In the state of California, there is one award that trumps them all, one where the eligibility requirements are so stringent that only 10 percent of schools can even apply. Once the application and review process are complete, the schools can call themselves a California Distinguished School for the next four years.
This year, Ramona’s Mt. Woodson Elementary School is proud to do just that.
“It feels great,” said Principal Theresa Grace, who has been at Mt. Woodson for six years. “I came from a California Distinguished School and ever since I started here I always thought this was a staff and community that would earn it.”
The first step in the long process is to meet several requirements that range from having eligible grade levels and number of years in operation to achievement standards in multiple categories. For example, schools must make their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), they must have a schoolwide Academic Performance Index (API) of more than 795, and all subgroups must grow a certain percentage to continue “closing the gap” between students.
In the case of Mt. Woodson, teachers and staff go above and beyond. Sixty-one percent of teachers hold master’s degrees and 64 percent have specialized training certificates. Their schoolwide API has increased 70 points over the past five years and their subgroups have shown a minimum of 10 percent growth in API.
They have also exited 23 students from their Special Education program and re-designated 35 students from their English Learner population.
Because of these achievements, the school received a letter explaining it could apply for the award. Grace immediately brought it to her staff.
“We had to agree as a staff,” she said. “It is a very demanding process that takes a lot of time and commitment, so at a staff meeting we decided together to forge ahead. I did not require everyone to participate, it was OK if they didn’t have the time this year, but, once we decided we would, every single person on staff contributed in some way.”
Thus began the application process, which is time intensive. This year, the theme was to talk about two signature practices that contribute to the school’s success.
Teacher Leanne Plunkett was one of the writers.
“The writing team met for four days over a two-week period to write the rough draft,” she said. “Then other teachers met to proofread the writing and add comments or material. The writing team consisted of Jennifer McSparren, Leslie Wilson, Theresa Grace and myself. Any teacher who wanted to proofread could, and many did. Then Theresa took the document to Superintendent Bob Graeff to read and approve.”
The school decided to share in detail its highly successful ROAR (Raising Our Achievement through Reading) and their Student Support Network.
ROAR is a schoolwide approach to reading instruction and research based intervention. It is a system where all of Mt. Woodson’s stakeholders recognize and accept responsibility for improving student achievement in reading. With the help of all teachers, support staff, administrators, volunteers, parents and students, Mt. Woodson is able to offer a combination of educational scenarios: one-on-one, small group and whole class instruction. The program includes assessments, development of targeted groups, instructional and intervention practices based on student needs, and additional student and parent support.
Because of its thoroughness, ROAR has moved many students from the far below basic and below basic proficiency levels toward proficiency. According to the report, 18 percent of students were either far below or below basic on the ELA CST in 2005. In 2009, this decreased to 11 percent.
They also credit their 70-point increase in API over the past five years to this early literacy intervention, supported through the ROAR program.
The Student Support Network (SSN) has a number of social, emotional and behavioral interventions, processes and programs that meet the needs of the Mt. Woodson student, according to the application. The SSN services can be individualized student plans, small group counseling, one-on-one mentoring, character education and more. Success with the SSN program lies in establishing partnerships of staff, student, home and community.
At the beginning of the year, each teacher meets individually with a team of colleagues that includes Grace, counselors and specialized academic instructors to discuss the needs of all the students. That’s right, all. They also review the student’s history, academic progress and possible emotional needs. From there they have monthly SSN meetings to constantly stay on top of students’ ongoing needs and progress. At the end of the year, they go through the process again to make sure students continue to be cared for in their next school year. The ball never drops.
Once committee members had received this program information, they sent a two-person team to verify that the school is doing exactly what it says it is doing. In Mt. Woodson’s case, the team was made up of the county Office of Education’s Senior Director of Career Technical Education and Regional Occupational Program Steve Pinning, who is a longtime Ramona resident and former Ramona High School vice principal, and the reigning San Diego County Teacher of the Year.
“On the day of the visitation, everyone was excited,” said Plunkett. “The rooms looked spectacular, the luncheon was delicious, and students, parents, teachers and other staff members were interviewed. And then we waited.
“At the end of their visit, they shared with the staff that they were going to recommend that we get the award. We are a very close staff that works as a team to provide the best education we can for our students, and we are thrilled the state recognized us and has awarded us this distinction.”
Pinning was aware of Mt. Woodson’s reputation but shared that he was blown away by the extent of their practices.
“They pay meticulous attention to details on every student,” he said. “They really make sure no student falls through.”
Pinning also got the chance to talk to students and said he was very impressed by their responses. “They were very proud of their school. They liked being there. They knew their strengths and weaknesses and they weren’t embarrassed to talk about them. They don’t see it as a bad thing. It is part of the culture there that if they need help, they just ask for it.”
Once the visit was completed, Grace received a call from Jack O’Connell, State Superintendent of Schools, letting her know that Mt. Woodson had earned the award. But she had to keep it a secret over the weekend until all the schools were released.
So, last Monday she put “a big, bright, happy message to my staff on the whiteboard to let them know we were selected and I sent out a parent link to all of our families letting them know, too, and we ordered Distinguished School Spirit Tags for all of our students and staff,” she said. “I am very proud of the Mt. Woodson staff, students and parents who support us. The MW teachers are second to none when it comes to providing an outstanding educational experience for students. We are always studying data and looking for ways to improve student learning. We have an incredibly supportive PTA and community. Our PTA has worked tirelessly to fundraise so we can have state-of-the-art computer support in our classrooms.”
When Lisa Stuber, support staff member, saw the news, “I was elated, over the moon. It was a big team effort and it was just great to be a part of something bigger than you.”
“Mt. Woodson is an extraordinary school,” said Graeff, district superintendent. “As a Title I school, it is difficult to imagine that it has achieved the extraordinary achievement results that it has. But anyone who sets foot on that campus is aware of the teachers’ profound collective commitment to student learning, a consistent effort to ensuring that all students can learn, and a remarkable commitment to disallowing excuses for any one child to fall behind.
“Through the faithful efforts of a great team of teachers, a committed core of support staff, and a visionary, committed leader in Theresa Grace, the school has increased student achievement results annually for more than five consecutive years and is well-deserving of statewide recognition. Personally, I could not be prouder of their efforts.”
As part of the awards process, the state has invited school leaders to participate in a celebration at Disneyland on June 4. Each school representative will be photographed with O’Connell and Grace will be given a Distinguished School flag to fly on campus for the next four years.
This is the ninth Distinguished School award for Ramona Unified, and the second time Mt. Woodson has earned it — the last was in 1995.