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California’s most improved middle school 2012:
Keppel Academy

How did a failing school openly compared to a prison transform itself into an exceptional school with a waiting list? With an extreme educational makeover.

Photo courtesy of Principal Romero, Keppel Academy

By Jessica Kelmon

Known for disciplinary issues and a revolving door of teachers, Almondale Middle School’s nickname broadcast its low expectations: for at least two decades, kids and adults alike called the school “Almondjail."

The only public middle school in Keppel Union’s 240-square-acre district in Antelope Valley northeast of Los Angeles, Almondale had been flagged for intervention — a status called “Program Improvement” (PI) — since 2001-2002. (One school ranking put it at 1821 out of 2050 California middle schools.) To get out of PI, a school must show adequate yearly progress (AYP) for all students and student subgroups for two years in a row — a goal Almondale never attained. In 2009-2010, the school earned a below-average GreatSchools Rating of 3. With the possibility looming that Almondale would be branded a “persistently low performing” school, thereby triggering No Child Left Behind (NCLB)-mandated changes like firing the principal or transforming it into a charter, the district took action implementing the turnaround model — replacing the principal and 50 percent of the teachers. In August 2010, Almondale was shuttered. In its place, a new school — Keppel Academy — was born.

Same students, a new approach

Though Keppel continued to serve the same community — 80 percent socio-economically disadvantaged, 44 percent English language learners, and highly transient (with fluctuating enrollment) due to the faltering economy — students started doing better. Much better. So what happened? The new school expanded to serve sixth through eighth graders, and started asking kids to apply. (To give parents school choice, many of the district’s elementary schools became K-8 schools.)

But the biggest changes came in the classroom.

Using brain research to tailor teaching

Relying on research that shows that there are discreet windows of time that are best for kids, alternately, to take in, process, and practice using new information, teachers have restructured lessons. In the first 10 to 15 minutes of class, for instance, students learn overall concepts and any specific steps involved. Meanwhile, at the end of class kids get up, move around, or talk to their neighbor about what they learned. Based on the theory that sitting too long causes blood to leave the brain, “the end of a 40 minute window is the best time to have kids get up, stretch, move around, or do a learning activity, such as ‘talk to your neighbor about what you learned today,’” says Ricardo Romero, Keppel's principal. The increased blood flow essentially resets the kids' brains, preparing them to absorb more information.

“These instructional elements have been used for years, but it’s in the application of the brain research that makes a difference,” Romero says. “The kids now recognize the different [lesson] parts … and kids, they love structure.”

Catching kids before they fall

Where Almondale had electives, Keppel has two, 30-minute, targeted inquiry classes (one for English, one for math). Inquiry teachers work with core teachers to determine what skills kids need to preview or review. Every four to six weeks, kids’ skills are assessed and regrouped based on their understanding.

Almondale offered an elective called AVID, (Advancement Via Individual Determination) a K-12 college-prep program. Keppel, however, has embraced the program, making it mandatory and school-wide. AVID teaches students organization, peer tutoring, and problem-solving skills. These less tangible, less testable skills must be learned, says Romero, to pave a path to college. “If kids can stay organized, they can almost guarantee academic success."

Unlike its predecessor Almondale, Keppel is now selective about the kids it admits. But Keppel’s selectivity isn’t about choosing students who have the top grades or test scores. In fact, “AVID tries to target middle-of-the-road kids,” explains Superintendent Steve Doyle. The admission process, which includes customary steps like reviewing grades and test scores and even an interview, looks for students who are neither far ahead nor terribly behind their peers.

is an associate editor at GreatSchools.org.

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Principal Ricardo Romero