In their application, Witter and Hidalgo schools are listed as having a population that is 74 percent Hispanic, 62 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches and 29 percent English-language learners.
Historically, these subgroups are not expected to achieve tremendously in school.
"Research shows and financial status says these students cannot make this kind of growth," Santana said.
Happy to prove the research wrong, Santana and Watkins both think every student at their schools can and will learn.
In the two schools, API scores outgrew the expected point gain nearly eight times between 1999 and 2000 with all subgroups making significant advancement.
In percentage of students at or above the 50th percentile on the SAT 9, the schools had an average growth of 14.8 percent in reading and 28 percent in math.
"We try to find the ones who have made the most progress," said Hanna Walker, director of the California Department of Education's specialized programs division.
"I think it's a very prestigious award because these schools have high poverty rates and despite this they're doing better than expected," Walker said of the five winning schools.
Coincidentally, the five schools are all in Southern California, Walker said.
While the schools have officially only been nominated for the national award, Walker said it's likely all five will be named National Title I Achieving Schools.
After submitting an application late last year, Witter and Hidalgo schools were both visited by a representative from the Department of Education "to see if what was on the paper is in the classroom," Walker said.
Santana and Watkins said their site visits were thorough. The representative spoke with parents, grade-level representatives, teachers and staff.
Watkins credits winning the award and improved student performance to "high expectations."
"I think it validates the school," Watkins said.
"There's so much negative press about schools. This is something good," Watkins said.
Watkins and Santana both credit teachers and staff with making such gains possible.
"This includes everybody at every level," Santana said, listing custodians, teachers and parents as playing parts in student success.
"It's a team effort," Watkins said.
Witter and Hidalgo are separate school sites serving the same student population. Both sites house their own kindergarten students while Witter serves first- through third-graders and Hidalgo serves fourth- through sixth-graders.
Staff Writer Kelly Rausch can be reached at 337-3442.