nLocal schools earn distinguished award

By Cynthia E. Griffin
OW Contributing Editor
Five years ago, Fifty-Fourth Street Elementary School in the Crenshaw District was a Program Improvement School, meaning it was on academic watch lists.
In fact, during the 2004-05 school year, the campus had not met its school-wide growth target nor had it made comparable improvements. Furthermore, the Academic Performance Index went down 13 points that year, instead of going up.
Today, the 400-pupil campus has been designated a California Distinguished School for 2010, and is comfortably above the state’s expected API score of 800. Fifty-fourth Street is one of 484 schools statewide and one of five community schools that won the designation, which is awarded by the California Department of Education (CDE). The other local campuses that were recognized by the state with the Distinguished School Award were Rosecrans Elementary in Compton, La Ballona Elementary in Culver City, Highland Elementary in Inglewood, and Crescendo Charter Preparatory West in Gardena.
The program, which is a voluntary but much sought after one in its 24th year, honors the state’s most exemplary and inspiring public schools. They are identified for eligibility based on the API and Adequate Yearly Progress results as well as by their success in narrowing the achievement gap between higher and lower performing students.
According to the state, many of these schools have significant populations of students living in poverty or learning English, and 54th Street is no exception. The campus has a student body population that is about 85 percent African American, and more than 85 percent of youngsters qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. Yet despite all of those drawbacks, and because of the determination of educators and parents to succeed, the school has turned around academic achievement with two consecutive years of impressive API gains, according to Principal Stephanie Harris.
“This year, we broke the 800 mark with a 51-point gain. Last year we had a 44-point gain,” explained Harris, who attributed the school success in part to weekly analysis of student data. “They keep track of where the kids are, and every week have an opportunity for teacher collaboration at (each) grade level. They talk about the best practices and concerns they have.”
Harris, who said the credit for transforming the school’s dismal academic performance must be first given to its previous principal, Akida Long, also noted that teachers also provide struggling students with an extra 30 minutes of assistance in a small group setting of no more than five children.
“This way they can be very specific in who they target and what skills they target,” explained the principal, noting that different children each week may receive this help.
In addition there are after-school interventions for youngsters who are really straggling, as well as a Beyond Basic Academy that meets on Saturday to help children who are scoring at the basic level on standardized tests to move up to proficient. But the school does not just concentrate on students who need help. There is also a new weekly gifted academy that supplements the gifted program activities, and gives more advanced youngsters challenging subject-based learning opportunities. Another key component of their success, believes Harris, is the school’s involvement in the LAUSD’s Academic Mastery Program (AMP).
“AMP tells you not to assume that children come to you with a certain background,” explained Harris, who said the program traditionally targets African American students and provides them with the culturally and contextually relevant information that helps them better connect with the learning.
Parental involvement was also a key part of the success equation, said the principal, who noted that while very few parents were able to volunteer at the school on a regular basis, they spent time with their children at home reading and insuring that homework was properly completed.
With their designation as a distinguished school, 54th Street will now share its best practices with teachers and principals all over the state. The school will also be honored during a ceremony June 4 in Anaheim, and Harris said they will definitely celebrate the achievement at the school.