By Roger Phillips, Record Staff Writer
STOCKTON - Chris Payne keeps a book of inventions, the brainstorming she one day says she will turn into reality. She's guarded about sharing her ideas with you and only will do so if you promise not to tell anybody.
Chris is 10 years old, a fifth-grader whose bright and inquisitive mind is blossoming at Aspire Port City Academy, which may well be the best school in Stockton that nobody knows about.
"This school makes me eager to come to school," Chris said. "I don't just mope around in the morning. I get ready fast so I can come to school earlier."
Located in three leased buildings once used by a parochial school at Trinity Lutheran Church near downtown Stockton, the kindergarten through fifth grade Port City Academy is part of Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit charter school organization based in Oakland.
In its third year, Port City has 260 students. The vast majority of Port City's students live within the boundaries of Stockton Unified and share similar demographic backgrounds. They are heavily minority, 70 percent qualify for free or reduced meals, 20 percent are English learners and 75 percent have parents who do not have four-year college degrees.
But when Academic Performance Index scores were released by California earlier this month, Port City's numbers bore scant resemblance to those of Stockton Unified. Port City's API score of 837 was higher than any school in Stockton Unified, nearly 200 points higher than the district as a whole, and among the best in San Joaquin County.
Principal Shelby Scheideman says she believes there are a variety of reasons for Port City's success.
She cites its small student body, which she said allows staff to develop deep and lasting relationships with the children and their parents. She said the school's teachers regularly spend hours sharing ideas with each other. And she said the school's "laser-like focus" on data enables it to personalize its programs for individual students.
"We really know which kids need support," Scheideman said. "It's not just random interventions."
Port City's students have other advantages - a seven-hour school day that is 60 minutes longer than that of a typical public school and a 190-day calendar, 10 days longer.
Charter schools receive funding from the state and are free for students to attend. Aspire operates six schools in Stockton, including three - University Public School, Benjamin Holt College Preparatory Academy and River Oaks Charter Academy - that recorded higher API scores than Port City this year.
Charter schools - whose supporters include President Barack Obama - operate largely independently of school districts and therefore were able to avoid much of the fallout of California's financial crisis earlier this year.
School districts throughout the state laid off thousands of teachers at the end of 2008-09 and are operating shorthanded this year. More than 100 classrooms in Stockton Unified were taught by long-term substitutes when school opened July 29 and that continued to be the case for weeks.
On the other hand, Port City's 11 teachers were in place from opening day, and the students appear to be enjoying their lessons even as their teachers push them to excel.
"Guten tag," a child said to a classmate in German during a recent morning meeting in Larrise Lane's second-grade class.
"Guten tag," the classmate replied, making strong eye contact.
The morning meetings and learning about other languages and cultures are part of the routine in Lane's class. Outside her room, a sign informs visitors that the Class of 2024 is hard at work. The room is named "Juilliard" after the prestigious performing-arts conservatory in New York, and other rooms at Port City also are named after colleges and universities.
Not far from Lane's classroom, Sokheap Heng teaches a fourth- and fifth-grade class, the only combination class at Port City. Heng wears Air Jordans and is a frenetic ball of energy.
"I just believe teaching and learning should not be boring at all, period," she said.
She had just spent several minutes making a lesson on prefixes that seemed almost as action-packed as roller derby, and her students couldn't take their eyes off her.
During one of the brief moments when Heng stood still, fourth-grader Caleb Wafer explained to the class how they could figure out a definition by understanding the prefix at the beginning of the word.
"If you wanted to know what 'biblio' means you could say 'book,' " Wafer said. "A bibliography would be a 'book-o-graphy.'"
Chris, the fledgling inventor, said she was not challenged by the work in her previous school - a Stockton Unified K-8 - and at times felt discouraged by teachers who were too busy trying to help other students.
"I have a lot of questions," she said. "My old teacher was, like, 'Yes? What is it this time?' "
Scheideman said Chris, who has attended Port City since it opened, has developed into an advanced student.
"She wanted the challenge," said Chris' mother, Hope Miro. "She would ask the teachers at the other school if she could have more work. But they could only do so much."
Contact reporter Roger Phillips at (209) 546-8299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.