Union Democrat staff

To say times are tough for education is an understatement.

In Tuolumne and Calaveras counties alone, more than 75 layoff notices were issued to teachers in March. Facing millions of dollars in budget cuts, districts are also cutting programs, eliminating non-teaching employees, sharing administrators and cutting corners in numerous ways.

But, as just released state test scores show, student performance here in the Mother Lode is shining through the financial gloom.

Local scores in the annual Academic Performance Index exams are not only better than the statewide average, but improving in most districts. And some schools, like Hazel Fischer Elementary in Arnold and Pinecrest Elementary, recorded superb marks.

Not only that, but our soon-to-graduate high school seniors have shown us more than brains. In an imaginative array of community-minded senior projects, they have demonstrated ingenuity, compassion and citizenship.

Accomplishment is hardly limited to those who take tests, complete projects and collect diplomas. Much of the credit goes to teachers.

Schools throughout Tuolumne and Calaveras counties are blessed with excellent faculties. Some of the best among them were honored last month at the annual Excellence in Teaching Awards dinner in Sonora.

A brief look at the schools, students and teachers who have done us proud:

API tests (2009): Fourteen of 21 schools in Tuolumne County and 12 of 19 in Calaveras reached or surpassed the state performance goal of 800. All-star schools included Hazel Fischer (879), Pinecrest (878), Mokelumne Hill (860) and Avery Middle School (860). Connections Academy, a fine arts-oriented charter school on the Summerville High campus, posted a stellar 861.

And every one of these high-scoring schools improved its 2008 scores.

In Tuolumne County,12 of 21 schools tested improved over last year and in Calaveras, 12 of 18 advanced.

Senior projects: Long a staple of springtime news coverage, senior projects now seem more innovative and public spirited than ever.

With thousands of students from a half-dozen high schools turning out projects each year, the cumulative impacts on our communities is considerable and beneficial.

A few 2010 examples: Sonora High's Jamie Smith is bringing Soap Box Derby competition back to the county. Summerville's Allis Nicholwong sponsored a free health fair at her mother's medical office last week. Students at Sonora's Middle College program helped Habitat for Humanity in bringing affordable housing to those in need. Kayla Ekstrand of Smmmerville hosted a spaghetti dinner to benefit breast cancer research.

Sonora's Emily Hamilton brought an international children's choir to the Sonora High Auditorium to raise money for clean drinking water in Africa. Summerville Ashley Taylor put on a rodeo to benefit the ReHorse Rescue Ranch. And Michael Maltese last weekend put on 5K and 10K races at Columbia College to benefit Trek for the Track.

Excellent teachers: Sonora High School Assistant Principal Chase Anderson - "dedicated, tireless, inspirational and compassionate," according to students and colleagues - was recognized for career achievement at last month's awards banquet. One of 17 teachers honored countywide, the 31-year teacher and administrator began his career in 1979, figuring he might stay a semester.

His reason for instead staying 60 semesters? "The students, of course."

That kind of dedication, which is shared by many in the profession, goes a long way toward explaining why our kids have done so well in these hard times.