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Text Box: Principal has Pittsburg students, staff motivated to achieve
By Paul Burgarino 
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 09/27/2009 12:53:20 PM PDT
Updated: 09/28/2009 06:44:08 AM PDT
PITTSBURG — Angela Stevenson is always willing to try something new to help her students succeed, even if it's a tad uncomfortable.
While walking the halls of Los Medanos Elementary School last week, popping into classrooms, talking to her uniform-clad "superstars" — what she often calls the students — and handling the random chaos of being an elementary school principal, Stevenson thought of ideas to motivate the youths to read for enjoyment.
"They'd love to have me sit in a dunk tank as a reward," she said.
In her efforts to help children soar to new heights, Stevenson stood on the roof over the Los Medanos playground area for an entire school day last spring. The display was a reward for students meeting goals in an accelerated reading program. 
Despite a chilly morning and searing afternoon sun, "for six hours, it's worth it. It keeps the kids motivated. They don't realize how much they benefit," she said. 
Dramatic strides
The willingness to embrace original methods of guiding children socially and intellectually has helped the school make dramatic academic strides over the past several years: For example, it won state Title I academic awards in 2006 and 2007. 
Title I is a federal funding program for schools with a high percentage of low-income families.
"There really has been a paradigm shift here," said Stevenson, now in her fifth year as principal at Los Medanos and 22nd year at the school overall, first as a teacher, then as vice principal. 
"There is an efficacy among the teachers, a willingness to watch and share their best strategies for teaching," she said, noting her staff's openness to mirroring others' strengths.
Many teachers on campus agreed. 
"We take care of each other here, and we do what we can to help," said first-grade teacher Kristi Walton, adding it helps that Stevenson was a teacher at Los Medanos.
Students at Los Medanos are no different from those at other schools in the Pittsburg district, as 62 percent are English learners and 82 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunches because they come from low-income families. 
However, the school's Academic Performance Index scores are by far tops in the district — 42 points higher than the next-closest school. Moreover, Los Medanos is the only district school to eclipse the 800 mark for proficiency since API testing began. Earlier this month, the school found out it scored 810, the third consecutive year it surpassed the 800 mark.
Stark contrast
The academic accolades are a stark contrast to just a decade ago, when Los Medanos had five principals in a single year and scores in the mid-500s. A state education team intervened to assist and monitor school efforts to improve its scores.
Los Medanos uses many of the same practices as Delta View Elementary, a successful Pittsburg school in the Mt. Diablo district, including student engagement and using data to implement effective teaching strategies, said Abe Doctolero, director of curriculum and instruction for Contra Costa County's Office of Education.
"I don't think it can be understated the importance of (Stevenson's) leadership," Doctolero said. Teacher cooperation, student engagement and overall school chemistry have combined to produce the high scores, he said.
Vince Ferrante, board president for the Pittsburg school district, added: "Angela's a true, dynamic educational leader for this district."
Teaching has been a passion for Stevenson since her childhood in Bastrop, La., a town of about 13,000 in the state's northeast corner. Stevenson's experience in the South during the years of the Civil Rights Movement made her aware of the importance of boosting children's self-esteem and helping students of all races reach their potential.
District model
The success at Los Medanos is serving as a model for the district in its efforts to raise proficiency at all schools. School sites used to exist as "islands" but now work together to help boost test scores, Ferrante said, calling Los Medanos the "perfect model for other schools to emulate."
Neighboring Antioch also sees Los Medanos as a model for improving its Title I school scores, said Antioch school board President Walter Ruehlig, lauding Stevenson for "doing some remarkable things."
Stevenson said her school focuses on diagnosing data and seeing "what pieces are missing and coming up with ways to fill those gaps" in teaching.
Los Medanos also emphasizes open collaboration among teachers, where "there's no blacking out of names" in taking an honest look at who's meeting objectives and who needs to work on certain areas, she said.
"My teachers know it's not something that I'm going to use against them, but that I support them. And I think they feel that support," Stevenson said.
Stevenson said the school must continue to improve.
"There's still 1,000 out there," she said, referring to a perfect API test score. "We always want to be second to none. The only thing we want to be number two around here are the pencils."

Image: top right By Old Shoe Woman  

Images: top left By nd.strupler; top center By John-Morgan