They are called "administrators on special assignment," and their task is to turn at-risk students into successful students who like school and fit in well with their peers at the middle school level.
Assistant Principals Rick Her, Josy Pulido, Juanita Pedrozo and Jill Settera spend half their time with the pilot program established in April. Half their salaries are paid with federal Title I funds, and part of their regular duties have been absorbed by the other assistant principals at each of Merced's middle schools.
Pedrozo, Tenaya Middle School assistant principal, said she and her counterparts each has a caseload of 50 to 55 students. If a student shows success with special treatment, he or she is placed a "watch and consult" list and others take their place to receive special attention.
Qualifying students may exhibit problems with attendance, academic motivation, behavior or poor grades.
Her, assistant principal at Hoover Middle School, said the key to the program's success is to let students know the administrators care about them. This extends to their parents as well. Parental involvement is a key component of the program.
"We genuinely care about the kids and want them to be successful," Her said. "We look at a kid from his or her perspective and try to change that to be more positive."
Pulido, Rivera Middle School assistant principal, said comparing first-quarter statistics for participating students shows 49 percent have improved their grade point averages, 43 percent have improved attendance and 36 percent have shown improved discipline. Fewer students are suspended or expelled.
"We're intervening a lot sooner and catching it earlier," Pulido said. Instead of being the last resort in dealing with problem students, the special assignment assistant principals are the first to address issues that could result in students not graduating, she added.
RoseMary Parga Duran, Merced City School District superintendent, hopes the program will continue. It was proposed in the early stages of spring budget talks when multimillion dollar cuts were deemed likely and cost savings were being researched.
"That's a viable program, and it's important we focus on these individuals. I look forward to what (recommendations) they come up with," Duran said.
Settera, Cruickshank Middle School assistant principal, cited a success story. "One of our kids, a sixth-grader, is like a different kid," she said. "He's starved to learn, happy and wants to be in school. Positive attention turned him around."
Her said the assistant principals have become ambassadors among the schools, home and the students and want to see that all parties are on the same page. Part of Her's duties involve outreach into the community, working with associations and clubs at UC Merced that provide tutors, the county's mental health program and other groups.
Annie Dossetti, assistant superintendent in charge of instructional services, said the assistant principals are doing a wonderful job collaborating with other agencies and the community to improve student situations. This program is one way the district is trying to close the achievement gap, she added.
The assistant principals plan to give detailed quarterly reports of their activities and student progress to the district's Board of Education. Their reports may determine if the program is continued in the next school year.
Settera said the assistant principals are meeting every two weeks to assess program performance and keep in regular contact with students' teachers. It takes time to change student behavior, she said, and one quarter is not enough time to judge how well the program is doing.
"The program seems to be going real good," Her said. "It allows the students to see me in a different scope; it changes the way they see me and that's a big plus."
The program is challenging but seems to be going well, Pedrozo said. She credits the other assistant principals at each middle school for being supportive and taking up the regular administrative duties slack.
Assistant principals regularly handle student discipline, supervision, evaluations of staff members, along with student body events, athletics and music.
Settera said she engages in 20- to 30-minute "wisdom walks" with her students. She puts on her tennis shoes and walks with students on the school track. It's a chance to connect and find out what may be bothering a student and standing in the way or his or her academic achievement.
Settera said she has 45 Cruickshank students attending after-school tutoring; Her said 30 to 40 students at Hoover also take part in tutoring sessions.
Now, Pedrozo said, students in the program want to "hang out" in her office. She said junior high school is a challenging time in students' lives, but she has found they are willing to talk to her about issues they are confronting.
"I help them make better choices in life, socially as well as academically," Pulido said. "We show them what's appropriate at school and focus their energy on positive, creative outlets. This may mean connecting them with sports, band, or extracurricular activities."
In their biweekly planning sessions, the assistant principals brainstorm new strategies and see what works or doesn't pan out in certain situations, Pedrozo said. What works with one student may not work with another, Settera said.
Pulido sent postcards before Thanksgiving to students who exhibited marked improvement. That touch was welcomed, she said.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.