Cerritos Elementary School students

Teacher Ms. Angela Boras prepares to take her students into class at Cerritos Elementary School in Glendale on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. The school is one of three in the Glendale Unified School District to be eligible to earn a California Distinguished School award. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / January 7, 2014)

For the first time in its history, Cerritos Elementary is eligible to apply for the California Distinguished Schools award, a program that honors schools across the state for closing the achievement gap.

For Principal Cynthia McCarty, who is in her fourth year as head of the school, the first-time eligibility validates the hard work of students and teachers.

“We’re enjoying the ride and watching our kids achieve,” she said.

During the past six years, Cerritos Elementary has reported significant gains on the Academic Performance Index, a score assigned to schools that is based on how well students perform on state exams.

In 2013, the school received an API score of 875, which is 122 points higher than its score in 2008.

The state’s target for API scores is 800.

Additionally, 62% of Cerritos students proved they were proficient or better in English in 2013 compared to 38% of the school’s students in 2008.

In math, 79% of Cerritos students scored proficient or better in 2013, compared to just 50% who achieved the same in 2008.

Of the school’s roughly 400 students, 85% of them come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, according to a 2012-13 state report, meaning those students are either eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches or neither of their parents earned a high school diploma.

Additionally, McCarty said teachers know the percentage of their students who have mastered the skill they are learning by the end of the lesson. Using targeted intervention, they identify students who need extra help and work with them in small groups to re-teach lessons.

“When we started to watch the API [score] rise a couple years ago, we had teachers that were really teary,” McCarty said, adding that some of them had never seen such significant advances before.

McCarty said the school’s small population is conducive to educators being able to form relationships with families and know about the home lives of many of the students. With that, the school also maintains awareness of the social and emotional needs of students.

“I’m just so happy for my community and my kids,” McCarty said. “This is not anything they’ve ever, ever been recognized for. It’s just so exciting to know our kids are achieving, we’re seeing it. It just makes teachers feel really good.”

In the months ahead, officials with the California Department of Education will visit Cerritos to conduct an evaluation. The school will learn if it has won a Distinguished Schools award in April.

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Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.

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