Above, eighth-graders Jaden Penhaskashi, left, and Nikita Akchyan work on their AP Physics projects at the Science Academy STEM Magnet.

The middle school students at the Science Academy STEM Magnet have published textbooks, won international robotics contests and tackled demanding college-level courses in chemistry and physics.

Now, they have another accomplishment to add – earning the highest score in California on the math portion of the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

The middle school magnet is the only public school in California where 100 percent of the students met or exceeded standards on the rigorous math exam. Coupled with its 98.29 percent score on the English assessment, the Science Academy also posted the highest combined score in California.

The close-knit Science Academy faculty includes, from left, Jorge Chaidez, Jodi Huff, Michelle Yamasaki, Friedrick Knauss, Alina Khachatouri, Carlos Lauchu and Sandelle Kinkaid.

“This is such a rigorous and innovative program, and it’s exciting to have it in our portfolio of successful magnets,” said Keith Abrahams, who oversees the District’s 225 magnets as the head of Student Integration Services. “The teachers and administrators are so passionate about their work, and it’s reflected in the outstanding performance of their students.”

The passion of his close-knit staff is just one element of the “secret sauce” that Principal Carlos Lauchu said enriches instruction and inspires students to want to learn and succeed.

“There are three things that we do,” said Lauchu, who was the District’s Teacher of the Year in 2011.  “We set clear expectations. We keep students from getting bored by challenging them and pushing them to their potential.

“And we show them that we love them and that we care.”

The academic bar is set very high at the Science Academy, where kids have to be designated as gifted, highly gifted or high-ability students to be eligible for enrollment. The curriculum for sixth-graders includes accelerated math and robotics, while seventh- and eighth-graders take Advanced Placement science courses, allowing them to earn college credits before they’re even in high school.

“We’re always assessing our students’ progress so we can help them keep moving beyond,” said Michelle Yamasaki, the seventh-grade math teacher. “We start from where they are now, and teach to the top.”

English-language arts courses are also rigorous, with a college-prep mindset instilled in the classes from the very first day.

Mariam Ushakyan tackles college-level physics in an Advanced Placement class at the Science Academy STEM Magnet.

“There is a lot of writing, and we push them to go deeper and provide plenty of supporting evidence,” said English teacher Sandelle Kinkaid, whose sixth-graders all scored at or above standards on the Smarter Balanced test. “We tell them, ‘This is the standard, and we know you’re capable of it.’ There is no magic – just a lot of hard work.”

At the same time, there is the recognition that some students are going to struggle with an academic concept or simply need help adjusting.  The Science Academy starts with sixth-graders, helping them identify their weaknesses and devising strategies for success. There are also lunchtime tutoring sessions, where eighth-graders who have mastered a subject are empowered to help younger students tackle the coursework.

“We teach our students that failing is just part of the process of learning, so that our kids don’t have that fear of failure,” Lauchu said. “If they fall down, we are there with a friendly hand to help them stand back up.”

Magnet Coordinator Jodi Huff said this approach also builds resilience – the ability to cope with the challenges that life brings and recover from frustration.

“We come to it from the perspective of a parent, being nurturing and offering support,” said Huff, who has worked with Lauchu for nearly 20 years. “Failure is not the end of the world. There is always a way out.”

The academy started nearly 20 years ago as a rigorous science program at Millikan Affiliated Charter, where it still shares a corner of the campus. Under the leadership of Lauchu – an actor-turned science teacher-turned principal – the program evolved into an academy and, two years ago, a self-contained magnet that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.

Next year, the Science Academy will be moving to the campus at East Valley High School in North Hollywood, where it will begin its gradual expansion into a magnet serving Grades 6-12. Although it will be in a new home, the Science Academy will continue its focus on helping students attain what they are capable of achieving.

“Every school has the ability to affect change,” Lauchu said.  “We want to our students to be geared up for success and to be lifelong learners.”