Off to college

Downtown College Prep, the charter school that’s the subject of my book, holds its first graduation ceremony today. The San Jose Mercury News editorialized yesterday on the lessons of DCP’s success.

At least for its graduates, DCP has managed to close the achievement gap in San Jose.

Fifty-four of 56 seniors have met the school’s stiff graduation requirements: acceptance in a four-year college and a “C” or better in every core course — one of the basic requirements for admission to the California State University system.

That far exceeds the rate for other Latinos in the district and is higher than the district as a whole.

Most DCP students are three or more years behind when they start ninth grade. The school spends most of ninth grade trying to bring students up to grade level in reading, writing and math. Students who remain too far behind must repeat the grade.

School leaders and teachers work hard to create a school culture that values academic achievement. Because the school is small, it’s easier to create personal relationships with students and parents. As a charter school, DCP’s leaders can determine their mission and their budget priorities, and hire and fire teachers.

Joe Rodriguez interviewed some DCP students for a column. They talked about what they might be doing if they hadn’t taken the challenge of a college-prep school.

Some would say Tatiana, Eric and Gabriel should have fallen through the cracks in the public education system by now.

“I could be flipping burgers at a Burger King,” said Gabriel Hernandez. Instead, he’ll be flipping through textbooks at California State University at Monterey Bay next fall.

“Me, I could be heading toward the gang thing,” said Eric Zuniga. Actually, he’s heading for Menlo College, to study liberal arts.

“I don’t know,” said Tatiana Jimenez, “I probably would attend a junior college or just get a job.” She’s getting ready instead for Holy Names College in Oakland.

About half the students who started four years ago didn’t make it, though a few repeated a grade and will be graduated next year. (The Merc’s stats ignore the repeaters, so they’re a bit off.) Of those who made it to graduation in four years, all have been accepted to a four-year college. These kids — most of them D and F students in middle school and the first in their families to go to college — do better at completing college-prep classes with a C or better than average students in San Jose Unified; they’ve more than doubled the district’s success rate for Hispanic students.

The charter school spends $11,368 per student; $7,083 comes from the state and the rest from private donors.

Update: Animo Leadership Charter High School, a nearly all-Hispanic, all-low-income charter in the Los Angeles area, also graduated its first class, reports the LA Times. All 125 graduates (out of an initial class of 140) are going to college, trade or technical schools; nearly 60 percent are going to four-year colleges. The school, which is part of the Green Dot network of non-profit charters, is funded entirely by state and federal funds of about $7,500 per student, equivalent to what other California high schools spend.

About Joanne


  1. Those are great results, Joanne. Kudos to the students, staff, and volunteers at the school.

    I’d be very interested in finding out how classes are scheduled and what kind of curriculum the school follows.

  2. Congratulations to DCP’s first graduating class! May there be many more! And may others follow DCP’s example!

    How’s the book going, Joanne?

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    From the school’s web page:

    “Downtown College Prep is not for everybody. It is for students who recognize that they can do better, that they have what it takes to succeed, and are looking for a place where they will get the support and skills they need to go to college.”

    Congratulations to the students, their parents and their teachers. But I don’t think it’s surprising that self-selected students who go to a school that spends more per student that regular public schools do better than students in regular schools.

    What does this prove? That if you pick motivated students (or students with motivated parents) and give them more attention, they will do better? Gosh, what a surprise. Actually, what we know is that half the students who enter the school will do better, and the other half will flunk out or leave for some other reason.

    I’m not sure what we are supposed to conclude from this experiment.

  4. DCP deliberately recruits underachievers and discourages parents from enrolling students who are doing well. The median reading and math level for entering ninth graders is fifth to sixth grade. Most are not in the habit of reading or doing homework. Most earned Ds and Fs in undemanding middle schools; some flunked every class in ninth grade at a large high school. These are not students who’ve shown themselves to be motivated. Their parents, many of whom are very poorly educated and speak little English, have been unable to help them in the past.

    According to the Mercury News:

    • 102 students started 9th grade together in 2000. Of those, 56 are still at the school, with 53 set to graduate on time. (Three other seniors will repeat this year). Of the 46 who left: 6 were asked to leave for discipline infractions; 11 moved out of district and 29 students transferred to another district high school.

    Actually, 54 students graduated; All are going to a four-year college. Some of those 29 didn’t transfer out; they repeated ninth grade, joining the class of 2005.

    By comparison, the four-year graduation rate for Hispanic students in San Jose Unified as a whole is 55 percent. Only 25 percent complete college-prep classes with Cs or better, which makes them eligible for the state university system.

    I wouldn’t argue that giving students extra attention, which requires spending more money, isn’t relevant. But, with a few exceptions, these were not kids destined to graduate from high school, much less to qualify for college.

  5. Rita C. says:

    My school gets much better results with half the spending per student.

    Oops. I’m starting to sound like some of you guys!

    I’m sincerely glad for these 54 students. Do you think there is something going on that can be applied to non-charter public schools, or is this one model for a successful charter (which we seem to need)?

  6. Andy Freeman says:

    > My school gets much better results with half the spending per student.

    Feel free to demonstrate in one of the San Jose schools that the DCP students would have otherwise attended.

    Or, perhaps explain why the excellent teachers at those schools can’t do it.

  7. $11,368 per student seems really high. That said, I really don’t know WHAT public ed costs per student.

    I would be interested in a post comparing public ed per student cost (or at least a link to a site). I realize data adjusting for regional cost of living expenses might not be readily available — but does it really cost more per year to educate in K-12 than tuition to most 4-year state university systems? Has this historically been the case? (I doubt it). And if not, when did it change, and what were the parallel societal changes?

  8. “Do you think there is something going on that can be applied to non-charter public schools..”

    I’m interested in this as well, and I’d also like to know what the “extra help” looks like in terms of scheduling and actual practice. It’d be a great opportunity to help all kids, not just a few.

  9. jeff wright says:

    This is good news, given the state of public education here in San Jose. Off the charts in fact. Good for those kids.

    However, I, too, have questions regarding the per-pupil costs and I hope Joanne addresses this in her book. Do we need to spend this much? Can we afford it?

    This is relevant in view of the fact that good private schools may charge less. It may also constitute an unwanted advertisement for vouchers vice charter schools.

  10. The school limits most 9th and 10th grade classes to 20 students; 11th and 12th grade classes typically have 25 students. The school day is eight hours long, including 90 minutes for homework and a 35 minute daily reading period. There is a relentless push to do homework. Students are required to take college-prep classes (known as A-G in California), and must retake any academic class in which they fail to earn a C. (The D has been eliminated.)

    Despite its small size, the school pays for a “9th grade principal” who works with students and parents on behavior, a counselor, a college counselor and, next year, a person who will follow up on graduates in college and make sure they remain on track to earn a degree. It also raises money to send students on field trips to colleges, including an East Coast trip for honor roll students and an LA trip for everyone. And it pays a part-time parent educator to do classes for parents in Spanish and English. On the flip side, there isn’t much invested in technology and the physical site is very basic.

    If the school dealt with average students, it could get by with less counseling. But these are very needy kids. Personally, I’d prefer to see the school start with seventh graders. These kids are so far behind in ninth grade that it’s hard for them to catch up, even when they adopt good work habits, which take time to kick in.

  11. Rita C. says:

    That’s interesting, Joanne. We’re experimenting with some of these methods for our worst performing 9th graders. Sometimes they pull themselves together, and sometimes they don’t. I’ll have to look at our numbers and seeing if we’re doing better than a 50% attrition rate with that specific group. Homework is absolutely key.

    My observation is that 7th grade would be too early for that sort of regimen. They don’t have the maturity for it. In 9th grade, they’re starting to try to pull themselves together if they see a reason to. By 10th grade, it’s make or break. Wisdom is that if you can get them through 10th grade, they’re going to graduate.

    FWIW, our costs are lower because we spread them across a large group in which only a small percentage are really that needy. Most of our students don’t need that type of intensive intervention. Average cost per student is a deceptive number.

  12. Tim from Texas says:

    Smaller basic school is a big key here. Public secondary schools are just way too big, and I don’t see them changing without examples being set by schools such as DCP. However, following suit still won’t occur, I don’t think, until certain other systems and ideas are eliminated or until the importance put on them and the money spent on them is adjusted to mirror their importance.

    This would mean, of course, starting with the downsizing of the big team sports which serve just the few. Until that gigantic monster is put on a “diet” comensurate to it’s value, I don’t see public schools adjusting the size of their middle-schools and high-schools to help academic achievement.

  13. Cardinal Fang says:

    These students, or their parents, are motivated enough to agree to sign up for this school knowing that they have to complete a summer school, knowing that they’ll have a lot of homework, and knowing that the school day will be extra-long. That already separates them from their peers. Moreover, I bet that the school does not recruit any kids with severe disabilities such as autism. And then, the school throws out six percent of the entering students and another 28% quit and go to a different school (are they encouraged to quit?).

    This is major cherrypicking. Every step winnows out kids who are less likely to succeed. These students are nothing like a representative sample of their area’s high school students. They may have underprivileged backgrounds and start out behind, but this is the cream of the crop with that background.

    The money sounds high too. Not only do they spend considerably more per pupil than the regular public schools in their area, but they’ve also gotten rid of a lot of expensive-to-educate kids: the discipline problems (thrown out), the unmotivated ones (never enrolled), the severely disabled (not allowed in?).

    If there was a lottery or some such for admission to this school, it would be interesting to compare the results of all the kids not selected in the lottery with all the kids who were selected.

    I’m not saying this isn’t worth it; I’m just saying that to determine whether it is we need the real data. It’s useless to compare these kids to average Hispanic kids whose parents never went to college, because these kids have demonstrated that they aren’t average.

  14. Gonzalo del Real says:

    It is very interesting for me to read so many posts from various people, many people with more than one post, talk about us. I am one of the teachers at DCP and this is only the third or so time I have come to this list of posts.

    I would like to address a couple things from the point-of-view of a teacher. First, it seems that some, including Cardinal Fang, seem somewhat skeptical about what we do here. Let me provide some background. I graduated from high school in 1992. I was one of 6 latinos. I was one of 2 who graduated and the only one of them to graduate from college. My determination got me through college and three graduate programs. I was lucky to also have a mom and two other guardian parents all with graduate degrees who also pushed me.

    I teach Spanish and Choir, and coach Soccer at DCP. My first year here, I took one of my students home. We were a block away from his home when he pointed out a street corner. “Ahi hubo un tiroteo anoche.” [“There was a shooting there last night.”] When he came to DCP he had a 0.60 GPA. That same student wept on my shoulder two days ago as he graduated from high school with a 2.96 GPA and had chosen to go to San Jose State University from the three choices given him.

    Students come into 9th grade way behind in reading, writing, and mathematical skills. Many take “Math Reasoning” and “Verbal Reasoning” in order to do some catch-up work. Many of them come to us NOT because THEY choose, but because their parents see some hope in us for their children. It is a huge burden, but we strive to achieve it. Yes, we have some “diamonds in the rough.” But even diamonds require polishing.

    I now teach Spanish II, AP Spanish Language and AP Spanish Literature. It’s not as easy as you might think. Many students can speak Spanish (somewhat broken), but their written and read Spanish is horrid. They write the way they speak: slang, no accents, no clue on grammar rules, and spelling is attrocious. I have a list of 100 mistakes that I give them. They make one of those, and their work gets a -0-. No buts. 5-page papers due at the end of each semester. In AP Literature the grammar gets better. I teach the class like a 300-level introduction to Spanish literature class in college. Up to one or two authors are covered per day, the major authors get 2-4 days for themselves. A 5-7-page paper is due to me at the end of the first semester, a 10-pager at the end of the year. We raise the standards at DCP.

    We do not have big-budget sports and to play the ones we do have, students must meet a higher burden than at other schools where I have been or taught at. Our policy of no Ds means a student must have above a C or better to play any sport or participate in any club. My soccer players had as many team-led study halls as we did trips to the gym; with the older players helping the younger players.

    I also find it somewhat odd that we are talking so much about what it costs us per student. But here’s some perspective: when I graduated from H.S. over 12 years ago, the cost per student was nearly $6000/year/student, and that was in a small town of 100K people in Oregon – not in a city of 900k in the middle of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley!

    At that very same high school of 1700 students, my classes were of 30, unless I took an AP class, where we were 10-18. As someone said in an earlier post, smaller classes for motivated students seems redundant. At DCP the AP and honors classes are the big ones! My AP Language class this year was 28 and my AP Literature class 24 (one section of each AP class). In comparison, my Spanish II classes (3 sections) were 16 or so. Go figure.

    There are many other things to say here about DCP. I would love to clarify anything you would like about the workings of the school or even the workload for teachers, etc.

  15. Gonzalo del Real says:

    Our kids are precisely those you mention Cardinal Fang. Most of our kids’ parents didn’t even GO to high school, much less graduate from it. One of my top juniors has an awesome mom and and dad who push him to go to college. She got to 6th grade, her husband got to 3rd. We also have kids living with uncles, grandparents, and other guardians because of X number of reasons.

    As far as how we take kids in here’s a rough sketch of our process:
    (1) If you have a sibling at the school, you’re a shoe-in;
    (2) If you will be the first in your family to go to college, you get priority;
    (3) If you live in the SJUSD, you get get priority;
    (4) Waiting list

  16. Gonzalo,

    Thanks for your fascinating post, and congratulations on your achievements. I especially admire your high standards for literature and the “0” score for slang or incorrect grammar terms.

    I have a few nuts and bolts teacher questions:

    1. How do you ensure that students have read – and comprehend – the literature you assign?

    2. What do you do when students consistently do not do homework, classwork, or participate in class? What support systems do you have in place for those kinds of kids?

    3. How many students do you see per day?

    4. What’s the daily schedule like? Do you have block scheduling or regular periods that rotate in the same way every day?

    5. What kind of support do you get for sending disruptive students out of class?

    6. Do you enroll special education students? If so, what kinds of modifications do you make for them?

    I’m very eager to learn about your methods and what makes your school succeed. Thanks for any of your thoughts in advance.


  17. Cardinal Fang says:

    Please don’t misunderstand me, Sr. del Real. As you observe, I am skeptical, but my skepticism is not about what is being done for the kids who are in the school. I have no doubt that teachers and students are working hard to achieve, and the teachers are doing good things for the students. I’m not offering criticisms of that. The graduating seniors are to be congratulated that their hard work has borne fruit.

    My interest is in what we can conclude from this experiment. Therefore, I want to compare the students in DCP to students just like them who, unluckily, didn’t get chosen to be in DCP. Comparing the lucky DCP students to the general population of San Jose high school students is a non-starter, because we know that DCP students either care about school success or have parents who care. “Many of them come to us NOT because THEY choose, but because their parents see some hope in us for their children.” It’s indisputable that students whose parents care about their education do better, on average, than students whose parents don’t care.

    Possibly comparing students who are accepted at DCP to the waiting list kids would give a meaningful result, with some weighting to deal with differences in parents’ educational level. It would be important to use for comparison students offered admission, rather than students actually matriculating, because students who drop out before matriculation would likely be the least motivated.

    The point is, these students succeeded where other students didn’t. Why? Because they went to DCP, with its high standards? Because they didn’t have to attend school with unmotivated kids, disabled kids or discipline problems? Because they had half again as much money spent on them as was spent on other motivated nondisabled kids? Because they spent extra time in school? Or because they (or their parents) were highly motivated?

  18. I meant, “I admire your high standards for *writing*.”

  19. On the special ed issue: DCP has no separate classes for special ed students but has accepted students who were in special day classes in middle school. One such student just graduated. Another 2004 graduate chose the school to avoid being placed in a special day class. Many students were diagnosed with learning disabilities, especially ADHD. The school contracts with the district for special ed support services, but students primarily are helped by being in structured classes with no distractions tolerated.

    In the first two years, all applicants were accepted. There’s now a waiting list created by lottery (with sibling and in-district preferences). There’s no screening. In fact, I’ve heard the dean of students make it very clear to prospective parents that the school is designed for underachievers is not a good choice for A students.

    Teachers remove disruptive or disrespectful students from the classroom immediately for a few minutes of cool-off time in the corridor, or a trip to the principal’s office, if necessary. I’ve seen students kicked out for very minor offenses. Eventually, students learn to behave like students.

    If a student misses two or more homework assignments, the advisor calls the parents. Students also are required to keep a homework log, which must be signed by a parent. Getting students to do homework is a huge challenge, especially since these kids are so used to getting Fs and still getting passed on to the next grade.

  20. John Lee says:

    Hi, I’m a fellow working with DCP for the summer, and I’m helping DCP design an on-site program that would allow other educators and potential charter school starters to learn the lessons and best practices that DCP has discerned since it opened. I’m curious to know how many educators are interested in starting their own charter schools. I’d also like to hear about your interest levels in a program such as this, as well as what you would be most interested in learning from DCP. Thanks in advance for your responses.

  21. Thanks for the response, Joanne. I’m still curious, though, as to what happens if the phone call to parents doesn’t pan out. I don’t mean to sound skeptical (it’s obvious the school is getting results), but I’ve made enough phone calls re: missed homework to know that one chat with mom/dad rarely takes care of the issue.

    What kinds of follow up happen when the phone calls don’t work? Does the school reserve the right to exit students?

  22. Rita C. says:

    I’m not interested in creating or working in a charter school. I am interested in seeing what works in other places that I might adapt to use with my own underachieving students in my own situation.

  23. Teachers call again and again and again on missed homework. Eventually, the parents are asked to come in to talk about the problem. Students and parents are warned that the consequence of not doing homework is failure.

    It takes time to sink in. Many students fail some or all of their classes in the first semester. I know of kids who failed every single class in ninth grade for a perfect 0.0 GPA, then came back to repeat the grade. Some repeaters get their act together for the second go-around; some don’t.

    Students aren’t asked to leave for academic reasons, except that they can repeat a grade only once. I remember a boy who wanted to come back for a third try at ninth grade. He had to go elsewhere. I once tried to help him read a story –maybe fourth or fifth grade reading level — in Cricket Magazine. He completely missed the point of the story, probably due to his nonexistent attention span.

  24. Gonzalo del Real says:

    (Sorry, this is long. I tried to answer questions from two posts at once)

    1. How do you ensure that students have read – and comprehend – the literature you assign?
    I can’t and I don’t. At the AP levels, students know that if they don’t do the readings, they will not pass the quizzes, they will not get points in the discussions, and they will have a greater chance of doing poorly on their essays. As far as comprehension, much of the work for literary comprehension is done by scaffolding from the 9th grade onwards with various reading and comprehension strategies. I just follow-up on that and provide students with various worksheets, class activities, and projects that allow students to share and explore various literary ideas and questions in the reading through some of the same techniques they have learned in previous classes/grades.

    2. What do you do when students consistently do not do homework, classwork, or participate in class? What support systems do you have in place for those kinds of kids?

    For the homework, we have a system where we contact parents through various means (mail, phone, meeting) on missed homework. We make it very clear that not doing the homework is the quickest way to (a) fail the classes and (b) be asked to leave the school. If the student chooses not participate, I don’t force them but I do ask the student questions and try to put him/her in a group where s/he will be encouraged to participate and I assign roles in my group activities. As participation is worth 20% of the grade in my Spanish II class, most students know that simply focusing on what I assign in class and doing the work might be the easiest 20% they get. If the student doesn’t participate it is their choice, although I make it a painful one through their grade, but it is their choice.

    Let me interject here that we don’t force any student to do anything here. We create an environment – physically, culturally, and academically – that is very conducive and encouraging for students to do quality work in. We keep an eye on them, we talk to them all the time, and teachers always know what students do in other classes. The student’s tutorial teacher is also their advisor and that advisor knows that student’s grades and progress in other classes. I would also add that not just teachers are tutorial advisors. For example, we have several of our administrators on advisor duties and we also bring in volunteer tutors from local universities to help students with their homework.

    3. How many students do you see per day?
    We have a rotating block schedule of six periods and four of those per day except for Wednesdays when we have assembly, two periods, and then class and teacher meetings. M,T,H,F I will see about 100 kids, which includes a Sustained Silent Reading period (19 kids) where we just sit down to read (me included) a book, magazine, or newspaper of our choice which is not for a class (must be of “sufficient reading material” – i.e. no comics or catalogs).

    4. What’s the daily schedule like? Do you have block scheduling or regular periods that rotate in the same way every day?
    I alluded to this briefly in #3. But the specifics are:
    Mon: 1,2, SSR/Lunch, 3, 4, Tutorial
    Tue: 5, 6, SSR/Lunch, 1, 2, Tutorial
    Wed: Assembly, 3, 4, SSR/Lunch, Class Mtgs
    Thu: 5, 6, SSR/Lunch, 1, 2, Tutorial
    Fri: 3, 4, SSR/Lunch, 5, 6, Tutorial
    Hours for the periods above:
    MTHF: 8:45-10:05, 10:12-11:32, 11:32-12:53, 12:53-2:13, 2:20-3:40,
    Wed: 8:45-9:35, 9:45-11:05, 11:12-12:32, 12:32-1:32, 1:45-2:45
    No tutorial on Wed.

    5. What kind of support do you get for sending disruptive students out of class?

    Phenomenal. We make it very clear to students and families from the start that we will work with them from beginning to end on the actual materials of the academics. But we will not tolerate misbehavior. We model good behavior from the SummerBridge freshmen to the second-semester senior. At assemblies we honor the kids not just for good grades, but also for good behavior and demonstrated effot – the kid that went from a 35% to a 60% who is still flunking (70% is passing) gets as much accolade at the kid getting an 83%. So, since all of this is done to scaffold, it is easy when students misbehave, for we just we send them to the office to meet with the principals (we have 2) and/or another administrator. Depending on how often this occurs, parents are called.

    6. Do you enroll special education students? If so, what kinds of modifications do you make for them?

    We have had several kids whom are/were special ed, but their IEPs are/were easy for us to take care of through more time on tests, larger fonts, etc. Two of them graduated last week with college acceptances. Unfortunately, we are not staffed for students with special education needs beyond what I have described.

    Finally, I believe that what we conclude from this “experiment” that we who live it call DCP (or simply home, family, or the “Purple Palace” as someone once noted) is that a good school takes a heckuva lot of effort on the parts of the ENTIRE team: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and support staff. It is now cliché, but Hillary was right: it takes a village. I should also say that many of our students come from cultural backgrounds with very strong family ties. I remember the first college meeting for the now graduated seniors that we held when they were juniors. Every single family was represented. Not one was absent for the 6p meeting. We have parent volunteers for the Discipline Committees, and all parties – students, teachers, administrators, parents, and support staff – are involved in the students’ lives and in the hiring of new staff.

    What our school shows is that when you take kids that want to succeed but have not been given the chance, and you give them all the tools and the help they need in an individualized and persistent program that values their culture, strengths, and diversity, they are very likely to surge ahead.

    DCP stands for Downtown College Prep. But the DCP can also be Desire, Community and Pride, which are also our three core values. That C is so very important.