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Teacher Annalisa McHenry helps third grade student Emanuel Rivera with his reading fluency at Foothill Elementary School in Pittsburg, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. There has been a big gain in English arts STAR test scores at the school in the last few years. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

PITTSBURG -- It is a strange idiom that most people aren't familiar with: Slapping palms above each other's heads as a celebration gesture. But that didn't stop fifth-grader Michelle Vuong from writing down "high five" when her teacher asked her to explain what the phrase really means.

"We have to draw what it means. And then I wrote the actual meaning. When you look at the picture, it helps you to think of the sentence," said Michelle, a student at Foothill Elementary.

The teaching and learning of language are a top priority at Foothill, as evidenced by the remarkable results the school obtained when state STAR test scores for English skill were released in late August.

At Foothill, 54.5 percent of students scored proficient or better in English, up from 38.1 percent in 2011. That amounts to the biggest year-to-year gain among the district's eight elementary schools.

While Foothill's English scores are still below the statewide average of 57 percent for 2012, the school's year-to-year gain of 16.4 percentage points is far larger than the statewide gain of 3 percentage points for grades 2-11.

And in math, 63.9 percent of Foothill students scored proficient or better, up from 56.3 percent a year before, and the third highest year-to-year gain among the district's elementary schools. Statewide, 51 percent of students in grades 2-7 scored proficient or better in math, an increase of 1 percent from the previous year.


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Principal Ricardo Araiza is thrilled with the results at the 475-student school. "Here at Foothill great things are happening," he said. "This is our time to shine."

Araiza became principal in August 2009 when 33 percent of Foothill students scored proficient or better in English arts. Over the last three years, the school has placed an emphasis on improving writing skills.

"By addressing writing, we are also addressing reading in so many ways. Writing is one of the hardest subjects to teach," he said. "Depending on what grade level is teaching, it could be the main idea or the topic sentence or building a paragraph."

All schools in the Pittsburg Unified School District began using educational strategies five years ago that call for evaluating quarterly test results to help determine academic needs of individual students. Test results help provide the basis for dividing students into four groups for part of the school day to reflect different learning abilities in math and English. An emphasis is also placed on helping students who are in the lower academic tiers move up the academic ladder.

"Those who are at grade level we continue supporting them and challenging them, but those who have the biggest needs, that's where we have to focus our energy on," Araiza said.

In the coming weeks, students at Foothill will be divided up into the different learning groups based on how they did on classroom tests that were given after the school year started.

"As a result, every student is getting exactly the instruction they need at their performance level as opposed to the ideal but very frustrating task of meeting all levels by one teacher," said Foothill teacher Semi Natagh, fifth-grade team leader. "We are exchanging students across the classroom based on their needs. It didn't matter who their homeroom teacher is anymore."

During the school year, students can move from one group to another based on how they do on tests. "It's very performance-based," she said. "There's a lot of traffic, a lot of movement, it's really paid off."

Teachers like having a different mix of students.

"They get to see another teacher, and quite frankly it's fun for us too because we get to see another bunch of kids," said Iris Contreras, fourth-grade team leader who helped Foothill adopt the district's new teaching strategies.

Teachers also spend a lot more time exchanging teaching tips.

"We are always sharing, it's about collaboration," she said. "I've been a teacher for a long time and we used to just close our door and then everyone was doing their thing."

Reach Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.