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Kennedy High School Principal Phil Johnson and Vice Principal Allison Huie meet up at the end of the lunch period at Kennedy High School in Richmond on Sept. 23, 2013. The school has made significant gains in 2012-13 under the Johnson's leadership of Johnson.

RICHMOND -- Kennedy High School is staging a comeback.

School spirit has returned and test scores are up on the South Richmond campus, say administrators, teachers and students.

"This is a new day at Kennedy High," said Principal Phil Johnson, who came to the campus last year to turn around the persistently low-performing campus.

Last year, he and his leadership team focused on getting kids in class and keeping them safe, along with teacher collaboration and professional development for staff. This year, the school has created a teacher leadership team that helps develop new initiatives, such as a block schedule that allows students to take eight 90-minute classes each week.

The foundation Johnson and his staff laid last year has helped change the culture of the school and led to dramatic improvement on standardized tests. The school's Academic Performance Index score soared 45 points -- from 544 in 2012 to 589 in 2013 -- on a scale of 200 to 1,000.

African-American, Hispanic and English learner students all saw significant increases in their standardized test scores, which contributed to the school's overall increase.

"We are making things happen," Johnson said. "But there is still much to do."

The state's target score for schoolwide proficiency is 800, which Kennedy still fell far below. But Johnson and his team are energized by their momentum and eager to share the secrets of their successes.

They created a teacher handbook that provides clear expectations, outlines what must be done in different situations and ensures consistent follow-through, said assistant principal Renee Lama.

"It gives steps to follow if a student needs to go to the health center, steps for discipline and what we expect to see in classrooms (written) on the board," she said, noting that many schools don't have such handbooks.

The school brought back music and has embraced a teaching strategy that works well with English learners, who make up about half of the student body, said assistant principal Allison Huie. Teachers write objectives on the board, promote sharing among students and ask them to explain what they learned at the end of the lesson.

But the school is not just focused on discipline and instruction. It's also bringing back a sense of fun.

The number of athletes on the school's varsity football team has more than doubled, students now feel comfortable participating in spirit activities such as pajama day, and the campus has started celebrating student achievements with a senior picnic, ice cream day and awards night.

"The atmosphere at the school is a lot more calm," said Lama, who has worked on the campus for three years. "It's also a much nicer place to come to work. Before, it was a tense atmosphere. There were a lot of conflicts between students."

The campus is moving toward becoming a "full-service school" with a health center where students can get mental health counseling, as well as medical services. It has cut down on suspensions by offering Saturday detentions, where students do online work or participate in a "restorative justice" program that holds them accountable for their behavior.

In addition, the school is reaching out to parents with Saturday workshops on topics such as grading, student health issues and gang prevention.

It has also purchased a new Eagle mascot costume, helping to bolster school pride. Alumni and parents are coming out to football games wearing the school color red, filling stands that were previously empty.

"It's just night and day," Lama said.

But the transition wasn't entirely smooth.

When Johnson came to the school last year and implemented strict rules that prohibited hats and cellphone use, students gave him an "F" rating, Lama said. But by the end of the year, after seeing positive changes on campus, his student rating jumped to a B-plus.

Teachers, who had previously complained that they didn't have much input into decisions, have also seen dramatic improvements. Many participate in the instructional leadership team to address issues they think are important.

For example, each teacher has agreed to mentor three seniors who haven't passed the California High School Exit Exam. Many teachers also volunteer to observe each other and give feedback on their teaching.

Aaron Colacion, who has taught English language development at the school for four years, said the biggest change he has seen at the school is the environment. In the past, he said, most students wouldn't wear pajamas on spirit day.

"Kids didn't feel safe to participate in school spirit because they'd feel they'd be belittled and harassed and picked on," he said. "Mr. Johnson and his administrators have done a fine job of providing a safe environment and an academic environment that other successful schools have. We didn't have that before."

Kaylonii Bardell, a 17-year-old senior who has attended the school for three years, said students now know there are things they can't do.

"I think it's better that we have more rules," she said, "because there's less trouble for us to get into."

Her school pride, she said, was bolstered when she played on the championship-winning girls basketball team.

"I think that's where it starts," Bardell said, "from any type of positive activity -- it gives you a sense of pride in your school."

by the numbers
Kennedy High School's Academic Performance Index scores over the past two years for all students and subgroups on a scale of 200-1,000 (with growth)
Year Overall African-Americans Hispanics English Learners
2013 589 (+45) 577 (+68) 583 (+45) 546 (+38)
2012 544 509 538 508
Source: California Department of Education

SCHOOL ACTION plan
The school administration is focusing on these areas this year:
1. Increasing student achievement, using block schedule of eight 90-minute classes and other strategies
2. Improving the school climate, including awards and spirit activities
3. Involving more teachers and parents in decision-making
More information about Kennedy High School is available by calling 510-231-1433 or by visiting www.wccusd.net. Click on drop down "Select a School" menu and choose Kennedy High School.
To see videos of the principal, assistant principals and a teacher talking about changes at the school, visit www.contracostatimes.com/education.