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17 Valley Schools Get "Distinguished" Designation PDF Print E-mail
Written by San Fernando Valley Sun   
Thursday, 05 April 2012 02:05

State Honor Recognizes Academic Excellence

From the outside, Valor Academy Charter, a charter middle school that opened three years at Panorama Baptist Church in Arleta, doesn't look like much.

A few bungalows and some of the church's rooms serve as offices and classrooms for the 372 fifth through seventh grade students, mostly Latinos and African Americans, who attend the campus. Next school year, Valor Academy Charter plans to add an eighth grade.

But the tiny school's strict academic program, which has students at the campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday has proven a winner, after being one of 17 San Fernando Valley schools to be named 2012 California Distinguished Schools by the state Department of Education.

"We're so excited. It's been incredible on campus. The kids are very happy and we're all so proud," said Hrag Amalian, founder and head of the school.

In total, 40 Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) were part of the 387 campuses in California that earned the distinction, given to those schools with exemplary instructional programs and academic excellence.

To be invited to apply for Distinguished School recognition, schools must meet federal and state accountability measures based on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Academic Performance Index requirements. There is a written application -- which includes a description of two of the school's signature practices -- and a county-led review of how those practices are implemented, according to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson's office.

In fact, two reviewers spent a day at Valor Academy Charter checking out the school and their programs.

"These elementary schools are among the best of the best in the Los Angeles Unified School District," (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy said. "Their outstanding academic success is a tribute to hard-working students, involved parents, excellent teachers and stellar principals."

However, most of the Valley campuses recognized are elementary schools in the western part of the Valley, or in higher-income areas like Sherman Oaks, Chatsworth, Northridge and West Hills, that often have more resources. They include Balboa Gifted/High Ability Magnet, Burbank Boulevard, Burton Street, Chandler, Darby Avenue, Dixie Canyon, Dyer Street, Enadia Way, Encino, Germain Street, Hamlin Street, Justice Street, Riverside Drive, Superior, Topeka Drive, and Vintage Math Science Technology Magnet.

Valor Academy, on the other hand, gets most of its students from a five-mile radius around the school, kids from working-class families.

"This is a stamp of approval that hopefully will bring more attention to this community," Amalian said.

"There's a lot of good schools in this area doing great work. We can also share some of our model with others if they wish. We had the advantage of starting from scratch and putting forth an innovative education model."

That model focuses highly on math and literacy, offering double the amount of time in these subjects as traditional public schools. Their literacy program features small groups to improve learning and their math program includes socalled "study islands" for maximum math intervention.

The school also offers free after-school tutoring and enrichment programs, where students study dance, art, cooking, music and more. It's a model that has helped the school maintain an 850 API (Academic Performance Index), the measure of academic performance for schools. API scores range from a low of 200 to a high of 1000. The performance target for all school is 800. Schools above 800 are considered very good.

"We're very proud of our students being able to sustain a high goal," said Amalian, who before founding Valor Academy worked at Locke High School in South Los Angeles.

Also, students must fill out a complete college application prior to graduation in the 8th grade, and the school started student saver accounts for each child to help them begin saving for college.

The California School Recognition Program, now in its 26th year, honors the state's most exemplary and inspiring public schools. Elementary and secondary schools are recognized in alternate years.

"The schools we are recognizing demonstrate the incredible commitment of California's teachers, administrators and school employees to provide a world-class education to every student, in spite of the financial hardships facing our state and our schools," Torlakson said. "Their dedication is inspiring, and I applaud and admire their passion and persistence."

Eligibility for the 2012 designation was based on the Academic Performance Index, as well as Adequate Yearly Progress, which charts improvement by subgroups such as family income; ethnicity and language of origin. Students in every group must demonstrate substantial growth. Winning schools also must narrow the gap between high-and-low achievers.

Besides bragging rights, the school will get a banner to place outside their campus and Amalian is planning a celebration for families and students when they return from Spring break.

"We want to share this with our parents and the whole community because they're also part of this," Amalian said.