Profile Page 59
Against the Odds Success
BY PAUL RIEDE
On Sandra Sanchez Thorstenson's frequent visits to classrooms in her Los Angeles-area school district, she likes to surprise students with a simple question: “How many of you are from Sunrise?”
There’s usually a pause, and then a few students hesitantly raise their hands. Then Thorstenson announces, “I’m a Sunrise girl, too,” and watches the shock register on their faces.
Thorstenson, 57, grew up in the downtrodden, low-income neighborhood in the Whittier Union High School District, about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles. To students, the fact she could grow up there and later lead the nearly 14,000-student district is a revelation.
For Thorstenson, it is an article of faith. Her family moved to Whittier from New Mexico when she was 5. Her father went to work at 14 after his own father died. Her mother graduated from high school but never went to college.
As a freshman at Whittier High School, Thorstenson, like most Sunrise kids, was left out of the most rigorous courses until a counselor intervened. “The next day I was in honors classes all day,” she says.
She became the first in her family to attend college, at Pepperdine University and then Whittier College. She began teaching social science in Whittier a few months after graduation and never left.
Her ascent from a hardscrabble neighborhood left her with a visceral understanding of what sometimes seems a tired axiom — that all children can learn. That understanding has led to some remarkable results.
Whittier’s enrollment is 83 percent Hispanic, and 80 percent qualify as socioeconomically disadvantaged. As those segments have grown, resources for instruction have dwindled. Yet passing rates for disadvantaged 10th graders on the state’s English and math tests rose from about two-thirds in 2004 to 88 percent in 2011. The achievement gap between those students and their counterparts closed by 50 percent in English and 75 percent in math.
To accomplish that, Thorstenson, now in her 10th year as superintendent, looked to the writings of experts like Douglas Reeves and Richard DuFour. Her approach is embodied in the phrase “Whatever It Takes,” something she introduced in 2004 by stressing three non-negotiables — collaboration, common assessments and directed intervention.
Whittier’s against-the-odds success has been an object of fascination for researchers; more than 10 doctoral dissertations have analyzed the district’s approach.
Thorstenson intensified instruction by carving out a 75-minute period each week when teams of teachers pore over student data and share their best practices. “The teachers get better the more they share,” she says.
To ensure fresh data fuel teaching decisions, Thorstenson instituted common assessments every three weeks and doubled the number of marking periods from four to eight. Struggling students are moved quickly into extra classes and tutorials.
Each 9th grader is assigned to a “Link Crew” of 15 freshmen and two older students that meets weekly. “Everybody’s focus is to make sure every freshman student feels the love,” she says.
That’s not an empty sentiment, says Leighton Anderson, past president of the school board. “You really do get a sense of love in dealing with Sandy,” he said. “Students sense it; faculty and other staff sense it. The corollary is that she is passionate and driven toward success.”
Paul Riede is a staff writer with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
BIO STATS: SANDY THORSTENSON
Currently: superintendent, Whittier Union High School District, Los Angeles County, Calif.
Previously: assistant superintendent of educational services, Whittier
Greatest influence on career: I would never have become an administrator without the relentless encouragement of Assistant Principal Dick Torres and Principal Bob Eicholtz at Pioneer High School.
Best professional day: Visiting classrooms and conversing with teachers.
Books at bedside: Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman; and Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker
Biggest blooper: My first year as an administrator was at a different one from where I taught. At the football banquet, I announced I was proud to be a Titan — when I should have said I was proud to be a Condor.
Why I’m an AASA member: The national annual conference this year in Houston was extremely worthwhile and provided exceptional professional development and inspiration.