Mann Middle School in El Cerrito has long been one of the schools that everyone wrings their hands over in San Diego. Most of its students are poor enough to get free lunches. Many are refugees struggling to learn English. For years it has suffered high teacher turnover and its scores have ranked among the lowest in the state.

So when test scores made a quantum leap this year, putting Mann ahead of schools it once lagged behind, it was a surprise to almost everyone. Everyone, that is, except the people at Mann itself.

“I knew it would come some day,” said engineering teacher Jose Lara. “The bottom line is, are they learning? And obviously they are.”

Mann went through the reform wringer as San Diego Unified searched for answers.

Five years ago, under pressure to improve under No Child Left Behind, the school district tried splitting Mann up into three smaller schools. That didn’t seem to work, so San Diego Unified pulled Mann back together again.

Principal Esther Omogbehin and the teachers set out to replace small schools with a big school that still feels small. When middle schools fall short, educators say kids slip through the cracks because the school hasn’t figured out who needs help and gotten them that help. To combat that, Mann created a system that combines human attention and hard data to track how students are doing, giving teachers timely, frequent information about students’ scores and their struggles.

“Kids can’t go through this school without feeling they’re noticed,” said Paul Villar, a vice principal.

Mann still has a long way to go. Despite its testing gains — nearly 100 points on a scale that ranges from 200 to 1,000 — less than half of Mann students meet state goals in English and math. But San Diego Unified has already taken notice, bringing principals to tour the school and learn from its system.

Here is how Mann tries to track students: Vice principals meet with each student three times a year and carry a cheat sheet of student photos to help them rattle off kids’ names in the hallways.

When students misbehave or fail, all their teachers gather to talk with them about what’s going wrong, asking students to help them solve the problem. “Student states that he doesn’t understand the work — often makes up answers,” notes from one meeting explain. Another boy said soccer got in the way of homework.

Their problems aren’t always complicated, but now teachers have a consistent system for spotting them. It also helps that classes are unusually small, thanks to special state funding.

“This school takes care of every student,” said parent Duong Le.

Suspension and expulsion rates plunged the year before last, the most recent data that are available. Tackling behavior problems also got easier with more help from parents, after Mann started family classes that go over what kids learn in school.

Gina Montijo, the parent academic liaison, said where parents used to be scarce, now kids peer in as they pass the parent center to see if family is there.

Time and attention are the human parts of what changed at Mann. But data also plays a big part. Mann teachers can take a glance at who fell behind on state tests or school district exams given throughout the year. Then they tackle the specific things that different students struggled with.

Last week, Ebonee Weathers quizzed a small group of eighth graders on a reading while others did computerized lessons that adjusted automatically to their reading level. By breaking up one of the computer labs and scattering computers among classrooms, Mann freed up teachers to give one-on-one attention to students with specific weaknesses while others do digitized lessons.

Just knowing that kids fall short in English on annual state tests is too little information, Weathers said. More frequent school district tests and updates from the computer program tell her whether spelling or word usage or something else is the problem. Then she zeroes in on where students need help.

Omogbehin also tries to group kids at a similar level in each class — either above or below grade level — so that teachers don’t have to scramble to meet kids who are all over the map. Struggling students also get twice as much time in English class or math class.

Experts have long debated whether splitting kids up by ability or grouping them together is best. While other schools have gone the opposite direction, putting gifted and struggling kids together so kids learn from each other, Mann leaders say narrowing the range works better for them. Omogbehin added that unless kids are taking two hours of English — an obvious sign they’re behind — they don’t know which level of English classes they’re in. Kids do, however, get lots of information about how far ahead or behind they are.

“If they’re failing, they failing,” said Susie Fahey, one of Mann’s vice principals. “We can sugarcoat that all we want — but then when they get to high school they drop out. And there’s no sugarcoating that.”

Frank talk is a big part of how Mann works, but so is making sure that students know how they can change their fate. When test results come out, Mann translates the results into clearer language for parents and kids so they know how close they are to the next level.

And the system also creates carrots for kids to excel. If students do well, they only have to take one hour of English or math, which frees up time for an elective class. As more and more students at Mann succeed, the school has offered more electives, from Mandarin to engineering. This is the first year in recent memory that Mann has an art class.

Omogbehin openly says that one key to their improvement was simply paying closer attention to the tests. No Child Left Behind demands that students in all different groups improve, so teachers were nudged to note to how African-American or Indochinese students in particular were doing. Critics often deride such strategizing as teaching to the test, but Mann leaders argue the tests helped them focus.

“Everybody knew who to target, what to target, what to emphasize,” Omogbehin said.

The question now is whether Mann sustains those gains. To school board member Shelia Jackson, Mann is a perfect example of the kind of change that San Diego Unified wants to nurture through its decentralized brand of school reform, in which each school comes up with its own reforms. Now they have to spread the lessons from Mann to other struggling schools.

“People would look at Mann and say, ‘Here’s the quick fix,’” Jackson said. “We finally gave them the chance to start doing what they think is right.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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