Once classes started, Hernandez began tracking results from periodic exams, tallying them on sheets of paper marked with colored dots. Green meant progress, pink meant backsliding. Teachers with too much pink were offered help, and parents of struggling students sometimes found Hernandez at their doors.
The bottom third
If student progress was measured, other schools might find themselves under much more scrutiny.
Topeka Elementary in Northridge serves a community where one in four parents attended graduate school. Over the seven years analyzed, two-thirds of Topeka's students scored above grade level, contributing to its sterling API score of 879.
But the school is intently focused on bringing up those who score below. In part that's because the API, while not primarily concerned with students' progress, is designed to give more credit to gains by low achievers.
"It's where you get the most bang for your buck," said Principal Miko Dixon. "Everything we do is about getting those kids up."
Those low-achieving students made small but steady gains, the Times analysis found. The much larger group of high achievers was essentially flat in English and steadily falling behind in math. When ranked by student growth overall, Topeka was in the bottom 3% of district elementary schools. Its students made far less progress, on average, than their peers in Watts, Pacoima and other low-income neighborhoods across the city.
Dixon, who arrived at Topeka in 2009, expressed some surprise at the school's ranking, though she was aware that several teachers were struggling.
Yet Topeka faces none of the scrutiny or pressure to improve that Esperanza and other low-API campuses do.
"They ignore us," Dixon said.
Luck of the address
If fifth-grader Ilene Gallegos had lived a few blocks west in Watts, she might have ended up at 96th Street Elementary. Instead, she went to a school just a mile away: 92nd Street.
Thanks to that accident of geography, she may have received a remarkably better education.
On paper, the two campuses are practically identical. The vast majority of students are low-income and black or Latino. Both schools' API scores are below the state target of 800.
But the campuses are miles apart in terms of their students' growth: 92nd street ranks in the top 5% of the district, while 96th Street is in the bottom 5%, the Times analysis found.
In second grade, Ilene tested at grade level in math. By fourth grade, she answered every math question correctly on the state test, a feat that earned her a trophy. She made strong gains in English and scored at grade level by fourth grade.
The secret? "Every year here, she's had a pretty good teacher," said Ilene's mother, Elizabeth Rodriguez.
At 92nd Street, the average teacher was in the 76th percentile compared with peers in the district, according to the Times value-added analysis of teachers, reported on last week. Five teachers there were in the top 5%.