This is the fourth in an occasional series on principals who are turning around local schools.
Roxanne Mitchell treats everyone at Foothill Ranch Middle School like family.
The principal's office is like a living room. On any given day the two office doors are left wide open to allow for a stream of teachers and students. Mitchell dispenses advice, hugs and Tootsie Pops depending on the need.
Teachers often can be found at the table in the middle of the room working on projects, sometimes with Mitchell, sometimes alone. Kids sometimes nap on her couch.
"That's how I like it," Mitchell said. "It reminds me of a busy family."
The family is pretty functional these days, with mostly well-behaved kids and improving test scores. But things weren't always so warm and fuzzy.
The economic downturn in the 1990s and the closure of McClellan Air Force Base changed the Foothill Farms neighborhood to one of poverty and transiency, Mitchell said. Now 91 percent of the students at the school are poor and 29 percent are English language learners.
When Mitchell was tapped in 2010 to take over what was then Foothill Farms Junior High, the campus was "out of control," she said. There were numerous arrests and suspensions. It was so bad the first year that Mitchell hired a school police officer to watch over the school full time.
"There wasn't a lot of learning going on," Mitchell said. Indeed, scores were among the lowest in the county.
The district closed the school, replaced the principal and vice principal, added fifth and sixth grades and reopened for the 2010-11 school year as Foothill Ranch Middle School.
Mitchell took the first year to get her bearings and gain control of the campus. She set rules, followed through on discipline and suspended students when needed.
She did small things like remove the desks and replace them with big tables so kids could work in groups. She did big things like change the entire educational model of the school.
Mitchell and a group of parents, administrators and district officials toured other schools seeking a new vision. They decided on a "core model" that reduced the number of teachers a student would have one teacher for science and math and another for English and social science. Each student also would take physical education every day as well as an elective.
They decided that teaching would be project-based, with students in each grade level participating in projects that draw on all the curriculum they are learning.
They added computers and technology that projects the teacher's computer screen to a white board on the wall.
Then the staff set out to build relationships with the students. Mitchell said she treats each child like he or she is her own. "You have to take an interest in the kids," she said. "They deserve no less."
Test scores climbed. In 2009 the school had an Academic Performance Index score of 617. That number has climbed now to 674. On a scale of 200 to 1,000 the statewide benchmark is 800 for each school.
Mitchell is proud of the progress. All subgroups each ethnic group, English language learners and economically disadvantaged students have made gains, meeting the growth target set by the state.
She said that the project-based learning has made students more engaged with their work. Student behavior improved and suspensions dropped. One result is far less graffiti on school property. "Kids know I don't play," Mitchell said.
The sense of order was apparent last Tuesday as Mitchell popped into a classroom to check on a substitute during one of her usual strolls around campus. "Class, class, class," she shouted to get the children's attention. "Yes, yes, yes," they answered in a call and response used throughout the school.
Mitchell spends both lunch periods with the students. She usually eats during the early lunch with the younger kids, saying the eighth-graders are "too cool" for that.
The principal said that, despite the positive change in culture at the school, challenges remain. A group of students walking quickly across campus a possible precursor to a fight always gets her attention. She is especially vigilant on Mondays, she said, because kids get worked up over Facebook and Twitter posts over the weekend.
"There's not a lot of drama," said Raychelle Anderson, an eighth-grade student. "If there is, it goes away fast."
Mitchell gives much of the credit for the school's success to her "super fantastic staff."
The feeling is mutual. The teachers appreciate Mitchell's collaborative, "pro-teacher" style.
Lisa Gant, a fifth-grade teacher, said working with Mitchell makes her feel safe. "I can float an idea or have a bad day," Gant said, adding that Mitchell is always understanding. "Before, I always felt I was on my own."
But change hasn't always been easy. To accommodate the new educational model, three-quarters of the school's teachers had to be transferred. The new model required that most teachers have a multiple-subject credential and most did not.
"It wasn't that they were bad teachers," Mitchell said. "Times changed and we needed something different."
The available jobs at the newly reorganized school were posted along with a multiple-page report stating Mitchell's vision and goals.
"People who read it wanted to be part of the change," said Chris Moran, a union officer and resource specialist at the school.
Many people also were wary of a middle school that included fifth- and sixth-graders, particularly the parents of the younger students.
"I wasn't sold," said Denise Retter, who has taught at the school for 12 years. "I didn't see in my wildest dreams how a fifth grade would fit in."
Now Retter is a believer, saying she has never seen older kids bullying younger ones. She said she is more likely to find older kids caring for younger kids.
Fifth- and sixth-graders also have a separate lunch hour from the older kids, and their classrooms are in different areas of the campus.
All grades are together for a 20-minute advisory class at the beginning of the day. The class is a sort of homeroom, where a handful of kids from each grade level meet with a teacher to talk about things such as compassion, stress, balance and living in the moment.
Mitchell also expanded the special-education program at the school. Now about 23 percent of the 679 students at the school are in special education.
"All of this is really exciting," Mitchell said. "To experience the success we've had. The kids are happy. The teachers are happy."