Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Avery Middle School can count itself among 218 schools to earn the prestigious "California Distinguished School" award this year.

The title came after Avery showed high test scores and a focus on helping students do well. It followed a tough evaluation process that ended with interviews of students, teachers and parents by local educators in March.

"We've been rockin' it around here," said Avery Middle School Principal Christine Cearley. "I have to say, I'm very, very proud."

While applying for the award, Avery highlighted two "signature practices" that helped set it apart from the approximately 2,600 public middle and high schools in California.

The first was its use of iPads for each student, which started when the district bought them about three years ago. Students can take the tablets home every day and use them to access videotaped lessons that teachers post online.

"What's happening is students are able to then address their own academic needs," Vallecito Union School District Superintendent Phyllis Parisi said in an interview last month.

"If they need reinforcement, they can go back and listen to (the lessons) again," Parisi said. "The iPad doesn't care if you listen to it 10 times or 100 times."

Students are using the iPads to create multimedia presentations, edit videos, and more.

Avery Middle School's use of iPads has also earned it three consecutive Apple Distinguished School awards, the last of which was accepted by the Vallecito Union School District Board of Trustees in March.

Apple's website says Avery Middle School was "one of the earliest adopters of a 1:1 iPad program in public education."

Less well-publicized is the school's practice of identifying students who need extra help before it's too late.

Teachers, administrators and other staff members meet once every several weeks to talk about how students are doing.

They also meet before school starts in the fall to review each child's academic performance and well-being. At that time, they plan counseling or other support if the student needs it.

Even those who've always done well in class can expect to hear from Cearley if their grades drop or they show other signs of needing help.

"I think it's really paid off, because the kids know that they're all being monitored," Cearley said. "They get praise for doing well and know we're watching."

The California Department of Education will describe that practice as an example for other schools to follow, and Avery will get a Distinguished School plaque and flag.

No other school in Tuolumne or Calaveras counties got the California Distinguished School Award this year or last year.