After a prolonged period of low test scores, Westchester High School appears to be on the verge of turning the corner academically.

While its Academic Performance Index (API) score for 2008 was 603, nearly 200 points below the state’s benchmark of 800, the school’s latest score of 629 represents a jump of 26 points, its largest in recent memory.

Principal Bruce Mims told The Argonaut recently that the gradual gains in the student test scores are only the beginning and gave credit to the students, teachers and his staff as instrumental components in the school’s quest for a return to higher academic achievement.

Ronni Ephraim, Los Angeles Unified School District deputy superintendent for professional learning, development and leadership, said that API improvement at many schools could be attributed to “strong school teamwork, quality instructional materials and skillful teaching.”

In addition to the rise in its academic performance, the high school posted the largest increase in overall pass rate on the California High School Exit Exam in Local District 4, which includes Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista, Playa del Rey and Del Rey.

Westchester High also passed its inspection by the Office of Environmental, Health and Safety on September 24th, a source of pride for the principal, due to the fact that the high school failed its last inspection, which occurred prior to his arrival in December.

Mims calls last year’s failure “a stain on our school,” adding, “We spent a good part of last year trying to get off the poor list and weren’t able to.”

In addition, the high school has already qualified for Title I funding.

“That’s significant because we’ve reached an important milestone in terms of the threshold for next year, because that could mean a lot of money for our school,” Mims explained in an interview in the last week of September. “We’re only three weeks into the school year, so that’s very significant.”

Title I allocations are made by the U.S. Department of Education to schools that have a certain percentage of low-income students. Last year, Westchester High did not qualify for the federal funds until December.

Mims said the progress that has been made in these areas is part of a focused plan that stresses accountability and results.

“There were so many problems when I got here, and I spent a lot of time just putting out fires,” he said. “The most rewarding part of my job has been seeing the efforts to institute certain structures pay off, and we now know that focused effort and accountable follow-up equals results.”

All of these improvements collectively are viewed by Westchester High’s administration as sign posts that can be pointed to along the road to better days for the school’s students, teachers and administrators.

“None of this happened in a vacuum,” Mims noted.

Gail Levy, whose daughter is a junior at the high school, believes that Mims has played a large role in much of the school’s recent progress.

“I really think that there was a lack of leadership in recent years at the high school, and that has improved because Dr. Mims is a very strategic organizer,” said Levy, who was on the hiring committee that brought the principal to Westchester High. “He has created a structure that was missing.”

History teacher Kenneth Tiegs also believes that the high school is on the right track.

“It’s in the process of development. It’s ongoing,” said Tiegs, who grew up in Playa del Rey. “The goal is constant, year-to-year improvement.”

Tiegs, who is the chair of the school governance council, believes that organization and leadership, two qualities mentioned by Levy and others, are the primary factors that led to the surge in higher test scores and teacher morale.

He would also like to see next year’s API go even higher.

“I expect a huge jump next year,” said the history teacher. “Our leadership likes to celebrate the small gains, and that’s good, but I would rather celebrate when we hit 700.”

Mims said that 700 is an attainable goal.

“Why not?” he asked. “I’m cautiously optimistic, but our people are engaged in critical conversations about practice and to align what they are doing in the classroom with our students’ needs.”

Mims has also introduced Safe Passages, a collaboration between the high school, local law enforcement and community members to keep students safe coming to and leaving school.

“It functions a lot like Neighborhood Watch,” the principal said. “Everyone is watching over each other to keep kids safe and the community safe and making sure that people who are coming from other parts of the city know that this is not an area where they can come and do something (illegal).”

Residents who live around the perimeter of the school had complained in recent months of unlawful behavior near their residences from individuals they think may or may not be students or live in the area. A homeowner who lives behind the high school campus, Dan Stefanowicz, was pleased that Mims took the time to help usher in the new community action program and has attended meetings to listen to the neighbors’ concerns.

“I think that he was impressed with the number of residents that came to the meeting,” Stefanowicz said, referring to a Safe Passages community forum that was held on September 17th.

“It’s an ongoing and evolving partnership with all parties,” Mims added.

Mims says that he is committed to attracting as many of the local students as possible for future scholars at Westchester High, and pointed out that the majority of the high school is comprised of students from its local tract, which reaches from Westchester to Windsor Hills.

The improved API numbers, qualifying for Title I money and passing the environmental inspection are just the beginning, Mims said, and he believes that his staff, his teachers and the students are on the cusp of something special. And he knows the challenges and responsibilities will be more difficult, but also more rewarding.

“Everything that has happened has been part of a larger plan,” he reiterated. “Nothing has happened in a vacuum, and we’re ready to go forward.”

Other local schools have also seen a rise in their API scores. Kentwood Elementary School in Westchester increased its score by 47 points to 859, and Mar Vista’s Mark Twain Middle School, while still lagging behind the state benchmarks, had a 51-point jump over the last two years, including a six-point increase this year.