Against the odds

Principal’s success at poor school captures national attention

VICTORVILLE • When Linda Mikels took the helm as principal of Sixth Street Prep eight years ago, the elementary school near Old Town had seen its test scores sink three straight years.

It’d be easy to blame poor performance on the demographics of the school, comprised of more than 90 percent poor and minority students with a wealth of English learners.

But when the new leader reviewed the dismal scores with her hard-working yet discouraged staff, they settled on a core philosophy: No excuses.

“We agreed we wouldn’t blame students or previous years’ teachers or parents, ethnicity or poverty… but we would take full accountability for student learning,” Mikels said. She told her staff she wanted to help them work smarter — not necessarily harder — using data-driven lessons and continuously checking for student understanding.

Since 2001 Sixth Street Prep has seen double-digit performance growth every year. On the 1,000 point Academic Performance Index scale — which identifies 800 as the state target for all schools — Sixth Street has surged from a 637 API in 2002 to a 938 API in 2009.

The school has narrowed the achievement gaps that so many others struggle to close: Only a 1.6 percent gap remains between English learners and school-wide language arts proficiency, poor students are only 1 to 3 percent behind proficiency in math and English and just 1 to 4 percent of Hispanic students are behind school-wide proficiency in math and English.

Statewide those same subgroups perform up to 40 percent worse than their counterparts. The rest of the Victor Valley and nation has caught on to Sixth Street’s success.

Mikels has been asked to write blogs on training newcomer teachers and full-immersion bilingual education for the New York Times and interview for the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. The Sacramento-based Pacific Research Institute think tank regularly asks Mikels to present her model to schools across the state.

Sixth Street Prep, which became a charter school in 2000 so it could secure its location on 6th and A streets, is visited by schools from other districts dozens of times a year and recently adopted two local underperforming “buddy schools” to coach.

One of the school’s most successful strategies, said Mikels, is a focus on frequently gauging student learning with quick assessments, which now take the form of a projector screen offering a problem and multiple answer choices. Students, each given an individual whiteboard, must disprove each wrong answer before selecting the right one with an automated clicker — a method Mikels said reinforces mastery over a guessing game.

To up the challenge, teachers put a tremendous amount of thought into the wrong answers to catch students errors.

“All of us began to think like the students,” Mikels said. “What kinds of mistakes would a student make? And include those on the answer choices.”

The school earned one of the nation’s top honors when it was named a 2009 National Blue Ribbon School for ongoing student improvement.

But Mikels knows she has more to learn. She said she’s constantly reading the latest research and e-mailing schools that are surpassing Sixth Street asking them about methods that work.

As she strives to lead a more efficient and effective school, Mikels said she views her role as servant-principal, problem-solving and offering guidance and tools to free up teachers to focus on classroom instruction.

“It’s a we-thing we have going on here over at Sixth Street,” Mikels said. “I couldn’t ask for a better team.”

Read the full story in Sunday’s edition of the Press Dispatch, along with Mikels tips for education, and her biography. To subscribe to the Daily Press in print or online, call 760-241-7755 or click here.

Natasha Lindstrom may be reached at 951-6232 or at [email protected].

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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