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Students Deliver Scores for a Song

Counselor portrays 'Little Mermaid' after school's 66-point spike in Stanford 9 results.

October 26, 2002|Karima A. Haynes | Times Staff Writer

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Alex Bacos has a big heart -- and mouth to match.

As a guidance counselor and testing coordinator at Madison Middle School in North Hollywood, Bacos knew last May how hard it can be to get 2,400 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to commit to anything, let alone preparing for the Stanford 9 test.

He needed a hook, a gag, a shtick -- something really over the top -- to get his students pumped for pulling up their scores on the three-day statewide exam.

"Without even thinking, I said to the kids, 'If you raise your test scores I will dye my hair red and sing the song from 'The Little Mermaid,' " Bacos recalled.

To his amazement, the kids went for the crazy stunt.

Beginning in September 2001, they studied vocabulary lists, watched videos on test-taking strategies and came in on Saturdays for tutoring. Teachers geared their instruction toward math, reading, spelling and language skills the children would need on the test.

Parents were told of the importance of the test through newsletters, telephone calls and the school newspaper.

Madison's standardized test scores were among the lowest in the Los Angeles Unified School District because most of its students are from low-income families and have limited English proficiency, administrators said.

As a campus deemed underperforming by state education officials in 2000, Madison had to raise its score on the statewide Academic Performance Index from 513 to at least 527 -- 14 points -- to avoid possible censure.

"We knew that this was a make-or-break year," Bacos said. "We had to show improvement."

Through the test period, Bacos said students committed to getting enough rest, eating a good breakfast and embracing the unofficial school motto: "Do your best on the test!"

The moment of truth came earlier this month when Principal JoAnna Kunes told the students that their API scores had soared 66 points -- nearly four times the goal and the biggest gain among middle schools in the district.

"These results were a well-deserved vindication for staff and students who together ... [were] determined to disprove the designation of Madison as an underperforming school," Kunes said.

Yet, there was one more score to settle.

On Friday morning, after students jammed the school auditorium, the school orchestra sounded the opening strains of "The Little Mermaid" theme song. A spotlight shone as the curtain parted.

There, among "rocks" against an ocean backdrop sat a not-so-"Little Mermaid" stuffed into a skin-tight gold sequined skirt, shell halter and bright green swim fins, tossing a full head of cascading red curls.

The kids laughed, clapped, whistled, screamed and snapped pictures.

Bacos belted out the tune with Broadway-style abandon, shimmied across the stage and chatted with his audience, telling them, "You're just clapping because I'm so pretty."

As the song ended and the curtain closed, Kunes shouted, "Let's hear it for Mr. Bacos' hairy underarms!" launching another wave of catcalls.

"I didn't think he was going to do it," said seventh-grader Jennyfer Vilchez, shaking her head in disbelief.

Classmate Tomas Valenzuela knew better: "Mr. Bacos always keeps his promises."

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