my expectations. I have an excellent group of students."
As he walked the narrow aisles between sixth-graders, answering questions and surveying work, Pimentel said speaking Spanish helps, but he hasn't had much call for his Portuguese.
Arreygue and Pimentel are among the "dynamic, fantastic teachers," Elliott sees leading Robertson Road out of test score infamy. Like so many schools in poor areas, high-stakes testing put a spotlight on long-established obstacles.
According to the school's annual "report card," 58 percent of its students are English learners, 23 percent have disabilities and all of them are poor. State testing reports show parents of a third of the students never graduated from high school and only two students out of 242 tested had a parent with a college degree.
"There are a lot of challenges here. The parents have challenges, too," Arreygue said, but children can still succeed.
"I try to push, push, push -- but with a lot of love," she said.
Teacher efforts are paying off. The 2010 test scores were unveiled last week and show real progress, especially among the lowest tiers of learners.
"This is the untold story," said Elliott, who came to Robertson Road this year after four years at Beard Elementary. "It's huge. ... I was just giddy."
Better in reading, math
The number of nonreaders shrunk by 5 percent to 15 percent across every grade tested. The number of second- through sixth-graders struggling in math dropped 4 percent to 17 percent.
Not only did low-performing students get better, average students did too, according to a summary of test scores released by the state Department of Education. That report shows a 6 percent improvement in the number of proficient readers and 10 percent more students mastering math.
Groupings of disadvantaged students, like English learners, also scored higher.
"It takes some strong intervention to get that movement," Elliott said. "The staff is really focused in. What I have seen here are teachers dedicated to the whole child."
Arreygue is among them.
"With my seniority, I could have bumped other teachers. I could have gone anywhere," she said, noting Lakewood Elementary, a school ranked in the highest tier of test score performance, is only five minutes from her house. She stayed because at Robertson Road she's making a difference, she said.
"I know that these kids need somebody that's committed to them," Arreygue said.
Elliott sees other strengths in Robertson Road, like high attendance numbers (96 percent), a cohesive staff, and students who respect the school and keep it clean.
"There's so much talk about the plan, and the plan really boils down to spending quality time with teachers ... spending time with parents," Elliott said.
"I want to have this be the model school for getting (off the state watch list)," he said. "And you do that one step at a time."
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.