Creating a school community

To write Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice, Sam Chaltain spent a year following two Washington D.C. schools, Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School and Bancroft Elementary School.

In both the charter and the district school, “he found caring teachers and administrators in vibrant schools who struggle to meet new standards with little guidance and at times little support,” reports the Washington Post.

Not everything can be measured, writes Chaltain. However, it’s “just as it is true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than basic-skills test scores.”

My book about Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school, also is titled Our School. Last week, I went to DCP’s 10th commencement ceremony, which honored both the class of 2014 and the pioneer class of 2004.

DCP, which has added two middle schools and a second high school campus, now has an alumni association and an alumni seat on the board. Graduates are raising scholarship money. When students visit California universities, they can talk to DCP graduates who are students there. Some DCP graduates have returned as teachers.

In low-income, Latino immigrant communities, DCP has made college-going the “new normal,” said Jennifer Andaluz, DCP’s co-founder and executive director.

‘I am the first’

In her college admissions essay, Sara recalled her disastrous start as a counselor in the summer bridge program for new students at her San Jose charter school, Downtown College Prep. An incoming 12th grader, she couldn’t control her group of new ninth graders. She wanted to quit — but she didn’t. Sara and her fellow counselors stuck with it, took control and turned their rowdy crew into winners of the spirit award.

When Sara started at Santa Clara University, she felt that she didn’t belong. But she stuck with it, joined clubs and made a place for herself. She had to leave for a year when the money ran out. She worked, saved, came back to finish her bachelor’s degree and now works at a high-tech company.

I met Sara when I was reporting and writing Our School, a book about DCP’s struggles to prepare disadvantaged students for college. I saw her last week at DCP’s event promoting their college success report, I Am the First. The school spent two years surveying its graduates — successful and struggling — to determine what influences college success for low-income, first-generation college students.

At the event, students and graduates held up signs: “I am the first in my family to learn English . . . I am the first in my family to go to high school . . . I am the first in my family to join a college fraternity . . . I am the first to study law.”

DCP is 90 percent low-income and 96 percent Latino; 80 percent of students enter with below-grade-level skills in reading and math. Forty-one percent of parents haven’t completed high school (or, often, started it).

Nearly 500 students have graduated since the first graduating class of ’04. The graduation rate for the first three classes is 40 percent — more than four times the rate for low-income students nationwide.

Those who drop out can talk to a school counselor about how to return to college. One graduate worked for three years in a factory, tightening screws, before going back to community college. He’s been accepted at a University of California at Santa Cruz. He wants to be a history teacher.

What leads to success?

“Empowered” students who take responsibility for their education are more likely to “advocate for themselves” and earn a degree, the survey found. DCP will encourage students to take leadership roles, such as Sara’s stint as a summer bridge counselor.

College counseling should include career counseling: For first-generation students, job one is qualifying for a job.

Teachers are the most important influence on students’ college plans, so DCP plans to make “every teacher a college counselor.”

The school also will devote more energy to helping parents handle the college transition. Sixty percent of DCP students live at home while attending college to save money.

“A college plan must include a financial plan,” the college counselor stressed. Two-thirds of students who leave college do so for financial reasons.

Finally, “college is an inside game.” Students need to be taught the unwritten rules. What do you do about a dreadful roommate? How do you form a study group?  When should you ask a professor for help? DCP will “teach college as a second language.”

Unexceptional success

My book, Our School, is about Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school that enrolls primarily low-income Mexican-American students who will be the first in their families to go to college. (Quite a few are the first to complete high school.) This year, for the first time, a DCP senior is headed for the Ivy League. Julia chose Brown over Princeton, NYU and other colleges, writes Jennifer Andaluz, the school’s co-founder and executive director.

In the college-going space we are fascinated with the “against-all-odds” success story. In truth, Julia’s story is rather predictable: she worked hard, established goals for herself, had the support of her mother, played by the rules, and had a mentor who ensured she made a “right fit” decision when it came to her college choices. Whether a student attends San Jose State or a select university like Brown, DCP aims to make college-going unexceptional.

What is worth noting is why Julia chose Brown. One of Julia’s closest mentors is a DCP teacher who is also a first-generation, Latina graduate of Brown. This teacher passed down the “social capital” gained from her college experience by sharing her journey. In the end, Julia believed she could be successful at Brown her teacher was successful.

And this is why DCP is valuable: every year a new cohort of DCP alumni graduate from college. They go from being the one who was inspired to being the one who inspires.
DCP reports that 96 percent of graduates complete the college-prep sequence required by California’s public universities and 96 percent enroll in a two-year or four-year college. The retention rate is 90 percent and the graduation rate is four times higher than the national average for Hispanic students.
 Our School is now on sale at a bargain price at Amazon.

Small school changes lives

Downtown College Prep changes lives, writes Tom Vander Ark after a visit to the San Jose charter high school. Most students come from Mexican immigrant families and enter ninth grade with fifth-grade reading and math skills.  All graduates in the class of 2011 will go on to  college, including Mount Holyoke, University of California at Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara and San Jose State. The school’s counselor helps graduates cope with college challenges, including transferring from community college to a four-year university.

Read all about it in Our School.

‘Toxic’ transfers

High-poverty schools are bound to fail because good teachers don’t want to teach in “toxic concentrations of poverty” with low expectations and less parent involvement, writes New York Times columnist Bob Herbert.

If you really want to improve the education of poor children, you have to get them away from learning environments that are smothered by poverty.

A Century Foundation study in Montgomery County, Maryland, showed that low-income students enrolled in affluent elementary schools outperformed  similarly low-income students in higher-poverty schools, Herbert writes.

Studies have shown that it is not the race of the students that is significant, but rather the improved all-around environment of schools with better teachers, fewer classroom disruptions, pupils who are more engaged academically, parents who are more involved, and so on. The poorer students benefit from the more affluent environment.

However, economic integration requires racial and ethnic integration, which “provokes bitter resistance,” Herbert claims. Despite our claims to be a “postracial” society, middle-class whites don’t want blacks and Hispanics to transfer in to suburban schools. (Why would they welcome “toxic” transfers?)

Herbert is confused about the meaning of  “postracial,” writes Liam Julian on Flypaper.

There’s a practical problem with economic integration: Too many poor kids. The Montgomery County study found low-income students learned more in schools in which no more than 20 percent of students qualified for a subsidized lunch; the benefits vanished when 35 percent of students came from low-income families. “Nationally, 41% of American students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches,” Sara Mead writes.

We can’t solve our problems by trying to bus all the poor kids to the suburbs. The challenge is to create healthy, education-valuing school cultures in poor neighborhoods. My book is about a school that’s done that. I also recommend Samuel Casey Carter’s new book, On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Character.

To and through college

In Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds, I wrote about a San Jose school that recruits low-achieving students and tries to prepare them to succeed in four year colleges.  “To and Through College” is the motto. With six graduating classes, Downtown College Prep has released a college success report.

While only 10% of low-income students complete college within six years nationwide, DCP graduates earn their degrees at the rate of 47%. We are encouraged by the results we have achieved thus far but remain determined to close the college achievement gap that exists in our community and our nation.

Overall, 57 percent of four-year college students complete a degree in six years.

Since 2004, DCP has graduated nearly 400 students. Ninety percent come from low-income families, 97 percent are Latino and 92 percent are first-generation college students.

Some 94 percent are eligible for the University of California and the California State University system; 82 percent enroll in college.

In answer to some questions in comments: I’m sure DCP makes a difference for its students because many were not on track to complete high school, much less qualify for college. By comparison, only 29 percent of Latino graduates are UC/CSU eligible in San Jose Unified, even though the district made the college-prep sequence a graduation requirement years ago. Graduates aren’t eligible because they earned D’s in some classes.

The Silva family took a chance on DCP in its first year. His older son, Jose, is now a Chico State graduate; Elizabeth is a junior at UC Davis and Benny Jr. is a freshman at San Francisco State. At an event honoring teachers and staff, Benny Silva Sr., who works for Roto-Rooter, was asked to speak:

“Every day I go into other people’s homes to repair their toilets. What they don’t know about me is that my children are college graduates.”

Or on their way. Below is Elizabeth Silva’s graduation photo, which includes her grandmother. Including family members in the picture is a DCP tradition.

Elizabeth Silva, Class of 2008

My 10th blogiversary

Ten years ago — more or less, because I didn’t note the day — I launched this blog. Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan had turned me on to the idea; Virginia Postrel gave the new blog it’s first linky love.

After 22 years at the San Jose Mercury News, mostly as an op-ed columnist and editorial writer, I’d quit to write a book about a start-up charter school. I thought it would take a year. The blog would keep me connected with readers, who’d all rush to stores to buy my book, Our School.  (Go ahead. Click on the link. Do it now. Please.)

I had no idea what I was getting into. And I’m still here.

BTW, more than 1,000 people are following me on Twitter. (There’s a sentence I could not have written 10 years ago.) I’m joanneleejacobs on Twitter. Also ccspotlight.

Blame the bad students (and parents)

Public schools are failing because they’re overwhelmed with too many anti-social students from dysfunctional families, writes Victor Davis Hanson in his 2011 Politically-Incorrect Resolutions on Pajamas Media.

I went to largely Hispanic and impoverished elementary schools from 1959-67. The teachers, by today’s standards, were probably insensitive and unduly harsh. . . . In September and May the non-air-conditioned rooms were often over 90 degrees. I can remember our second grade class was 44, with 5 folding chairs that we rotated in and out of, given the absence of desks. Instruction was mostly by rote . . .

And yet there was almost no violence on campus – and no counselors, psychologists, or teacher aides. Students from dire poverty arrived clean, polite, and ready to study. Parents came to school night classes to learn English and meet with teachers. Back to school night was packed. . . . A student’s detention was considered a family catastrophe.

With well-behaved, ready-to-learn students, the public schools worked, Hanson writes. Today’s families are sending more poorly behaved children — anti-social, rude, disruptive — than the schools can handle.

Hanson dreams of creating “a shame culture in which the worst sort of social transgression (far worse than smoking) is to burden the public schools with children that were neither raised nor tamed.”

Is it possible to change parents who don’t feel ashamed of their children’s bad behavior?

Strong principals and teachers can create a school culture that values learning, cooperation and courtesy. KIPP’s motto is “work hard, be nice.” Downtown College Prep, the school in my book, pushes ganas (desire to succeed), community and pride. But it’s very hard to do if the parents aren’t on board.

Speaking of creating a culture of respect: I’ve tried to maintain a calm, civil tone on the blog without stifling comments. Lately, some commenters have taken to calling each other (and me) liars, racists, imbeciles, etc. I’ve decided to delete rude and patronizing comments and to mark persistent offenders as spammers. Please try to find ways to express your opinions without insulting others.  It’s not effective in persuading people to your point of view. And it’s getting on my nerves.

Repeat performance

Social promotion is less common at high-performing charter schools, writes Sarah Garland in The American Prospect.

In keeping with their focus on rigorous academics and accountability, many charter schools have adopted strict “retention” policies requiring struggling students to repeat a grade when they don’t meet expectations, sometimes even if they’re just a point shy of passing.

. . . Charter-school advocates say this allows them to help students who are far below grade level to catch up. It may also give charters an edge over regular public schools on test scores.

Students who are held back rarely catch up, according to education research.  Often they repeat the classroom experience that didn’t work the first time. Charter leaders say they provide extra help to enable students to succeed.

Charter students facing retention sometimes return to district-run schools that will place them in the next grade.

Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University researcher who studies charter schools, says the retention policies of charter schools may sound good, but they “could be a mechanism to have the weaker kids go back to traditional public schools.”

But (Stanford researcher Margaret) Raymond says her studies have found that students who leave a school rather than be retained are less likely to be minorities or on free or reduced-price lunch, suggesting that it’s the more affluent parents who worry about the stigma of repeating a grade.

In my book, Our School, I write about a San Jose charter high school’s struggle to prepare students — most from low-income and working-class Mexican immigrant families — for college success. Because of social promotion in their K-8 years, Downtown College Prep students start ninth grade with fifth- or sixth-grade reading, writing and math skills, on average. They need time to learn the skills and work habits that will let them do college-prep work and go on to earn a college degree. Pushing everyone through in four years is a guarantee of failure.

Via HechingerEd.

Top education books of the decade

In honor of its 10th anniversary, Education Next is conducting a readers’ poll to determine the best education books of the decade.  Forty-one books are listed, including my book, Our School; The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds. Readers can vote for their three favorites.

Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education is way out in front.