By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Cunningham Elementary turnaround bearing fruit
cunningham pic
Cunningham second grade teacher Shelby Serpa helps a student with a reading exercise. A concentrated effort on standards and individualized learning for students led to a marked increase in state test scores at Cunningham. - photo by JONATHAN MCCORKELL / The Journal

Anyone involved with the Cunningham Elementary turnaround last year will testify that it was a tense, controversial scene at the small, close-knit campus on the west side of Turlock.

Cunningham was in its fifth year of “program improvement” due to low test scores, which means the school had to implement a plan of action to improve instruction and test scores.

While no teachers were terminated, a new principal, Al Silveira from Medeiros Elementary was brought in and six teachers were involuntarily moved to other schools. Parents were frustrated and public meetings were so intense security personnel were on hand.

But as with most controversial actions and decisions there is always a reaction. At Cunningham Elementary the reaction by all accounts has resulted in improved test scores, increased campus morale and a greater working relationship between parents, teachers and administration.

At the time of the turnaround, May 2010, Turlock Unified School District officials determined that if they failed to implement the turnaround the state would. Cunningham had been performing in the bottom five percent of schools in the state.  Had TUSD officials not acted and voluntarily implemented the turnaround, more drastic changes in staffing would have happened.

On Tuesday, the TUSD Board of Trustees heard an in-depth report on state test scores from Laurie Harrington, TUSD director of assessment and accountability. For Cunningham the results were encouraging.

Across the board, in English-language arts and mathematics, students increased their scores and levels of proficiencies.

“Research shows that historically school test scores take a little bit of a dip following a turnaround but Cunningham increased its scores in every sub-category,” said Harrington. 

Sub-categories are broken down from school-wide, and then race, special education and English-learners.

School-wide Cunningham students increased their English proficiency by more than two percent over last year to 36.9 percent, and in math students jumped nearly three-and-a-half percent from 43.8 percent to 47.1 percent.

TUSD Superintendent Sonny Da Marto was pleased with the results.

“You know we took a lot of criticism during that time, but I’m willing to take any type of criticism as long as it is best for the kids and their education. Everybody at Cunningham has worked so hard and I’m extremely proud and happy for them,” he said.

Silveira was quick to deflect praise of his efforts onto the teachers and students and parents for their improvement.

“With our teachers we are working with the Structured Instruction Observation Protocol model, emphasizing standards, and creating paths and individualized plan for each student,” he said.

Silveira said administration and teachers are meeting on a regular basis to identify what students need to get from point A to point B, using benchmarks, monitoring testing and daily lesson plans to help the student reach and succeed their potential. In addition, teachers are providing students with extended learning opportunities in the mornings before school and after school, depending on availability.

Cunningham Parent-Teacher Association President Sean McKeon praised the students for their efforts.

“I’m so proud of these kids, they are incredibly resilient,” he said. He also was encouraged by the improved relationships between teachers, administration and parents. “We have a renewed effort to make sure that growth continues. With the PTA we act as a springboard to increase parental involvement. Last year there was no cohesive message to parents but now we are just encouraging parents to get and stay involved. There’s no question that when parents are involved with their kids’ education the kids always do better,” he added.

Another part of the turnaround at Cunningham was the change in mindset. In April of last school year Da Marto said the district conducted a Culture of Trust Survey that measured relationships between employees, parents, teachers and staff. In April 2010, the confidence was about 50 percent, and by April 2011 the school scored at 80 percent.

The signs of confidence and the change in mindset are all over campus. Last October Silveira hung a large sign that crossed out the word “CAN’T.” And Cunningham’s mission statement is proudly displayed at the front of the campus.

With all the positive improvement on campus Silveira, teachers and parents are still fully aware that much improvement is still needed to pull Cunningham out of program improvement. Cunningham has to reach yearly progress goals or “safe harbor” goals in all sub categories for two years in a row to pull out of program improvement. Safe harbor goals are goals that are improving proficiency levels but not necessarily completely reaching state mandated goals.

To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.