Two years ago, Webster Elementary hit bottom – the bottom 5% of all schools statewide, according to test scores.
That failure prompted drastic changes: Half the staff was replaced, the school year was extended by two weeks and students spent an extra 30 minutes a day in the classroom.
The strategy paid off – the school's Academic Performance Index went from 668 to 780, a 112-point jump, according to state data released Wednesday.
"A lot of things fell into place for us," said Kelli Wilkins, Webster's principal. "We're ecstatic."
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Most Valley schools made gains in the API, the state benchmark for academic progress. And the biggest gains were from many of the area's most troubled schools.
But the majority, including Webster, still fell short.
The API is based on how well students perform on standardized tests. The index ranges from 200 to 1,000, with a statewide minimum target of 800.
Only 175 schools in the Valley – or about 29% – reached or exceeded the statewide target. Meanwhile, nearly half – about 49% – of all schools in the state met that standard last year.
Of the Valley's largest school districts, only Clovis Unified reached the 800-point standard.
And for all of Fresno Unified's gains last year, there were also some big losses.
Five of the district's middle schools – Tioga, Cooper, Scandinavian, Sequoia and Yosemite – saw drops of more than 20 points on their scores.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson attributed the drop to last year's districtwide push to enroll more 8th-graders in algebra, an effort he said the district is now rethinking.
"We're fixing what we need to fix – and that's middle-school math," he said.
Districts show improvement
The Valley districts that traditionally do well continued to shine.
At Clovis Unified, every elementary, intermediate and high school met the 800-point standard. Test scores in the district overall reached 875, a nine-point jump.
Sanger Unified saw a nine-point overall rise to 815 districtwide.
"We did have a couple of schools drop, but we understand why they dropped and are putting into place steps to bolster the efforts of their staffs," said Rich Smith, deputy superintendent.
At districts in Fresno, Madera and Visalia, remedial students got extra help before the exam.
"We identify the students we believe will have problems and we give them extra help " said Jake Bragonier, Madera district spokesman.
Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg has a different strategy: district officials visit every classroom to see whether lesson plans or techniques need to be refined.
"We try to enhance the quality of instruction," he said. "We do not teach the test."
Charter schools do well
Some of the biggest gains in the Valley came from charter schools.
The Fresno Academy for Civic and Entrepreneurial Leadership (ACEL), a Fresno Unified charter that focuses on independent learning and technology, saw a rise of 134 points to 683.
David Childers, ACEL's principal, said the score was a relief.
"I'm taking it as further proof that you can provide rich educational experiences for kids and not have to teach the test," he said. "Even though you don't want to focus on the test, you don't want to be near the bottom either."
Another new charter school in the district quickly rose to the top.
Morris E. Dailey Elementary Principal Melissa Dutra says she doesn't want to brag, but the giant banner hanging in front of the school on Harrison Avenue in central Fresno advertising the school's score does much of the bragging for her.
Dailey's API score of 938 is the 10th highest in Fresno County, and the second highest in the district behind Manchester GATE.
Last year was the school's first and followed a controversial start. Fresno Unified created a nonprofit organization to open the school despite complaints from Fresno teachers union officials, who said the new strategy was meant to bypass union hiring rules.
Dutra credited the staff, two extra hours in the school day and several weeks of lesson planning.
"We teach all of our classes at or above grade level, and we expect the parents to help out," she said. "We have very clear expectations."
Hanson said the extra time in the classroom was key to the success.
"It's more time with the teachers that matters," Hanson said. "Class size and teacher experience aren't the sole determining factors."