Merced County Times Newspaper
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Local school districts recognized as positive outliers

Seven Merced County school districts have been lauded in a newly released report from a prestigious educational policy institute because their students consistently beat the odds and outperformed their peers on state achievement testing.

Earning accolades in the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute’s first-ever Positive Outliers Report were Atwater, Delhi, Livingston, McSwain, Merced City, Weaver and Winton school districts.

The Winton School District was ranked third-highest out of 430 California school districts for the performance of its Hispanic students. The Atwater Elementary School District was ranked 20th in the same listing with Delhi Unified School District ranking 52nd.

An outlier is defined as a person or thing that is outside the norm or expected-predicted results, in this case exceeding expectations by a wide margin.

John Magneson, assistant superintendent of Educational Services for the Merced County Office of Education, said the Learning Policy Institute affiliated with Stanford University is a very influential policy-making body.

“We’re very excited to see the results these districts are getting for their hard work in addressing classroom instruction,” Magneson said. “It reflects districts providing supports for learning that are very effective. It is really good news for those school districts.”

For the Winton district to be third on the list is phenomenal, Magneson stressed.

All districts listed reflect a lot of hard work and it shows they are on the right track in meeting the needs of 21st century learners. Magneson adds the results these districts are getting are because of teacher experience and preparedness.

The report shows the Merced City School District placed 29th for higher than expected results for African-American students.

The Weaver district was ranked 64th in testing results for Hispanic students. McSwain was listed in 125th place for the performance of its Hispanic students.

Livingston was ranked in 165th place for the performance of its Hispanic students.

The report was co-authored by policy institute President Linda Darling-Hammond, chairman of the State Board of Education and a Stanford University professor-emeritus.

Report authors analyzed the performance of African-American, Hispanic, and white students across California’s 435 school districts with at least 200 African American or Hispanic students and 200 white students on the new California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress in English/language arts and mathematics from 2015-2017, the first years the test was in place.

Randall Heller, Winton School District superintendent, said the district is very proud of this accomplishment.

“It is without a doubt a team effort. We have a motto in Winton: ‘One Team, One Winton.’ The Winton School District staff takes pride in looking individually at each student. Not all students learn the same way so we encourage our teachers/staff members to reach out and invite the family members to become a part of the Winton educational family,” Heller said.

Many of the Winton teachers have students whose parents were once students of these teachers. The district sets high expectations for its students in building a strong early literacy foundation, Heller said.

Magneson said one of the major findings from the research — which also included an analysis of factors impacting student achievement — was the predictive power of teacher experience on the performance of students of color/low socio-economic standing. More prepared and experienced teachers were a major predictor of positive student achievement.

Policy Analyst Anne Podolsky said the research finds that providing students with qualified, fully-prepared teachers is a critical component for raising student achievement. Podolsky was the lead author on the report. She said fully prepared teachers are also two to three times less likely to leave the profession early. Thus, solving shortages depends on making preparation more affordable and giving teachers incentives to enter the fields and communities where they are most needed.

Paula Heupel, assistant superintendent for Educational Services at the Merced City School District, said it’s exciting to see that others are noticing the district’s work.

“We have seen positive trends the past couple of years. We are honored and thrilled that the hard work going on at every level in this district is reflective in larger research. Our programs are working for all of our kids,” Heupel said.

Heupel acknowledged community partners with African-American youth for their valuable insight. She credited the input of stakeholders, dedicated teachers and an expansive community collaboration for the success.

John Curry, Weaver Union School District superintendent, said he’s pleased with this report. It highlights the work the district has been focusing on for several few years.

Curry said he is particularly happy with the growth in Hispanic and African-American achievement in English language learning.

“We’re continuing to narrow the achievement gap between minority students and all students,” Curry said.

Laurie Havel, McSwain School principal, said the report showed McSwain has made growth in that area and has scored above average in English language learning. She’s happy the state report shows the district is closing the achievement gap in that area.

“These findings validate Delhi Unified School District’s work around curriculum, instruction and assessment over the last couple of years,” said Delhi Unified Superintendent School District Adolfo Melara.

He said he is confident the district is on the right path for positive student outcomes and that experiencing successes which are publicly recognized motivates staff to continue moving forward.

Andres Zamora, Livingston Union School District superintendent, said the work’s not done but he’s pleased with the progress shown so far.

“When I saw the report, in the last few years our district has put in place during and after-school programs to enrich our education. This is one indicator we are on the right track to accelerate their learning,” Zamora said.

“This is exciting news for Atwater Elementary School District,” said Ana Boyenga, assistant superintendent for Educational Services at the Atwater Elementary School District. “The Positive Outliers Report validates that our instructional model that has been developed during the past several years is effective. We are closing opportunity gaps and achievements gaps.”

Learning Policy Institute officials said in some California school districts, students of color are reaching extraordinary levels of academic achievement — defying trends and exceeding the performance of students of similar backgrounds in other districts across the state.

The institute’s new report examined which districts have excelled at supporting the learning of students of color as well as white students, taking into account their socioeconomic status.

The report also examined practices in these districts to see what might be making the difference and found that teacher qualifications are the most significant school-related predictors of student achievement, as measured by California’s new assessments in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics.

Researchers are working on the next report that will highlight practices that support student achievement in these positive outlier districts.

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