Test-score gains fill schools with pride

OCEANSIDE — Hundreds of county schools made gains on the state’s performance ranking. They’ll get cash awards. The teachers may get bonuses.

But in Oceanside, two schools — Laurel and Santa Margarita elementaries — changed their image.

When their scores were released Wednesday, teachers knew something worked.

Laurel catapulted by 120 points to 585 on the statewide performance ranking, making it the fifth-highest gainer in the county. Santa Margarita, at Camp Pendleton, jumped 108 points to 745, making it the ninth most improved. The state target for all schools is 800.

At Laurel, these were keys to success:

Teachers worked long hours without extra pay.

And there was sacrifice.

Morning assemblies were eliminated. Field trips canceled. Teacher training workshops shelved.

All for academics.

Marie Higareda de Ochoa, a fifth-and sixth-grade teacher credited the principal.

“He listened to us,” she said.

Laurel shifted from whole language, or literature-based reading, to phonics, and from new math back to basics. Last year, teachers taught language arts and math all day every day.

David Cornell, a sixth-grade math teacher, prepared his students for the standardized test. If most of the children scored low on classroom tests, he retaught the material using another method.

The principal credited the teachers.

They “understood that we had a low-performing school, and the school could close down if we didn’t improve,” said Kimo Marquardt, principal of 700-student Laurel Elementary.

Parents, like the students, were held accountable.

Marquardt asked parents to schedule pupil medical appointments during late afternoons. Teachers asked them to push their children at home.

State legislation may have helped. With the passage of Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education two years ago except for students who could obtain waivers, came classes taught mostly in English. Some teachers said those classes may have better prepared children to take the SAT-9 test.

And with Proposition 227 came new books.

“At the same time we were starting English immersion, the district purchased all kinds of language arts books for all teachers,” said de la Ochoa. Previously at Laurel, “a lot of students didn’t even have books.”

Both schools are still under the state’s target score of 800 on the Academic Performance Index — which uses a scale of 200 to 1000 — but the gains are significant in a district that once was the county’s lowest academic performer.

The state released scores for thousands of schools Wednesday. Some 300 schools in San Diego County earned cash rewards. Some teachers could be in line for $25,000 each.

Schools that fail to show gains may face sanctions, including being closed. At Santa Margarita, which serves 464 children, teachers fretted over the test.

“We’re always afraid that we’re not going to do well,” said Jane Ewing, a first-grade teacher.

Ewing attributed gains to higher expectations for children and a focus on teaching the state’s new rigorous content standards.

Oceanside Superintendent Ken Noonan said the gains demonstrate that campuses can break a cycle of low performance. Both are largely low-income schools. Laurel is jammed with English learners. Santa Margarita primarily serves children of enlisted military personnel.

“There’s just as much brainpower in poor kids as in rich kids,” he said. “It’s how you teach them.”

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