SMMUSD HDQTRS — A trio of local elementary schools have been named “California Distinguished Schools” for taking steps to narrow the achievement gap while maintaining high scores on standardized tests.

McKinley, Point Dume Marine Science and Webster elementary schools each received the honor, the California Department of Education announced Monday.

To be eligible for the award, schools must meet benchmark scores on federal and state tests.

Elementary and secondary schools are recognized during alternate years, so this year only elementary schools were considered.

To be recognized in 2010, elementary schools had to submit an application describing two of their most successful signature practices. A panel of educators conducted in-person evaluations at school sites before winners were selected.

At McKinley, which has received funding under the federal law known as “Title 1,” which provides benefits to schools with a high proportion of low-income students, the honor was especially rewarding, said Principal Irene Gonzalez.

A former teacher at the school who became principal there five years ago, Gonzalez said earning the designation has long been a shared goal at McKinley.

“You can just sense happiness at our school right now,” she said.

McKinley was recognized for its collaborative coaching program, which is aimed at fostering close communication between teachers from a specific grade level, and for its school-wide professional learning communities.

Gonzalez said the focus on getting teachers to collaborate with one another allows them to quickly identify and address their students’ academic weaknesses. She credited the program with leading to big jumps in student achievement on standardized tests in the past two years.

Gonzalez also won the Elementary Principal of the Year award from the Association of California School Administrators, which she will receive in Long Beach on Thursday.

Point Dume Principal Chi Kim said her school stood out to evaluators for its focus on environmental education and for a reading intervention program. A favorite feature of the environmental curriculum is the “learning garden,” where students find out about composting, organic gardening and the concept of “waste-free lunches,” she said.

Point Dume received honorable mention from the state when it applied for “distinguished” status four years ago. Getting the recognition this year was a bright spot amidst looming teacher layoffs and potential cuts to district programs, Kim said.

“It’s just really nice to have some good news about education,” she said. “It’s a nice boost for everybody.”

nickt@smdp.com