At Sunkist Elementary School, a tidy 31-year-old campus nestled in a middle-class Anaheim neighborhood, students come to stay: Many begin their academic careers in the school's kindergarten and remain with the same group of classmates all the way through sixth grade.
Less than 15 miles away, Oak View Elementary School in Huntington Beach wrestles with crowded classrooms, an annual turnover rate that tops 90% and many children who are ill-equipped for public education, either because they lack English skills or because they have had little exposure to formal schooling.
California Assessment Program test scores released last week speak volumes about the two schools and their vastly different experiences. Sunkist, always among Orange County's highest, led all elementary schools in third-grade writing and math. Oak View, perennially near the bottom, this year dropped even further, ranking lowest in the county in third-grade reading, writing and math, as well as in sixth-grade reading, writing and math.
As the statistics indicate, the two schools, although nearly identical in size, sit at opposite ends of Orange County's educational spectrum. Their performance suggests that while local educators are making progress toward improving county schools, daunting obstacles remain.
"For some schools, it can be overwhelming," Orange County Supt. of Education Robert Peterson said.
While most schools in the county were well above state averages in subjects covered by CAP scores released last week, others struggled. Generally, eighth-grade scores were up, while students in the third and sixth grades posted lower scores compared to last year.
Educators have debated the value of CAP scores and their usefulness in assessing a school's performance ever since the tests were introduced, but nearly all agree that the tests give at least some indication of how a school is managing.
So when Sunkist and Oak View officials read their scores last week, there was joy at one and palpable frustration at the other. In writing, for instance, Sunkist's third graders were the only group in the county to break 400 on the 500-point test. Oak View's were the only ones to score lower than 200.
It was the second year in a row that Sunkist Elementary's third-graders have dazzled educators with their performance. They scored better than 400 in writing and math both years, and this year they averaged 385 in reading. Third-grade state averages on the test are 277 in reading, 278 in writing and 278 in math, so Sunkist's scores, particularly coming in back-to-back years, drew high praise from educators.
The school's sixth-graders tested nearly as well, ranking in the 95th percentile or higher among schools with student populations similar to Sunkist's.
Explanations for the 580-student school's success are as obvious as they are simple, Oak View officials and other educators said in interviews. Most students come from stable families and a neighborhood that, while not extravagant, is nonetheless comfortably middle-class. In school, students are held accountable for their actions, parents are involved at all levels of the educational process, and teachers do not hesitate to mix stern criticism with their congratulations.
"We are willing to try new things, and a lot of new things are very good, but we are also very traditional," fourth-grade teacher Darlene Martasin said. "We believe in positive reinforcement, but we also believe in firm discipline. Sometimes that's the only way you get somewhere."
Notices posted in Sunkist classrooms remind students of that. Teachers put up lists of "limits" and "consequences," and students ruefully admit that the warnings are religiously enforced. Consequences can include "time out," where disobedient students are sent to another class for a proscribed period of time to do their work. Repeat offenders can lose their recess or spend time after school paying for their transgressions.
Students who fail to turn in assignments or who routinely misbehave can expect a call to their parents.
But most of the attention is positive. Students work in small groups, some as small as four or five youngsters, under the close eye of teachers or volunteer assistants. They are gently coaxed toward correct answers and warmly praised when they get them. In some grades, students receive play money for commendable work, and the money is banked, with interest, until students use it to buy goods at periodic auctions.
During a recent visit to the school, every classroom was managed by both a teacher and at least one volunteer. While teachers guided students in reading, volunteers presided over small groups of young foreign students, tutoring them in English.
Some of the volunteers are parents who have devoted more than a decade to contributing spare hours to educating the children of their community. It's a level of parental support that most schools would envy.