Linda Murray on SJUSD
Through a powerful combination of academic and structural reforms, San José Unified School District (SJUSD) has succeeded in improving the academic performance and educational outlook of many of its minority and lower-income students.
Based on these efforts, SJUSD seeks to make high school "a college gateway rather than a gatekeeper" for students from all backgrounds.
Beginning in the early 1990's, SJUSD initiated a series of reforms to raise the academic standards for all its students and, in particular, to ensure that minority, poor, and immigrant students were well-prepared for college and other promising post-secondary careers.
In 1997, the district accelerated its efforts by instituting the highest graduation requirements for any public high school in the state.
Despite criticism that more stringent standards would leave lesser-performing students behind, the new curriculum's impact had just the opposite effect.
Recent evaluation data show that overall graduation rates have actually increased - from 71 percent in 1998 to 74 percent in 2004. Latino students' academic improvement has been slightly better than the across the board gains, rising from 17 percent who are college-ready upon graduation from high school in 1998 to 45 percent just four years later.
The district began its comprehensive reform effort with a commitment to restructure all aspects of its program so that all high school students would succeed with a college preparatory curriculum.
"In order to implement these reforms, every system in the organization had to be aligned around the common goal of getting all kids ready for college, and we needed to make sure that our stakeholders were with us before making such a bold move," explains Linda Murray, SJUSD's former superintendent.
Using an extensive public engagement strategy that included community forums, stakeholder focus groups, and formal surveys, consensus was built around the need for the reform.
In 1997, the school board voted to require that -- beginning with 1998's freshman class -- all graduating high school students complete the University of California system's entrance requirements (commonly referred to as "the A-G requirements").
Among other required coursework, these standards include three years of college preparatory math through Algebra II, three years of college preparatory science (including two lab sciences), and two years of foreign language.
To help close the achievement gap, SJUSD took several measures designed to improve educational access for Latino and other minority students, especially in math and science.
For example, it required algebra as the entry level math course and eliminated courses like business math and physical science.
Teacher-driven curriculum committees helped to develop diversified instructional materials and new technology resources, and the school system embarked on an aggressive recruitment campaign for new math, science, and language teachers.
In addition to building support from parents and the public, the district also reached out to local businesses and foundations for additional financial and institutional support.
Over the past several years, SJUSD's high schools have also implemented a broad range of student supports to help maximize student learning.
"Safety nets are absolutely essential for any urban district that is going to require college-level work from all its students," says Murray.
To fill the gaps in its existing services, SJUSD offers Saturday Academies, summer "bridge" programs and educational partnerships with local community colleges to supplement learning.
The district also offers tutoring and mentoring support for students who are struggling to meet the new requirements.
In alignment with its academic goals, the district instituted comprehensive structural and programmatic changes to ensure that all of it students have the opportunity to succeed. In particular, it eliminated all remedial and advanced classes through the ninth grade so that all students received the same foundation for the core curriculum, and offered open enrollment for all AP courses.
The district also revamped its class scheduling because, explains Murray, "when you demand rigor for every student, time becomes one of your most important variables."
In addition to block scheduling and other strategies to lengthen the school day, the district also expanded the school week and the school year to provide more learning time.
Bench mark testing with frequent data reports allow school administrators and teachers to track how their students are performing, identify those students in need of extra academic or social supports, and re-evaluate the need for both immediate and long-term teaching adjustments.
SJUSD also invests heavily in quality professional development opportunities. These include subject matter training to ensure teachers are prepared to teach demanding courses, training in cultural competence and how to adapt teaching techniques to meet the needs of individual students.
Professional development has become much more site-based with a stronger emphasis on coaching, mentoring , and use of a clinical model that includes action research and reflective practice approaches.
Carefully designed academic, social and administrative supports have spelled success for the SJUSD.
In addition to increased graduation rates, grade point averages are also on the rise for graduating seniors.
Sixty-five percent of graduates passed every one of their required courses for entrance to the state's university system with a C or better (compared with 33 percent of other state high school graduates). Forty-five percent of Latino graduates are university eligible right out of high school (as compared with 21 percent of Latino high school graduates statewide).
The focus on higher graduation rates has increased expectations all the way down to kindergarten level.
"We've dispelled a lot of myths along the road we decided to go down," reflects Murray. The reality is that a college preparatory curriculum for all students results in dramatic increases in the number of minority and non-minority students who are ready to go to college right out of high school. The challenge now is to make college a reality for everyone who is ready."