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.

Graduation is just the beginning

San Jose’s Downtown College Prep — the charter school in my book — is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its first graduating class at commencement ceremonies for the class of 2014.  Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, will be the  keynote speaker.

DCP now has three middle and high schools — the fourth will open in the fall — and more than 500 alumni. Nearly all are Latinos from low-income families. Eighty percent of incoming students are 2+ years below grade level in English and/or math. Ninety-six percent will be the first in their family to go to college.

All DCP seniors apply to four-year universities and 96 percent go directly to college

DCP students are 4 times more likely than all California Latino high school graduates to enroll in a state university

DCP students are four times more likely to complete college in six-years than their low-income peers nationwide

DCP was ranked #36 out of 2,000 schools in California by U.S. News in 2013 and 2014.

Donations made today here will be matched by the Sobrato Foundation.

Survivor will be history teacher

Eight years ago, a Downtown College Prep senior named Luis Falcon was attacked by gang members in a San Jose park. Stabbed nine times, he lost a kidney and spent a week in a coma. He learned how to walk again. He will earn a degree in history from the University of California at Santa Cruz in May, reports the Santa Cruz Sentinel.  A Teach for America corps member, Falcon will return to his old neighborhood to teach history at DCP.

luis falcon

Lying in the hospital for a month after the attack, Falcon started to think about his neighborhood.”Something needed to change in my neighborhood and maybe I could be that little spark,” he said.

Undocumented and ineligible for college aid, he enrolled at San Jose City College but dropped out after one semester. “I was just paranoid I was going to get attacked.”

After working in a factory for two years, Falcon returned to community college. He also tutored at a charter middle school and worked in DCP’s summer bridge program. He legalized his status and earned a scholarship to UC-Santa Cruz.

Jennifer Andaluz, DCP’s executive director, has known Falcon since he was in ninth grade. He has the “grit” teachers need to succeed, she told the Sentinel.  “It’s about developing a mindset where you can actually grow in the areas where you currently struggle, and that growth is only going to come about as a result of hard work,” Andaluz said.

I write about Downtown College Prep’s early years in Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the School That Beat the Odds.

‘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.”

College readiness requires tenacity

College Readiness requires more than academic knowledge and skills, concludes a report by the Annenberg Institute. “College knowledge” — knowing how to apply, get financial aid and navigate a college campus — isn’t enough. Successful students need “academic tenacity,” the “underlying beliefs, attitudes, values . . . and accompanying behaviors that drive students to embrace and engage with challenging work, and to pursue academic achievement.” And not to quit when the going gets tough.

Programs to help disadvantaged students get to college tend to focus on academic preparation and “college knowledge.” But only a few focus on building students’ tenacity.

In Our School, I write about Downtown College Prep‘s drive to instill ganas, which can be translated as true grit, in their underachieving students. When the first class went off to college, many struggled academically. But they told the college counselor not to worry. They’d done it before. “They know what it’s like to start a new school and get hammered,” Vicky Evans told me. “They can handle failure. They’ve done it, and survived.”

I had to fight the editor to keep “failure” in the book. She saw failure as weakness, the end of the road, not the first step. It’s inflated, unearned, phony success — everybody gets an A! — that weakens young people and sets them up for permanent failure.

The Education Writers Association analyzes the research on college readiness in a new policy brief.

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.

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

Forbidden failure

Forbidden to fail students, a fourth-grade teacher in Baton Rouge has filed suit against the principal, superintendent and school board.  Sheila Goudeau, a teacher for 20 years, says teachers were told to make 60 percent the lowest score and D the lowest grade, no matter how poorly students had performed. She claims the principal harassed her for protesting the policy.

Setting a minimum score at 60 percent (or 50 percent) is becoming common. The theory is that students will try to improve a 60 percent but will give up if their average is so low that they can’t possibly raise it to a passing grade. On the other hand, why try if you’ll be passed along anyhow?

My honors chemistry teacher let us retake tests to raise our grades, if we thought we could do better. My daughter’s journalism teacher let students rewrite assignments to raise their grades. It seems fair to let students wipe out bad marks by proving they’ve mastered the material. Pretending they’ve learned fourth-grade work and are ready for fifth grade is setting kids up for failure, as Goudeau says. That’s failure with a D, I guess.

In checking out Downtown College Prep’s new web site, I saw the story of Pauline Fernandez, who moved in with neighbors in 12th grade after her mother’s death from a brain tumor. “Pauline wants to learn; not just earn credits. In fact, she asked one math teacher to fail her so she could take the class again to get a better grasp of the concepts.” An ’08 DCP graduate, Pauline goes to community college and works two jobs to support herself. She plans to transfer to San Jose State to complete a four-year degree. That was her mother’s dream. (The book is here.)

For achievers, it's not the money

High-achieving, low-income students aren’t kept from college over money, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. He’s responding to one part of Columbia Professor Andrew Delbanco’s NY Review of Books article, Universities in Trouble.

When the poor but gifted and motivated students Delbanco describes materialize, they are treated like 6-11 power forwards looking for athletic scholarships.

Money is a barrier for average students with low incomes:  A 2002 federal study “estimated that more than 160,000 students with annual family incomes below $50,000 were qualified for college admission but did not attend even a two-year community college because of financial barriers.” But “qualified” was defined as a 2.7 grade point average or an 820 combined math and verbal score on the SAT.

We’re losing the “potentially successful,” Mathews writes. Most low-income students don’t develop the academic skills and work habits they need to excel. They’re out of the game long before 12th grade.

Low-income students with good brains continue to perform poorly in large part, I think, because they attend high schools run by people who don’t believe such kids can learn very much and who don’t try very hard to teach them. Educators who do believe in their potential find it difficult to get the resources they need because too many policymakers, politicians, voters and taxpayers do not share that optimism.

If you know “any gifted and motivated students you know who have been unable to go to college because of money,” send their names and contact info to mathewsj@washpost.com. Mathews promises to help.

Mathews is correct for students who are citizens and legal residents.  If they’re truly high achievers, they will get college scholarships.  For undocumented immigrants, who aren’t eligible for public aid, it’s much tougher. Some private colleges will offer aid; many will not fund “international” students.

I recently interviewed graduating seniors at Downtown College Prep, the San Jose charter school that’s the subject of my book, Our School (available in hardcover or paperback).  The undocumented students are starting at community colleges, which they can afford, and planning to transfer to a four-year university with a private scholarship raised by DCP. (Eventually, they will legalize their status through a relative’s sponsorship or marriage.)  Without the promise of a scholarship, even the high achievers would find college an impossible dream.