"You saw a big change once she came … teachers were on the kids about doing their homework and learning," said Sheila Phillips, whose daughter attends 92nd Street.
Principal Luis Heckmuller said that upon arriving in 2008, he found a staff dedicated but not thoroughly covering the standard curriculum. Teachers don't have to teach identically, he said, but it's a problem when some fifth-graders don't know the difference between a prefix and a suffix or what a metaphor is.
"We believe in academic freedoms, but we need to adhere to the California standards," said Heckmuller, whose school's test scores rose significantly according to results released last week.
On a May morning at Wilbur Avenue Elementary, 25 parents toured the sprawling campus. Many said they were weighing Wilbur against private schools.
It's easy to see why they'd be interested, even apart from Wilbur's enviable API score of 896. Extracurricular activities include music and art, cooking, theater, sports, robotics and conversational Hebrew.
Most of this is paid for by the school's booster club, which raises more than $100,000 every year, said David Hirsch, principal at Wilbur before starting a new job this month at Hesby Oaks School in Encino.
Wilbur became a California Distinguished School two years ago based partly on its soaring API, he told the visiting parents during his pitch last spring in the auditorium.
But the Times analysis shows Wilbur's academic growth was less than distinguished. On average, students started third grade in the 77th percentile in math, but by the end of fifth grade were in the 67th. In English, they slid from 79th to 76th.
As a result, when judged by student progress, Wilbur ranked in the bottom 11% of district elementary schools.
In Hirsch's office is a framed certificate of excellence from the district, congratulating the school for raising its API score 140 points over three years. But that number may be more an indication of demographic changes than improved instruction. During the same years Wilbur's API was rising, the percentage of parents who had attended graduate school rose dramatically, and the portion of students in the free-lunch program fell. One reason was an influx of highly educated immigrants into the area, Hirsch said.
Asked about Wilbur's poor academic growth, Hirsch said, "Once you're this high, how much further can you grow?"
Yet research has shown no significant "ceiling effect." Indeed, many of the district's high-API campuses also show excellent growth, according to the Times analysis. For example, students at Wonderland Avenue Elementary in the Hollywood Hills start at an academic level similar to that of pupils at Wilbur, yet they continue to make some of the biggest gains in the district, particularly in math.
Don Wilson, Wonderland's principal, said challenging the high-performing students is a priority. For example, administrators identify some teachers' strongest subject and allow them to specialize in it — an unusual approach at the elementary level. The goal is to give students the strongest possible instruction from each of their teachers.
Hirsch, by contrast, is focused on recruiting and retaining high-achieving students, saying that pushes everyone's scores higher.
"Here you're running with the thoroughbreds," he said. "Sooner or later, it brings you up."
He told the visiting parents that he had resisted the district's attempts to make Wilbur more diverse through the open-enrollment program, which allows students from other neighborhoods to attend the school. "They say, 'We'll give you 50 seats, but you have to take 10 Hispanic kids for every white one,'" Hirsch told the mostly white group. "They do it by integration."
He said he'd rather pick local kids "out of a hat." In an interview later, Hirsch said he wasn't intending to discriminate — he simply prefers that approach to having minorities bused in from far away to fill a district goal.
He said he was puzzled by his school's poor showing in the Times analysis.
"There is not a lot of meat and potatoes here," he acknowledged, referring to the curriculum. "We do a lot of performance art ... maybe we do too much of that?"
Still, Hirsch insisted he was giving parents what they want. And many parents, including some who camped out to get their children in, say they're happy.
"Did I fail or succeed?" Hirsch said. "You be the judge."
Times data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.