One of the many exciting things to happen recently in Venice is the vast academic improvement in Broadway and Westminster elementary schools.

New principals, parent participation with the staff and specialized programs have generated much interest with families who might otherwise consider private education.

Many parents of these students say they will not have to be concerned about where their children will matriculate. Dr. Rex O. Patton, former principal of Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary for 10 years, is now at the helm of Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista. Under Patton’s leadership, Coeur d’Alene was the recipient of the 2008 California Distinguished School award and the 2007 Music Center’s Bravo award, plus other accolades over the years. He envisions a similar type of growth in his new endeavor.

Mark Twain had the same stigma that previously plagued Broadway and Westminster, and even Coeur d’Alene at one time, he said.

“Mark Twain had a reputation for mediocrity, not the highest academic standards,” says Patton. That has changed since he arrived in September 2010. The API (Academic Performance Index) score has already increased by 51 points to 706.

Patton became quite adept at preparing lessons at cross grade levels at Coeur d’Alene. API test scores went from the low 600s to 900 during his tenure.

“We have a lot to do to build up here,” he says. “We have to become successful at the school if we want to develop a good reputation.”

Plans are in place for next year to attain another gain in academic achievement and part of the focus is on two ends of the spectrum, he said. Flex classes several days a week will target students who are categorized as basic to far below basic, with additional instruction so they can move up to peer grade level. Enrichment classes will target students who are considered proficient and advanced, according to the California State Tests of 2010, with more rewarding instruction opportunities and challenges so they also can exceed their current ability.

In addition, a dual language immersion program in Spanish began this year for Spanish-speaking students to maintain their language. In about four years, a dual immersion in Mandarin will start for students coming from Broadway Elementary School.

Also planned is the development of a world languages magnet which will start in the fall. Mark Twain is the only middle school in the Los Angeles United School District to offer this higher level, intensive academic program, Patton said. It was the brainchild of Patton to broaden what the school can offer the community.

“We know languages add to the cognizant ability of students,” he says. “They contribute significantly to the development of individual intelligence.”

The starting languages are Japanese, Spanish, French and Mandarin, with German, Italian and Korean possible in flex classes depending on interest. Students will choose which one they want to focus on and study after they take the “language wheel,” which is a new language every quarter during the sixth grade.

The level of instruction during the first year for the language wheel will be introductory, and students will later be able to take more advanced courses. Patton thinks it should be considered a “pretty good goal” if students can complete the beginner’s level in seventh and eighth grade, and they are ready to start intermediate level in ninth grade. The principal says it also depends on the language itself (Chinese is considered more difficult to learn than Spanish, for example, and students have less opportunities to practice).

Access to a foreign culture for anyone, child or adult, can take them on a journey of discovery. Raising the foreign language interest level even higher is the beginning of collaboration with students around the world. Videoconferencing is the first step as one element of this exchange.

Two schools on the initial list are in the Ivory Coast and New Zealand. Patton has contacted Escuela San Isidro in Madrid, which runs a bilingual program of Spanish-French. They have a Chinese school on the weekends, where the children of the Chinese community in Spain attend to study the Chinese language and maintain their culture.

Spanish students also go to that school, which is called Academia China de Madrid. Those students speak Spanish and Chinese. Patton is also in touch with the Instituto San Isidro, which is bilingual school.

“We also have to consider that not all schools have the resources that Mark Twain has,” says Patton. “In my emails to those principals, I asked them how Mark Twain could help them in their programs, what they thought we could do for their students, and what initiatives they would like to see happening through collaboration with us.”

Patton is known for his fundraising prowess. Creative Artists Agency (CAA) has funded a Venice Virtual Academy which will be led by a Technology Coordinator. In 2012, it is expected that at least 90 percent of teachers will create web pages to extend classroom learning through online instruction, school to home communication will increase via the school web page, students will develop their own web page in the form of digital portfolios that are accessible on the Internet, and that staff and students will use technology tools to communicate with community and professional mentors.

Mark Twain is the first school on the West Coast to get funding from the Joe Torre (former Dodgers baseball manager) Safe at Home Foundation for counselors who deal with abuse and violence in the home.

“This helps students so they can concentrate on the academics,” says Patton. “There is so much that some students have to deal with beyond school.”

While great strides have been made in the first year of Patton’s tenure, he recognizes the need to keep improving by successfully drawing in community and business partnerships to help create and strengthen his vision with regard to the school’s strategic planning and academic achievement.

“Partnerships help us succeed in the essential outcomes and action strategies of the strategic plan,” he says. “They help us create a vision.

Like a marathon runner, Patton knows the school must continue to strive to improve its previous best. “In education we never reach the finish line but we can surely be proud of the race that we are running,” he says.