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.

Changing the school’s culture: everyone has a role

Despite middling scores and grades, Keppel’s students tend to be outliers in a different way: determination. During the interview process, kids need to articulate goals. While Romero emphasizes that it’s not an acceptance/rejection scenario, the AVID way is “looking for signs of wanting to work hard and improve,” Doyle says. “Desire is probably one of the biggest factors [for] success.”

Keppel’s teachers “have to be a jack of all trades,” Principal Romero explains, since the district is unable to afford single-subject-credentialed teachers. To make do, three-teacher teams, called “universities” to reinforce the new college-going culture, teach groups of 100 students. The university structure helps teachers connect with students, work together professionally, and keeps everyone keenly focused on the school’s culture of high expectations.

Romero also adopted a new positive disciplinary policy. Hallways are lined with posters that clearly spell out behavioral expectations, and when teachers catch a student acting out, ‘Hey you!’ has been replaced with, ‘Do you know what’s expected in the hallway?’

While he doesn’t have the crime and punishment metrics yet, he claims the school atmosphere is different. Teachers now give students “Romerits” when they observe exceptional behavior. “It’s the exact opposite of a demerit,” Romero explains. Last winter, Romero attended a two-day conference. “When an administrator is away for a couple of days, usually there’s a pile of behavioral issues to deal with,” he says. “This time when I came back, I had four Romerits to deal with.”

Tough turnaround, stunning success

Since it opened three years ago, Keppel Academy has seen a steady payoff for its turnaround efforts. In the school’s first year, the API scores grew by 127 points — and Keppel jumped from a GreatSchools 3 to a 6. This year, though the California state analysis of API scores is delayed, the GreatSchools analysis shows Keppel once again made substantial progress, leaping to a GreatSchools 8.

Though the turnaround hasn’t been easy, Romero credits hardworking teachers, motivated students, and caring parents for Keppel’s stunning success. “It’s been hard, but we took a school and did a complete 180.”

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