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The Little School That Could
LA MESA -- The value of standardized testing in schools is often debated by educators and politicians, but as long as the tests are given, there is this truism: Higher is better.
And the 220 students in La Mesa's fledgling charter school, College Preparatory Middle School, had reason to cheer when the state published the annual Academic Performance Index Reports this week.
CPMS, in just its third year -- a bare-bones operation located in the windowless basement of a Jackson Drive Church -- scored a 920. Not only 61 points better than a year before, but in the same neighborhood with Poway, Rancho Santa Fe and Rancho Bernardo schools that usually lead the state. That score is measurably higher than La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools, which saw a 21 point increase in the district average this year to 827.
"We had a big cheer and then back to work,'' said Mitchell Miller, one of two co-directors of the school, which is chartered by the Mountain Empire School District, but located in La Mesa.
The school's performance was so strong that other local educators could be heard explaining that charter schools can "skim the cream'' off the local school districts.
But Miller and his co-director Chris Callaway, were describing the payoff of a program with smaller classes, more demands on parents and greater expectations for students working in a no-frills environment. The duo are considering opening a second school, perhaps in North County, in the future.
"Parents vote with their feet," Miller said. "We just filled our classes for the year.''
LaMesaToday.com conducted a question and answer session with Miller. A synopsis follows:
LA MESA TODAY: You have an API score of 921. What exactly does that mean and how does that compare to other Middle Schools?
MILLER: A 920 API is a testament to all the hard work of our students, families and teachers this past school year. It is further evidence of our staff’s commitment to student achievement and academic success. It is proof positive that our rigorous academic programs and available supports enable students to meet and exceed grade level standards set forth by the state of California. It is factual data indicating that home-school partnerships, small class size and an incredible teaching staff are key to promoting academic excellence.
In regard to comparing APIs of other local middle schools, as mentioned, we are working hard, each and every day, and are busy focusing on CPMS; however, our hope is that families are choosing schools that best meet their needs. Although we are thrilled with our API, it is disheartening to read that only 49% of middle schools statewide met the target of 800. So, we still feel that we have a long way to go to make sure that all students, regardless of what school their families choose, are all given an opportunity to excel and show, what we at CPMS call, that “Tiger Pride!!!”
Chart Below shows other Middle School API scores and the 2011 scores in the second column.
LA MESA TODAY: Charter Schools, such as CPMS, often attract a higher concentration of families that are fully engaged in the children's education. Does this contribute to the high API score?
MILLER: There’s lots of research to show that when parents are involved in their children’s education, students tend to do better. We feel that this home-school partnership is essential to student success, regardless of where the family chooses for their child to attend school. CPMS is a school of choice and it is our expectation that families will support the work done here at school. This isn’t an issue of school location or student population but an issue of school expectations and accountability. We work closely with our families to assist them in supporting their children as many families are unaware of how best to support their children. We provide these tools and related supports such as teacher calendars, parent portals and ongoing communication to achieve this vital key to student success.
LA MESA TODAY: What is it about your curriculum or your approach that you think gives you these strong results?
MILLER: For all of our grades (5-8), we provide grade level, standards based instruction. Today’s curriculum and textbooks provide an array of resources to support all types of learners, from those needing more support to those students ready for the next level. However, we feel that it is our small class size (20 students per class) that truly allows for differentiated instruction where teachers are able to identify students’ needs more efficiently and effectively. This more intimate environment sets up a nurturing relationship which is so vital to middle school learners. Our students are able to learn the material needed to achieve, while receiving the support they need to excel. Students need to feel that their teachers not only know them by name but know what their areas of strength and challenges are as well. Students need to feel that their teachers really believe in them. We also make sure that our students are aware of where their learning is leading them. Our students are taught that what they are working on today directly impacts what happens to them tomorrow, next year, etc.. We really emphasize that fact: we truly are preparing them for high school and beyond. When our students are able to see the bigger picture, it helps them to be invested in their learning and strive for academic excellence.
LA MESA TODAY: But you don't have a gym. You don't have a cafeteria. You don't have a full-time school nurse. You don't have interscholastic sports and your library and technology may be less than you'd like. Can a school succeed in the long run with those limitations?
MILLER: Well, if those things were crucial to academic achievement, we would not have obtained the API that we did. Yes, we are definitely a different kind of school but we feel that it is different in a really good way. No, we don’t have a cafeteria but our students have a choice of bringing their own lunch (or leftoversJ) or purchasing lunch through La Mesa-Spring Valley District Food Services who we contract with (which, in turn, provides additional revenue to their district). As you may be aware, many sports, arts, nursing, etc… have been drastically cut, so we are really quite similar in that regard to most schools nowadays. We do have libraries located in each of our Language Arts classrooms allowing our teachers to monitor what students are reading and to provide recommendations, which we feel is a better way to support student literacy. Our incredible PTSA has scholastic book fairs twice a year in which students are able to purchase books which, in turn, raises money for our libraries allowing us to constantly purchase new books for our libraries so that they can offer the newest books available.
As far as technology, we have the most current technology available to our students and staff. Each teacher has a new laptop, projector and wireless internet connection to allow for technology to be fully integrated into their daily instruction. We also received a grant from Cox Kids Foundation which we used to purchase interactive white boards and mimio-boards for several of our classrooms including both fifth grade classrooms. We have two COWS (computers on wheels), each with classroom set of laptops so that each student can use technology within the classroom for reports, research, etc…(We’ve heard many stories from our students needing to share computers in their prior schools because there wasn’t enough for the class, which we feel interferes with learning). We also offer two technology electives for our students (including a keyboarding elective) so that they are tech savvy and ready to use technology in high school and beyond. As far as sports, we provide PE (EVERY DAY for grades 6-8, every other day for grade 5) which is becoming rare due to cuts in many schools throughout California. Although we don’t have a gymnasium, per se; we do have a large black top where our PE teacher Mr. Holland uses to the fullest and fortunately living in Southern California, we are able to utilize the outdoor grounds most of the school year. Since our students come from throughout San Diego County, our students who are interested in playing sports, are able to do so within their community leagues. However, we do offer many after school programs including after school tutorial, so that students can participate in such activities here at school, such as Art, Guitar, ASB and Yearbook to name a few.
However, I understand that your question may be more about our ability to stay for the long run, and I can tell you that because of our amazing families, PTSA and staff (“Our Tiger Family”), we are able to provide whatever we believe our students would benefit from, today and tomorrow. Being a charter school, really allows us to cut out the red tape which typically occurs in traditional districts, so that we can change and adapt with the times in order to continue to provide a solid education as well as a full middle school experience. We feel that we are just in our infancy and that we are in a great position to build upon our successes thus far. We are committed to serving our students and are already seeing siblings start to attend CPMS, which is the biggest compliment of all. Now that we are finally at a stage of stability in regard to growth, we can really start to add to our program to serve our students and families even better. Yes, we are very proud of a 920 API; however, we feel that we are just getting started. Bottom line, ask any adult what they remember most fondly about their school experience and I am betting it is going to always be something about a teacher and the special relationship/connection that they had with that teacher. Sure, gymnasiums and cafeterias may be very nice, but it’s the relationships that are forged that really make a difference in our lives. They are what inspire and motivate and change the way we see things.