RICHMOND -- Teachers and administrators at two elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods are crediting close staff collaboration, innovative programs and a focus on individual children for making a huge difference in student performance.

The two schools, Peres and Coronado in the West Contra Costa school district, have improved their state Academic Performance Index scores dramatically over the past few years while other Richmond elementaries have made slower progress.

Peres, in the industrial area of Richmond known as the Iron Triangle, achieved an API score of 808 in 2012, compared with an average of about 770 for all elementary schools in the district, which also includes Kensington, El Cerrito, San Pablo, Hercules and Pinole. The state benchmark for proficiency is 800.

Coronado, also in the Iron Triangle, just north of the John Knox Freeway, had a score of 807.

By comparison, Kensington Elementary, in the exclusive hills community, scored a 949, while other Richmond elementary schools were generally in the low 600 to low 700 range.

A number of factors have gone into these gains, probably the most important of which are reducing teacher turnover and increasing cooperation, said Peres Principal Jawan Eldridge, who added that he took over a program this year that two other strong principals established.

Eldridge said he thinks the key to his school's success is having a core of skilled teachers in place for many years who work together as opposed to beginning with new teachers and new programs each year.

"We're very big on collaboration and have routine grade-level meetings to discuss what we're doing," Eldridge said. "We believe that you aren't born smart, but you have to work hard to get smart, putting an emphasis on effort."

Peres has benefited from outside help. The school is a partner school of the Marin-based Scully Foundation.

The foundation pays the salaries of the vice principal, computer learning lab supervisor, a dropout-prevention specialist and a mental health counselor, said Kathleen Maloney, the foundation's director of programs. Scully also sponsors a music program at Coronado, Peres and other Richmond schools.

Peres teachers pinpoint where students need extra help and send them to a computer lab, where Scully-sponsored instructor Suzanne Turner can arrange individualized instruction.

Turner monitors their work on the computers and receives a prompt if a student is having difficulty moving on to the next step in the lesson. The computer also gives the students help if they get stuck on a math problem, for example.

Besides remedial work, students can access the Internet to do research projects and become skilled with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, Turner said.

Fifth-grader Jeweldari Mayweather said he has been using the Internet to supplement his classroom instruction in science, and he has developed a strong interest in marine biology. His parents also let him use their laptops at home to do that and other research.

"My teacher's sister is a marine biologist, and we send emails to each other about coral, seals and dolphins," Mayweather said.

Peres also has after-school programs that can help students who are behind in certain areas. Teachers report student progress based on test results to the program instructors so they can provide individualized attention.

"If we give them a quiz, we pay attention to whether they understood it," said second-grade teacher Linda Townsend Bryson. "They work in small groups to get up to speed; we don't just give them a low grade and move on."

The Peres community came together with the idea that despite being in a low-income area, students can succeed at the right school, Maloney said.

Both Peres and Coronado are classified as Title 1 schools, meaning that the entire student body qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunches, said school board member Todd Groves.

The dropout-prevention and mental health counselors help students with their social and emotional needs, allowing teachers to concentrate more on instruction.

"Everyone rallied around the idea that this is supposed to be a safe place to live," Maloney said. "When some kids are not successful, they want to know what they can do to support these kids."

Coronado has also emphasized teacher retention and collaboration in improving its results, said Principal Linda Cohen.

Cohen said Coronado was one of the lowest-scoring schools in the district in the late 1990s but has made strong improvement over the past five years.

The school brings first-, second- and third-graders together for an assembly every morning, giving teachers an opportunity to work in small groups with students who need extra attention, she said.

Teachers meet in grade-level groups every Wednesday to discuss curriculum and analyze test results. Students who need extra help also get tutoring after school.

"Each teacher does an hour and a half of math every day, which is longer than most schools have done," Cohen said.

Coronado brings students together for Camp Arroyo, an annual three-day, two-night camping experience in Livermore run by naturalists where students learn about American Indian artifacts, local geology and vegetation.

"It's very hands-on, and the students do a lot of writing about what they've seen," Cohen said. "It's really helped with our science scores."

Coronado has worked to enroll parents in its programs, holding a monthly parents night and honoring students with an honor roll and for perfect attendance and good citizenship.

"We've really focused on instruction and making the school a calm, safe place to learn," Cohen said. "I want them to have whatever choices they want in their future."

The two schools are models for what can be accomplished through staff and community cooperation, said West Contra Costa school board President Madeline Kronenberg.

"(Peres and Coronado) teachers are a team," Kronenberg said. "They're talking with each other and trying new things until they find one that works. Everyone grows and learns every day."

Peres API scores
2012: 808
2011: 816
2010: 775
2009: 754
2008: 750
2007: 693
2006: 663

Coronado API scores
2012: 807
2011: 826
2010: 788
2009: 826
2008: 804
2007: 755
2006: 759