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Saturday, March 23 , 2019, 4:54 pm | Partly Cloudy 63º


Jonata Middle in Buellton, Orcutt Junior High Named California Distinguished Schools

Two Santa Barbara County schools were honored as California Distinguished Schools this year for their progress in closing the achievement gap.

Orcutt Junior High School in Santa Maria and Jonata Middle School in Buellton were both chosen for Distinguished School Awards this year for their “signature practices” that are showing success. They have also met growth targets in every category for standardized testing, which is a requirement for the award given by the California Department of Education.

“We all feel really honored by the recognition, and it really is a huge team effort here,” Jonata Middle School Principal Kathy Fayram said. “Even though middle school is sometimes not the easiest for kids, we try to help every kid be successful.”

Jonata, which has 210 students and is part of the Buellton Union School District, has been focusing on increased time for language arts and math.

For several years — more than Fayram’s five as principal, anyway — the school has devoted a double-period out of every day to language arts, which gives teachers more time to meet the needs of students who are struggling, those who are more advanced, and everyone in between.

“We also have Math Minutes in addition to our regular math period,” she said. “Right before lunch, we have a special period where, whatever class we’re in, whether it’s social studies or P.E., we complete that period then stop whatever we’re doing and work on math for 20 minutes.”

Teachers are helping — apparently a few English teachers were scared at first — and students can help each other, too, as they start on their homework, she said.

“This is the third year doing that and a lot of us are relearning math,” Fayram said. “And we’re able to help just by looking at the solution key and working backwards. We encourage the kids to look back at their notes and there’s peer help as well.”

Parents have really responded to it, and the kids like it because they have more time for after-school sports and activities, Fayram said.

Jonata’s second “signature practice” has been a focus on teaching literacy in all subjects. It will be a large part of the curriculum in the upcoming Common Core Standards, but this school is getting a head start.

“We’re really trying to work on critical thinking and writing skills in classes like science, social studies and physical education,” Fayram said. “One day per week in P.E., the kids are in the classroom, so we’re just trying to work on them improving those writing skills, communication skills and being able to defend an opinion.

“I like the fact that we’re not just relying on multiple-choice assessments here; we’re reading what kids have to say and having them defend their opinions, because not everything in life is about a multiple-choice test.”

Over at Orcutt Junior High School in the Orcutt Union School District, the staff will definitely be celebrating, Principal Susan Salucci said.

“Honestly, I would just preface everything by saying the award belongs to the teachers of this school and the kids of this school, and just for the work they do every day,” she said.

Orcutt focuses on a strong core curricular program — with very few pullout programs — and leans on its extremely experienced faculty. 

“Most of my staff have been doing this for double-digit years, but they’re still willing to learn and try new things — ‘whatever it takes’ is kind of the attitude,” Salucci said.

The school also has a lot of electives for a school of its size, from home economics to industrial arts, art, journalism, a class where students design the physical education uniforms used every year, a spirit class where students plan pep rallies, and after-school sports, to name a few.

“We have lots of activities to keep kids engaged and build school spirit and a school community, because you know, research shows that when kids are more connected to their school, they learn better,” she said.

Teachers also have intervention programs on a weekly basis — targeted assessments to make sure they know when a child isn’t “getting” something — and have tutorials.

“There is a laser-like focus to get the kids to meet the standards,” she said.

They look forward to the regional award ceremony later in May, as well.

“We’re thrilled and we’re honored to be recognized and to be validated for the work that is done here every day,” Salucci said. “We don’t do it for the awards, but it’s very validating when a team of professionals recognize that you’re doing a good job.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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