On the first day of school, on a campus recently on life support, hope greeted children Tuesday morning as the bell rang for instruction at Father Keith B. Kenny Elementary.
It's not false hope, either. Test scores are up at the campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the heart of Oak Park, recently considered one of the worst schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
Now Kenny kids have scored over 800 – the state's target – in the Academic Performance Index. That's a departure from 70 percent of schools in the county that didn't.
Since it was made a "priority school" by Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, Kenny has seen a 182-point increase in API scores since 2009 – from 631 to 813.
How was this possible on a campus of 420 kids who are all eligible for free or reduced-price lunches?
Put simply: a break from teacher union seniority rules. Amid high teacher turnover due to layoffs and budget cuts, Raymond's handpicked principal, Gail Johnson, used Education Code rules on training and experience to bypass seniority requirements and maintain a stable teaching staff.
This was possible because teachers at Kenny and the district's other priority schools were trained in analyzing detailed data, making home visits to promote parent involvement, and teaching lessons on largely minority campuses with materials that didn't ignore the students' cultures as school materials in the past might have.
With this specialized training, exemptions to seniority rules were upheld in court after the local teachers union sued Sacramento City Unified to stop the practice.
That's critical, because a school like Kenny might otherwise have seen a revolving door of teachers.
Continuity in Kenny's staff created stability. Stability allowed teachers to take a step back and determine where students were stumbling. "It was a sad situation here before," Johnson said Tuesday. "This wasn't a place filled with hope."
Now comprehension in math and English is the mantra. Teachers at Kenny emphasize critical thinking – not simply reading pages but digesting the curriculum.
At nearby Oak Ridge Elementary, another formerly troubled school, teachers plan together. They built teamwork by gathering before the school year started. They made 205 after-hours home visits last year, up from 51 in 2011.
In this way, they connected with the people living with the students they send home every day.
Oak Ridge has also seen big gains in API scores. The campus was alive with enthusiasm Tuesday.
"We're trying to show the community we can change a lot of things in our schools," said Raymond, who utilized federal funding to pump $4 million a year into priority schools.
"We changed a lot of things, but we didn't change the children."