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Gorman School students raised their academic performance scores by 105 points this year, while having fun.
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Gorman School held its second awards assembly on November 8 and named (l-r) David Rubio, Emily Chavez, Trinity Langsfeld, Rose Rupp and Britney Lewis as students of the month.
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8th grade students Mariana Martinez and Kalie Morgan speak at a Gorman School Veterans Day assembly.
School Doubles in Size and Jumps 105 Points in Academic Performance Tests
By Patric Hedlund
Just sixteen months ago Martin Schmidt sat down with reporters for lunch at the newly-opened Ranch House Restaurant in Lebec. Schmidt had just been hired to serve as superintendent and principal for the failing Gorman Elementary School, Los Angeles County’s tiniest school district.
On that day, the school (serving kindergarten through 8th grade) had only one student enrolled who lived in the unincorporated town of Gorman. The other 47 students lived in other hamlets of the Frazier Mountain Communities, including Neenach. The board had been informed that the county office of education might not be able to certify its budget. It looked as if the school district might have to be dissolved.
Today, Gorman Elementary is entirely "a school of choice." It has doubled its enrollment, to 98 students. Last month Schmidt received a letter from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, applauding the school and its students for leaping 105 points forward in its Academic Performance Index (API) score, from 679 to 784.
How did they do it? "Student achievement became our main objective," Schmidt said in a recent interview.
"At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, teachers set a four-year goal for our school to have a score of 800 on our API. We are only 16 points away from that goal now."
"We’ve had school-wide focus on achievement, from the board members to staff to the students. When teachers know that the focus on growth is important to the school board members, it makes a difference. Our Board President Steve Sonder would speak to that."
Schmidt was asked if he felt the teachers were "teaching to the test?" He was eager to answer the question.
"Some people think of that in a negative way, others see it as a positive thing. The state has developed a test that tests the standards. If you knew kids were going to be tested in fourth grade on California state history and you have a teacher who wants to spend the year on European history, you can call switching that ‘teaching to the test,’ but we call it ‘teaching the curriculum,’" Schmidt replied.
"There are teachers all over the country who are doing what they did 20 years ago rather than teaching the state curriculum. We want the kids to get solid teaching in math, reading, social studies and science. In some cases, you find teachers are not teaching the curriculum; some may not teach science. If we are going to be tested on science, that is what we need to teach," Schmidt said.
Though Gorman is in Los Angeles County, it sits right on the border of El Tejon Unified School District (ETUSD) which is in Kern County. While Gorman Elementary has been gaining students, ETUSD schools have lost about 167 students since last year, which could cost the ETUSD budget over $860,000 next year in lost revenue.
The API of El Tejon Middle School (grades 4-8) fell 11 points from a 2009 score of 745 to a 2010 score of 734. It is entering its fifth year as a "Program Improvement" school for not meeting improvement targets, triggering appointment of an "alternative governance board" this year.
The API for Frazier Park School (kindergarten through third grade) fell 13 points from a 2009 score of 784 to a 2010 score of 771. Frazier Mountain High School was unchanged with a 2010 API of 700.
On the flip side, the school with the highest API scores in all of Kern County is also in the El Tejon Unified School District.
The Pine Mountain Learning Center is a charter school. Its API rose from a 2009 score of 888 to 915 in 2010. PMLC is located on the far western edge of the district.
Today, no children going to Gorman Elementary School live in the unincorporated town of Gorman, which has been reported as having "only 15 homes and a few registered voters, but tens of thousands of motorists traveling through it daily on the Interstate 5."
It is a Grapevine refueling stop, a town owned for half a century by members of the Ralphs family (of the Ralphs Grocery chain fame). Much of the Ralphs’ property has been sold in recent years, but the legacy is still intact.
Ralphs family members started the school for their own children early in the 20th century and have dominated the school board ever since. Sonder is a member of the Ralphs family.
Two years ago, it seemed the Gorman district might have to give up its assets to ETUSD or the Westside school district when it appeared impossible to produce a balanced budget. Somehow, their board vaulted over that barrier, although there are still economic questions related to having to return "overpayments" from an operation known as the Gorman Learning Center, a charter school with its headquarters in Redlands, CA, operating under the Gorman Elementary School Board.
Doubling Gorman School’s enrollment has brought twice as much income from the state. At a superintendents’ conference recently, Schmidt said, "while other districts are having to lay off teachers, we were actually able to hire two new teachers."
He said morale is soaring as the focus on achievement has become the leading value in the school community.
"Our teachers are thrilled. They could hardly wait to see what our scores were in August. They’d been working hard. We have a lot more parent volunteers participating. We had nine parents helping for Thanksgiving. Everyone is pitching in. Everybody wanting to do special things for the kids."
Schmidt still lives in Bakersfield because his wife teaches at a school in McFarland. He says he turns on country music and enjoys the drive.
"You’ll laugh, but I really like Taylor Swift. She’s a very talented musician. She writes all her own music and has been doing that since she was 12."
Schmidt says a music program for Gorman School is the next goal he’s set his sites on.
This is part of the December 17, 2010 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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