Los Angeles Schools In the National Spotlight

By Mimi Slawoff

Attaining recognition as a National Blue Ribbon School or National PTA School of Excellence is no small feat. It takes teamwork and collaboration among educators, parents, students and the community.

Blue Ribbon Schools are recognized based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among students. Nationally, there were 337 schools – 24 in California – that were recognized in 2014.

National PTA Schools of Excellence are selected for their achievements in building strong family and school partnerships.

The following Los Angeles schools — seven National Blue Ribbon Schools and two National PTA Schools of Excellence – stand out for many reasons, including dedicated educators, parent involvement and special programs.

National Blue Ribbon Schools

Andrews School, Whittier City School District

1010 South Caraway Drive, Whittier; 562-789-3140; www.andrews-wcsd-ca.schoolloop.com.

Los Angeles Schools Andrews

Kathy Nassau engages her first-grade students in an interactive read-aloud. PHOTO BY ALICIA ACEVES

Closely monitoring 540 students with diverse learning abilities isn’t easy, but Andrews School Principal Alicia Aceves and her staff found ways to meet their goal of ensuring success for each child.

“We set goals for our school and each individual child. What makes this school special is a staff that never shies away from challenge,” says Aceves, who was also one of eight school principals in the nation this year to receive the U.S. Department of Education’s Terrel H. Bell Award.

Six years ago, when Aceves took the post at Andrews, there were no structured programs in place to enable staff to work as a team. Implementing grade-level teams, a leadership team, grade-level intervention meetings and partnerships with parents and the community has turned the school around.

In addition, the school is transitioning from a K-6 to K-8 program. Next year, the school welcomes its first class of eighth graders.

“We want to make sure kids stay in the district and that parents choose to stay with Andrews. It’s an attempt to better serve the community and to make this choice, as opposed to leaving for middle school,” Aceves says.

Gretchen Whitney High School, ABC Unified School District

16800 Shoemaker Ave., Cerritos; 562-926-5566; www.edline.net/pages/WhitneyHS

Los Angeles Schools Whitney High

The Whitney High School Associated Student Body is shown here with their advisor, Jodi Improta. PHOTO BY ROD ZOLKOWSKI

A suburban public college-preparatory school that serves 1,025 students in grades seven through 12, Whitney has consistently been featured in U.S. News and World Report’s annual lists of top-performing schools.

The school’s key to success is providing a personalized and challenging academic program, says Principal Rhonda Buss. She and her staff create a Personalized Education Plan (PEP) for each student to prepare them to be accepted at their best-match college or university.

“We believe in personalizing our learning experience. Because our students are high-achieving, we find out what interests them in order to motivate them to the next level,” says Buss.

In seventh grade, students’ interests are assessed, and by 10th grade they’re assigned to mentorship groups composed of small groups of students, teachers and counselors. In their junior year, students participate in community-service projects and internships related to their career choices.

The school also offers about 35 clubs and service organizations, and guides students through the college-application and scholarship process. In 2014, WHS helped seniors attain more than $10 million in scholarships for undergraduate study.

Lanai Road Elementary School, Los Angeles Unified School District

4241 Lanai Road, Encino; 818-788-1590; www.lanairoad.net

Los Angeles Schools Lanai Road

The PTA, Friends of Lanai Booster and parents’ annual donations help fund many important endeavors at Lanai Road Elementary. PHOTO BY LISA REEVE

Lanai is a true community school with dedicated staff and involved parents who help create an enriching learning experience, says Principal Erick Hansen. “We provide active learning programs and effective strategies to meet each student’s needs, with an emphasis on respect for oneself and others.”

The PTA, Friends of Lanai Boosters and parents’ annual donations of $750 per child enrolled are instrumental in supporting and funding a Learning Lab that includes an intervention program, a P.E. coach, computer licenses for personalized online practice, supplemental materials, a chorus teacher, orchestra program, after-school programs and many other enrichment activities. The school is also recognized for its high-functioning Autism Without Walls program, where students with autism participate in the general-education setting.

A unique feature at Lanai is class rotation for students in kindergarten through the fifth grade. This schedule benefits students and allows each grade-level teacher team time to meet and plan instruction. The school also offers a transitional kinder program.

The close-knit school welcomes new families with open arms by partnering them with resident families.

Los Molinos Elementary School, Hacienda La Puente Unified School District

3112 Las Marias Ave., Hacienda Heights; 626-933-2201; http://losmolinos.hlpschools.org.

Los Angeles Schools Los Molinos

A favorite activity at Los Molinos Elementary is the school’s organic garden. PHOTO BY MICHELLE DE LA VARA AND HOLLY CHEUNG

Kids learn that education can be fun and that school is a home-away-from home at Los Molinos, says Principal Dr. Erin Roderick. “We’re like a family. If kids are at school because they want to be, you have higher achievement,” she says, adding that she enjoys interacting with kids throughout the day.

Kids are rewarded for their hard work by having their pictures hung on walls, and their names on the school marquee and in the school’s magazine.

A favorite activity with kids is the school’s organic garden, maintained and supported by parents. Classes take turns planting, watering and harvesting the goods. Recently, an unidentified fruit grew in the garden, sparking an impromptu project. The kids made predictions, performed an experiment and came up with an hypothesis about the origin of the fruit, which resembled a pear but was the size of a watermelon.

After-school enrichment programs include art, robotics, computers and engineering.

The learning environment extends to parents, who are trained to help through interactive meetings and workshops that are broadcast and put on YouTube. The workshops are shared via videos, social media and electronic links to help working parking parents stay in the loop.

Rio Vista Elementary School, El Rancho Unified School District

8809 Coffman Pico Road, Pico Rivera; 562-801-5049; http://rve.erusd.org

Building a sense of community and making the school an inviting place for its 440 students were at the top of the list of goals for this school. And what a difference it’s made in two years. From bully-prevention and character-counts programs to academic interventions and grade-level teaming, the school has made major improvements. “It was a lot of hard work going in, and working together in one direction brought us forward,” says Principal Dean Cochran.

Staff makes sure that each student has a chance to learn at his or her level. For one hour each day, all grades have rotation, enabling students who are struggling to get the help they need, while others who are keeping up are challenged so they don’t get bored.

After-school programs, staffed and operated by the city, offer cooking lessons, computer classes, sports and performing arts. There’s a one-time $35 registration fee.

Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, Compton Unified School District

2508 East 133rd St., Compton; 310-898-6190; http://tjes-compton-ca.schoolloop.com.

Los Angeles Schools Jefferson Elementary

Students work in the science lab at Jefferson Elementary. PHOTO BY ANNA RODRIGUEZ

When Principal Mario Marcos arrived at Jefferson in 2011, the school’s state API had dropped for two consecutive years and the campus was on the verge of closing. School staff and parents teamed up and, three years later, Jefferson is ranked third in the district, with an API leap of 107 points.

Among the school’s innovative programs are two signature practices that uplifted the school, says Marcos, a recipient of the U.S. Department of Education’s Terrel H. Bell Award.

The Swun Math program propelled Jefferson from ranking among the lowest in the district in mathematics (56 percent proficiency) to taking the lead with 87.2 percent of the students reaching proficiency levels on the California Standards Test. Bolstering the program is the Saturday Math Academy, where tutoring teachers use creative techniques to reinforce the program’s prepared lessons. The Saturday Math Academy also features a peer-tutoring system in which upper-grade students help younger kids. All sixth graders are given the opportunity to volunteer in this program.

Equally successful is the After School Enrichment and Safety Program, which provides academic intervention, homework assistance and a wide variety of enrichment activities. The program is so popular that there is a waiting list.

Jefferson is currently transitioning to a K-8 school to provide students with a middle-school experience within a more sheltered environment.

Tibby Elementary School, Compton Unified School District

1400 West Poplar St., Compton; 310-898-6370; http://ates-compton-ca.schoolloop.com/.

Failure is not an option at this school, where the goal is for every student to be a fluent reader, proficient writer and engaging speaker, says Principal Ontrece Ellerbe. The school’s Learning Through Literacy program starts in kindergarten and continues through the sixth grade, requiring students to compose in various genres every day for one hour.

In the accelerated reading program, kinders begin with the first-grade program, and are expected to be reading by the end of the year. All students participate in small groups at their reading level. They choose the books to read, take a quiz and move to the next level if they pass.

Strong parent support and a staff that works in the intervention lab help ensure the success of each child. In the after-school drama program, the focus is on quarterly presentations. Students write scripts, build sets and decide how to present the material. Tibby Elementary also has a debate team that competes with other schools.

National PTA Schools of Excellence

Longfellow Elementary School, Long Beach Unified School District

3800 Olive Ave., Long Beach; 562-595-0308; http://longfellow-lbusd-ca.schoolloop.com.

Los Angeles Schools Longfellow

The PTA at Longfellow Elementary arranges reading programs for families. PHOTO BY PENNY MORRIS

Excellent communication and teamwork among school staff, parents and the community earned this large school national recognition.

“Longfellow is committed to building a bridge between the school and community,” says Principal Laurie Murrin. The ethnically diverse school of 1,100 students has a 1,400-member PTA and dedicated parents who rally together and help implement programs.

Parents were instrumental in Longfellow being named a Green Ribbon School. The school’s green team – composed of parents, students and teachers – encourages recycling, walking to school and bringing lunch beverages in containers, rather than juice packets.

The National PTA provides Kindles, and the PTA arranges reading programs for families as well as math training workshops for parents. The PTA also sponsors movie nights and various seasonal events.

Monterey Highlands Elementary School, Alhambra Unified School District

400 Casuda Canyon Dr., Monterey Park; 626-308-2427

Unwilling to accept the status quo, Principal Dr. Debbie Kotani, staff and the PTA took professional learning communities by storm and made the commitment to fund music, art, science lab, additional P.E. time and technology. Kids work on iPads – funded by the community – for use at school. “Kids need 21st century learning skills, and the iPads are an amazing tool,” says Kotani.

Students use these for academic purposes in numerous ways. Kids in seventh grade are making movies and trailers, working in journalism and writing news reports. Fourth and fifth graders are blogging and sharing with one another. Teachers give quizzes on iPads.

Kotani and staff also make a point of monitoring each student by meeting with them at the beginning of the school year to discuss their personal goals, and following up with them in spring.

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