CATAWISSA RR - Southern Columbia Area performed better than most of the local public school districts in state testing in the 2011-12 school year.

SCA not only met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) districtwide, but it also met or surpassed 18 out of 21 state averages on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and SAT test scores from 2011-12, according to Times-Shamrock Newspapers annual Grading Our Schools (GOS) special report.

Furthermore, the district is ranked seventh in the state for graduation rates among 500 public school districts, with 98.97 percent of its senior class graduating in 2011-12.

The district administration team - Superintendent Paul Caputo, high school principal James Becker, middle school principal Angela Farronato, elementary school principal Joseph Shirvinski, director of curriculum, instruction and technology Brenda Monick and director of special education Jennifer Snyder - attribute the positive results to a community of support from teachers, parents and students.

"It's a culture we permeate throughout the community that we care about the kids' success," Monick said.

Education is a priority for everyone involved in students' lives - including the students themselves, Becker said.

That special quality is also what brought Caputo back to the district after years of being employed elsewhere.

"It's a safe and welcoming environment," he said.

Southern, however, is not without its problems - the district was below average for fourth-grade math, sixth-grade math and eighth-grade reading. And while the district made AYP overall and so did the high school, GC Hartman Elementary School and the middle school grade levels did not, and both are considered in warning status.

Intervening sooner

Farronato said educators are driven by this data, always looking at how to revise the instructional strategies.

"We analyze it with the teachers, so they are right there picking through it," she said.

Technology allows the data to become available sooner, which allows teachers to identify students who may need intervention before the new school year starts. Also, teachers can track students from year to year and know their reading and math levels before they come to their class, then tailor strategies to fit, Monick said.

Using the data, the teachers are grouping students with similar needs and including intervention times in their daily schedules. Before the benchmark tests are given, students are offered smaller assessments during the school year and can move from group to group based on their progress.

"We have to look at what skills and extra help students need. We've been committed to meet their needs the best way to can," Shirvinski said.

Becker and Farronato agreed that individual students and their data must be analyzed.

"We've been intervening with students for a number of years," Becker said.

Low-income increase

Southern administrators and teachers are facing a new kind of disadvantage - more low-income students. The elementary school failed in academic performances in reading and math for economically disadvantaged students in 2011-12.

Compared to neighboring districts, Southern has a relatively low population of low-income students at 28.4 percent (ranked 364th in the state). However, that number increased from 24 percent in the 2009 GOS report.

In short, "It's crept up on us," Shirvinski said.

"Because of the status of the economy, more families don't have jobs and incomes are cut. There are students we never realized were having problems," he said.

The low-income factor never provided a significant disadvantage to students and data in the past, therefore, "it was never on our radar" until now, Monick said.

The response was not different than addressing other factors, Shirvinski said.

Affected students have been involved in the intervention and instruction periods.

Special education questions

The middle school also failed in academic performance in math for Individualized Education Program (IEP)-special education. The district, as it has been noted in previous years, has performed at high standards despite being in the top 21 percent of districts with special education students and has been praised by the state for its inclusion efforts.

Southern was ranked at 105 with 257 special education students - 18 percent of its 1,428 enrolled in 2011-12.

Snyder said the number of special education students that are included in the general education classrooms have increased and there are fewer learning support classrooms that have parallel curriculum at different intensities.

Special education is such a diverse category from year to year that it's hard to say what exactly was the cause of not reaching those academic performance goals, Snyder said.

Modified PSSAs - including certain accommodations for special education students - were eliminated in 2011-12, Monick said.

100 percent? No way

Snyder and the other administrators are critical of the federal mandate of reaching 100 percent proficiency by next year. In fact, even reaching 91 percent proficiency in reading - this year's target - is unrealistic, they say.

"You want everybody to be 100 percent. You want everyone to be proficient," Becker said. "But growth is more important from year to year for every kid."

Saying 100 percent of the students can show growth is more realistic than saying 100 percent of the students can be proficient on a standardized test, Caputo said. Besides, PSSA results are only a snapshot of a student's year in education, Shirvinski said.

There are different levels of talent on the playing field, Farronato said.

"I see more in the growth of students," she said. "To have that basic student become proficient, or that below basic student who becomes basic, that's more important."

That, she said, is where the focus needs to be.