Rural Clay Elementary enjoys scholastic success

KINGSBURG -- Tucked between peach orchards at a lightly traveled rural crossroads northeast of Kingsburg, the single-school Clay Joint Unified School District is quietly giving notice that it's among Fresno County's top schools.

State standardized test results show the 250 students in the K-8 school are outperforming their peers at urban and rural schools across the region.

That academic success is helping keep Clay alive. More than 75% of the student body come from homes outside the district -- including a third-grader who travels daily from Squaw Valley.

"We are lucky to go to Clay School," said Rocky Kuenen of Squaw Valley, mother of Willem. "It's like a big family."

Without those out-of-district students, Clay would have had to merge with another district years ago, officials said.

But because of its emphasis on high standards and focus on student performance, Clay -- which two years ago was named a California Distinguished School -- maintains a waiting list. The list was needed even after the district grew over the past two years by more than 25 students to raise revenue because of state education cuts.

School board President Randy Yano, who notes that the waiting list is years long, says there is a local jest that women put their names on it as soon as they learn they're pregnant.

As a district, Clay had the highest Academic Performance Index score in Fresno County last year.

"There is no magic bullet," said Bill Mannlein, superintendent and principal, who spent 23 years as a principal in Selma Unified before arriving at Clay five years ago. "They are focused on the standards and the objective of the day and they keep at it."

He credits his predecessors, Gary Johnson, who served 27 years as superintendent, and Michelle Steagall, now a Clovis Unified administrator, for putting the school on the road to success.

Students can't conceal their academic deficiencies at Clay. They've got "nowhere to hide," said Walt Buster, a retired Clovis Unified superintendent who leads the Central Valley Education Leadership Institute at Fresno State. The institute's Rural Schools Network has been working with small districts such as Pacific Union and Caruthers Unified to improve student performance.

K-8 grade campuses offer continuity and security for students, and older students are seen as role models for their younger peers.

In addition, "the small, rural districts have parental support and they are focused on instruction," Buster said.

With more easily accessible technology, small schools are catching up to larger ones, Buster said: "They can provide enrichment they could not in previous years."

Clay accomplishes a lot on a small annual budget of $1.3 million, which supports a staff of 27. Despite budget cuts, the school still offers band, choir and music.

Teachers work with each student to make sure all children learn, said Tanya Goosev, Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District's director of program improvement. "It has a neat family feeling with really high expectations for kids."

Clay, founded in 1881, has been an 80-year tradition for Yano's family. His father attended Clay, as did Yano, his sister, Chris Yano-Goss, a Clay coach, physical education teacher and athletic director, and their children.

The school board meets every month over pie, a long-standing tradition in the district, Yano said.

Stan Louie, who lives in Selma and was last year's parents club president, said families separated by many miles join to form a community.

Many transfer students come from Kingsburg, which is a charter elementary district. Under that arrangement, students can choose to go to any school without permission from the home district.

"All of our families get to know each other from kindergarten up to eighth grade," said Louie, who has two children attending Clay and one who graduated from Clay and now attends Selma High. "The parents work so hard you could swear they are working for the school."

Parents must be prepared to chip in, said Sara Gunlund, president of the parents club, who has two children in Clay and two who already graduated.

"It's an unspoken rule that when you come to Clay, you have to be a parent who helps," she said.

Gunlund and her husband moved from Caruthers to a home in the Clay district 12 years ago so her children could attend.

"It's a small, intimate atmosphere that is very family-oriented," she said.

But it isn't just about family bonds, parents said. Staff continuity also is key. A significant number of teachers, aides and staff have worked at Clay a decade or longer.

That means they know the students -- their problems and successes, said Gaylen Langel, whose entire algebra class scored at proficient or advanced levels on this year's Standardized Testing and Reporting tests.

"The students have all grown up with very caring teachers and super-supportive parents who have prepared them well for us," said Langel, who has been at Clay for 21 years.

Many of Langel's algebra students voluntarily attend school 30 minutes early each day for additional math instruction.

Mannlein admits the school's salaries are not the highest, but he credits the parents club for ensuring teachers have supplies and students get trips and uniforms.

For teachers, success isn't always about earning power, but comes from being part of a community with an emphasis on student achievement and parent support, said Kathryn Catania, administrator of curriculum and instruction for the Fresno County Office of Education:

"In a high-functioning environment, teachers tend to stay."

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