KINGSBURG – When test results came back from the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) test conducted last spring, Clay Elementary School administrators were pleased to see their results.

This year, 83 percent of Clay students met or exceeded standards in English Language Arts while 78 percent met or exceeded standards in math. Statewide, those figures are 49 percent in ELA and 37 percent in math. 

“I think a lot of that is that it’s a family here,” Teacher and Program Manager Heather Wilson said of the results. “You know the kids by name. It’s unique.”

California third-through-eighth-graders and high school juniors take the CAASPP each year. This new testing format started in the 2014-15 school year with the new Common Core standards and replaces the Standardized Testing and Reporting System (STAR) test.

At least 12 students had perfect scores in either the math or English portions of the test and a couple had perfect scores in both, Wilson said.

Student say they're proud of their results and shared some of the test-taking strategies.

“Just relax and do it and don’t make it more complicated than it is,” eighth-grader Cobe Young said. “There might be some tough questions and there might be some easy ones. Don’t psych yourself out.”

Another eighth-grader, Ashneet Gill, admits that while the test isn’t fun, she realizes it’s important and takes it seriously.

“I’m just thinking that it’s time to do my best and focus on what I’m doing, not what other people are doing,” she said.

Phoebe Williams, a seventh-grader, said she takes her time and goes over the directions and questions to make sure she’s not getting confused.

“It feels good knowing we’re going to a good school," she said. "There’s great teachers and a lot of good students who put work into doing well.”

Eighth-grader Marissa Burkhard said she recalls that the math portion is more challenging than the test taken at the seventh-grade level.

"I just take one question at a time and go back to basics of what I know," she said. "I’m very proud of my school. We did really well.”

Brenda B. Sylvia is both the principal and superintendent at Clay Elementary. She credits Clay's goal of developing the whole child, countless hours of teacher and support staff’s work and generous parents volunteering as the reasons their scores are so high.

Sylvia said the difference lies not only in the history and culture of the school, but also its current emphasis on tiered academic interventions, positive behavior intervention and a dedication to exceeding standards.

“Everyone literally knows everyone and truly cares for and about each other, first and foremost. That sets the tone,” she said. “Since that time, the people that live in our 12-mile-radius school district, and those who join us on an inter-district transfer, desire to maintain the traditions and cultures started over 135 years ago.”

Clay Elementary started in 1880 as a one-room rural school house. Students were mostly related or came from other nearby farming families.

Over the years, the staff has weaved current and relevant 21st Century skills in with their mission statement of exceeding expectations to teach not just academics, but principles of responsibility and respect, Sylvia said.

“It’s a pretty awesome balance,” she said. “From these two priorities, we hold high academic expectations and achieve them, even in our sub-groups. We have a well-aligned broad curriculum enhanced by community supported enriching opportunities.”

Wilson said families often clamor to have their students enrolled at the school and teachers typically stay employed there for decades. More than half of the students transfer in to the K-8 school, but total enrollment is kept to about 250 students.

Their staff includes a full-time music teacher, full-time special education teacher and four instructional aides. 

Wilson, meanwhile, provides intervention and English language development. She said that aside from the caring staff, she sees the involvement of parents as a large factor contributing to their success.

“If you can get parents and teachers together for one sole purpose, then that helps as well," she said. "If a kid needs help, we’re on it immediately. Because we’re small, you know when a kid’s struggling and you take care of it immediately.”

Donations have allowed the school to provide nearly one-to-one technology access for sixth-through-eighth-graders. Three years ago, the school starting using the online diagnostic program i-Ready to help students prepare for the testing.

When testing time comes, Wilson said the emphasis is to pace the test-taking schedule so that students can be thorough and not rushed through the experience.

“We test for an hour and say ‘give us an hour of your best work,’ then we shut it down for the rest of the day,” she said. 

Erin Pasillas serves as the special education teacher and director of behavior interventions at the school. She helps coach and mentor students with academic and/or behavioral issues. 

“We’re blessed to have a population of kids who have very stable and supportive homes, but not all of them," she said. "We can’t look past the kids in need just because the majority is performing well.”

The walls of Pasillas’ instruction areas are filled with positive messages and Post-It notes of random acts of kindness. When it comes to testing strategies, she said her goal is to have students remain persistent.

“Instead of thinking they can’t and it’s too hard and they give up, we ask them to keep trying and ask what are they missing?" she said. "We tell them this big message that if they change their words, they can change their mindset. We really want to give a positive and uplifting message to all the kids because we believe in them."

The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or

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