Gilbert Moreno, President and CEO of George I. Sanchez Charter High School
In Houston and San Antonio, the two cities with the lowest graduation rates in Texas, the George I. Sanchez Charter High School is successfully improving the educational odds for its communities' most at-risk Latino and African-American youth through a proven combination of intensive academic and social supports.
Since it was founded in 1973, the mission of this groundbreaking charter high school, named for the well-known Latino civil rights leader, is to meet the needs of highly at-risk students who have either dropped out of school or who are likely to drop out.
The school is founded on the principle that all youth deserve a second chance, and its dedicated staff has proven that major turnarounds are possible, even for the most difficult students.
"We serve the youngsters most in need of direction - the ones who sometimes come to us years behind their grade level," says Gilbert Moreno, president and CEO of The Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans (AAMA), the organization that operates the schools. "For these kids, life isn't always clear. It's fuzzy and it's difficult."
Despite the challenges facing its economically disadvantaged student body, Sanchez's drop-out rate is relatively low - a total of only 2.7% in Houston and 9.7% in San Antonio for grades seven through twelve during the 2003-2004 school year.
Because often children need a broader set of social supports to succeed academically, Sanchez focuses on the most common reasons that students drop out of school and systematically addresses them with a range of comprehensive "wraparound" services.
The school offers a full service health clinic that provides pre-natal care, HIV and STD outreach and prevention, parenting classes, immunizations, and other routine care. To support teen parents, the school offers free child care and pre-k education services for 60 children between the ages of 6 months and four years. In addition to gang intervention and other targeted prevention programs, the school also operates two shelters - one for homeless youth and the other for students with substance abuse issues.
Outreach personnel also work intensely with immigrant students who may be struggling with issues related to language, cultural transition, and legal status.
The school's comprehensive approach to service delivery is also reflected in its academic programs.
In partnership with the Gates Foundation and the National Council of La Raza, the school offers an innovative Early College Program (ECP). Designed to bridge the gap between high school and college and enhance minority student opportunities, ECP allows participating students to leave with a high school diploma and an Associate's degree or two years of college credit towards a bachelor's degree.
With the support of the Houston Tech Center and the Latino Technology Network, students in the San Antonio campus can take advantage of Houston's state-of-the-art Odyssey Lab by using videoconferencing technology that also allows faculty to coordinate tutoring and other supplemental services.
Sanchez also has a long-tenured, bilingual faculty who routinely spend the extra time and effort needed to get their most challenged students back on track.
"We have a tremendous staff," says Moreno, "and obviously that's the real key because when you are talking about education, teaching is where it really happens."
Recent increases in standardized test scores reflect the high level of commitment. Between 1998 and 2002, overall reading scores on Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) rose in reading from 71% to 94.9%; in math from 35.7% to 87.5%; and in writing 66.7% to 81%. In 2002, Sanchez had some of the highest Texas Learning Improvement Scores in Texas, almost doubling the State average in math.
Sanchez also offers a GED program in both English and Spanish as part of AAMA's broader outreach and education services for Latino immigrants.
Even in the face of serious state and local funding cuts, Sanchez is focusing on its next set of challenges.
In 1999, the school completed a new $4 million campus in Houston and is currently raising funds for an additional complex that will contain new classrooms, PC labs and a new middle school so it can intervene even earlier in the lives of its students.
As in many minority communities, Sanchez is focused on helping to close the achievement gap in math and science by encouraging its students to perform at accelerated levels in these areas and using state of the art technology to support these efforts.
Based on the success of its programs, Sanchez is also engaged in strategic business planning to establish more specially-targeted charter schools in other Texas communities of high need.
In the meantime, the school continues to join together with other community and faith-based organizations to develop effective strategies to address poverty, discipline issues and other dilemmas that increase drop-out rates.
"It's a real struggle to be able to raise these serious academic deficiencies," says Moreno, "but we're making a difference and we'll continue to do the job we set out to do."