Schools earn special recognition

20140905 school raise-handsNo longer are Texas schools designated as “exemplary” or “recognized”; under the state’s new rating system, top performing schools are listed as high-performing and high-progress.

Few campuses in the western portion of Hidalgo County earned either honor. Those that did are called Reward Schools.

A school is designated as high performing based on its reading and math performance. Graduation rates also are considered at Title I high schools. Schools are identified as high progress if they are in the top 25 percent in annual improvement or in the top 25 percent of the campuses that have shown the ability to close performance gaps.

At La Joya Independent School District, Jimmy Carter Early College High School was listed as both high performing and high-progress. The Thelma Rosa Salinas STEM Early College High School earned a high-performing label and Perez Elementary was listed as high-progress.

Over at Sharyland ISD, Sharyland High School and Sharyland North Jr. High received both distinctions. Jensen Elementary was listed as high performing and Hinojosa Elementary was listed as high-progress.

“It’s a big deal for us, especially because one of our (elementary schools), Perez, was named a high-progress school,” said Eden Ramirez, La Joya ISD spokesman.

Sylvia Sepulveda, principal at Jimmy Carter ECHS, pointed out the campus recruits first-generation college goers, accepting 100 new incoming freshmen each year. The school also offers dual enrollment, enabling students to graduate not only with a high school diploma, but also with an associate’s degree.

Starting with zero period, when students can come for extra tutoring before school, Sepulveda said the school offers interventions throughout the day to help students meet high expectations.

Teachers are encouraged to think creatively and outside the box, she said, adding that students may be given the choice to turn in a PowerPoint or a project in place of a written test.

Irasema Garcia, an instructional coach at the school, said children will be engaged and think at higher levels if they know their teachers care. Students have cell phone numbers of the staff and are able to ask questions via text messaging or email.

The school also is working to bridge the gap between high school and college. For example, Garcia said she’s teaching a college-level course that requires four tests over four chapters of content. She’s following the syllabus, but she’s testing the students at the end of each chapter. Students can average the tests together for their grade or take the overall test at the end of four chapters, she said.

“We have to be flexible,” Garcia said. “They’re not yet college students, so we’re trying to get them to that college level.

“We do a lot of things outside the curriculum just to help them become that college student. Our classes are at that high rigor; there’s always support.”

Whatever they’re doing is working, Sepulveda said, because students are lining up to enroll at the school, which just graduated its first class last year, and out of the 84 students who graduated, 71 already had an associate’s degree from South Texas College. The school had to hold a lottery to select students for attendance this year, she said.

Meanwhile, over at Jensen Elementary, Principal Cuahutemoc Paz said attendance is a big part of the state accountability system, and Jensen Elementary had the best in Sharyland ISD three out of six times last year.

The school earned five out of six possible distinctions from the state: reading, mathematics, science, social studies and closing the performance gap.

Paz said he noticed when he looked at the STAAR test results that all the school’s subgroups, like special education and English language learners, met state standards.

“That’s what made us high-performing is that all of our groups moved along and met the standard,” Paz said.

Paz said there are multiple efforts at the campus to identify students who need extra help early in the school year and help them catch up with their peers.

As early as October, students are pulled for an extra three hours of tutoring on Saturday. And the campus invested in a program that allows students to “spiral” their skills, performing a five to 10 minute review of old material while learning a new skill. The program also helps teachers provide consistent lessons from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Teachers worked together on the program and fine-tuned it into something everyone takes ownership of, Paz said. In fact, he said, the school’s motto this year is “Own it,” and students are expected to take on responsibility as well.

Cindy Prochazka, whom Paz called the instructional heart of the school, said they start looking at STAAR results at the beginning of the year. Counselors at the school meet with each student and review their results from the previous year and outline goals for the current year. They then ask the student what he or she intends to do to make sure they meet that goal.

“Our students need to own their graduation plans, they need to own their scores, they need to own all those decisions that are made every day,” Paz said.

With Title I funding, Paz said the school hired a Spanish literacy tutor, and the school’s reading specialist is bilingual. That helped the school address students coming in that have not learned English. In fact he said, the school’s English language learners outscored the main population in some areas, Paz said.

Still, he said, their work isn’t finished. Administrators are constantly analyzing their practices and working to improve them. Plus, he said, he has a friendly competition going with Hinojosa Elementary, which earned the high-progress honor.

“This year, we’re going for all the stars,” Paz said.

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