Few things can tie an educator's stomach in knots like worry over Academic Performance Index results. The state's school-by-school assessments of student proficiencies in math and English language arts -- based on scores from standardized tests -- are the equivalent of report cards for grade-school and high-school administrators. A score of 800 or more is good; anything less is not.
So why was Pat Middendorf, director of operations and special education at Clayton Valley Charter School, wearing a grin when this year's numbers came out?
"We scored 836. That was out of the ballpark," she said. "It was the first time in my 15 years here we'd been over 800."
Last year was also the first time Clayton Valley operated as a charter school. If you think those facts are unrelated, you need to read on.
The school underwent an extreme makeover in its first year apart from the Mt. Diablo district -- everything from teachers to tutoring to counseling to school spirit. Executive Director David Linzey said the goal was a "positive school culture."
"We went after that in many ways," he said. "Immediately, it was taking pride in the facilities. We wanted a clean place that looked sharp. We had painting days, work days, landscape days. We wanted students to take pride in their school.
"We hired teachers who were involved in the kids' lives outside the classroom -- mentoring clubs or coaching athletics. We had our administrators out on campus during lunch, before and after school, talking with kids. We wanted them to know their administrators cared.
"We hired guidance counselors -- there weren't any before -- so kids had a place to go when they had problems."
You could hear the enthusiasm in his voice, as he explained the ingredients for success, which extended to the football field, where coach Tim Murphy's Eagles posted a 12-2 record and won the school's first North Coast Division title this past year.
"One of the first people I hired was a great football coach," Linzey said. "Football involves the greatest number of athletes, and when 100 or 150 athletes are feeling successful, their attitude on campus is different."
The bottom line, of course, was academic success, which meant equal attention to classroom needs. Teachers without new computers or projectors were supplied them. Benchmark exams every six weeks were used to see if everyone understood what had been taught. Students who had trouble keeping up received tutoring. ("Not everybody learns in the same way or at the same time," Linzey said.)
Middendorf said the greatest difference in the new school from the one she had taught in before was the campus environment. There was a seriousness about learning, for which she credits Linzey.
"He had assemblies with each class," she said, "telling the students how important this was to their lives, their school and their college careers."
On the first day teachers and staff returned to campus this year, they were applauded by the football, lacrosse and cheerleading teams and served breakfast. Later, they were told to look under their chairs, where they each found a $1,000 bonus check.
"Our teachers work long hours," Linzey said. "They give up weekends and tutor after school. I wanted them to know I thought they'd done a good job."
A few days later, API scores came out and confirmed what he already knew.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.