Fast Tracking the Underserved

A high school succeeds at retaining its large Latino base by ANA DIAZ-BOOZ

The most hectic period of the school year is often the few weeks before opening. As the principal of a school in a large, urban district, I have come to expect frequent last-minute changes to the master schedule or unforeseen facility snafus.

More than likely, it was such concerns that had me preoccupied as I waited to make a left turn at the corner of Genesee Avenue and Linda Vista Road in the central region of San Diego in August 2008. Sipping coffee and mentally multitasking, I noticed two of our school's incoming juniors, Marciela and Guadalupe, crossing the street, laden backpacks in tow, laughing with one another.

Ana Diaz-BoozAna Díaz-Booz (second from left) has created a disciplined environment as principal of the School of International Business, where most students graduate with college credits.

Where are they going?
I wondered. School doesn't begin for two weeks.

It was then I realized that Mesa College, the community and academic partner for our school's fledgling college Fast Track program, which was only in its third year at the time, had begun its fall semester. I joined my students in a smile and acknowledged them for their efforts with a quick horn and a wave. It was at that moment that I knew our school had arrived.

Proudest Triumph
The School of International Business of the Kearny High School community, which is part of the San Diego Unified Schools, has flourished during its seven-year history despite constant budget uncertainty and a lack of consistent support at the district level. This is, in part, due to the strength of our academic programs and adherence to our discipline policies.

Our school's greatest victory has been the ability to retain students from the neighborhood that we serve who might otherwise have used our district's voluntary enrollment program to enroll elsewhere. Though this has been no easy task, it has been the result of consistent and non-negotiable efforts on four fronts: high expectations for student behavior, the retention of a caring, committed staff determined to drive student achievement, high standards for instruction and student engagement, and the effective implementation of college Fast Track options for students.

Although the School of International Business began as part of small-school reform resulting from a grant award, it did not change the demographics or the socioeconomic makeup of the Kearny High School community. Following the transition, many hoped the reform would be sustainable simply due to increased administrative presence (four principals rather than one), an emphasis on personalization and a structure centered on autonomous academic programs. However, this has not happened at all of the small high schools in the district. In most cases, smaller did not mean better.

Our 460-student school shares a demographic profile with other small schools and reflects districtwide student populations: 79 percent are on free or reduced-price lunch, 45 percent are Latino and 38 percent are English language learners. Our service area is among the poorest in San Diego.

Despite representing a population that fall into the achievement gap elsewhere, the School of International Business has excelled. Yet breaking up a large campus into smaller schools to improve the administrator/student ratio did not get Marciela and Guadalupe out of bed at 7 a.m. in the middle of August to begin their college careers while still in high school.

Although data don't lie, they often fail to tell the whole story. Our school's current Academic Performance Index (838 of 1,000 on the state's Academic Performance Index), which has increased more than 200 points since we opened, is bolstered by the efforts of our Latino students (API 816) and supported by our English learners' commitment to their own achievement (API 782).

In fact, when compared to districtwide scores on the California High School Exit Exam, our school's students have proven their measure. Most recently, 93 percent of the English learners passed the math exam on the first attempt (district average is 49 percent), and 70 percent passed the English exam on the first attempt (district average is 33 percent).

Latino students have shown similar achievement; 98 percent passed the math exam on the first attempt (district average is 75 percent), while 84 percent passed the English exam on the first try (70 percent district average).

It goes without saying these numbers are a source of pride for the students and staff at our school. One also might assume these accomplishments have been readily acknowledged and supported consistently by the district. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case.

One byproduct of being on the leading edge of a reform effort is decision makers at the local and state levels are often unaware of the school's dynamics. This is most obvious following board elections and periods of district turnover. As the district has shuffled through a series of leadership changes (six superintendents in seven years), the school has constantly had to justify itself and redefine its objectives to incoming board members. The question is: How did we get here on our own?

A Ruler Reigns
First and foremost, the School of International Business is unrelenting on its discipline policy. This fact is no more evident than the ruler I keep in my desk drawer. This standard from years gone by is not used for the rapped-knuckle consequence my mother-in-law may have suffered at her Catholic school back in Indianapolis.

The official school ruler is designed to support our dress code implementation for the current school year, clearly spelled out and signed by each of our parents. Boys may not wear pants that sag, and girls cannot wear a skirt that rests shorter than four inches above the knee. To do so would result in a change in clothes and the imposition of various disciplinary consequences supported by our staff and parents.

The students are held to high standards of behavior, which are consistently enforced and continually monitored. These include wearing school lanyards at all times, lunch detention for tardy and dress-code violations, and alternatives to suspensions, such as campus beautification. Open lines of communication in Spanish and English between home and school are facilitated through online ParentConnection accounts and extensive phone and direct home visit contacts, which ensure accountability. Students are informed of the many lines of communication between home and school.

Because students are held accountable, they come to school in the best presence of mind to benefit from the hard work of our staff. Similarly, because all staff members -- classified employees, teachers and administrative office personnel -- have bought into the school's vision of student accountability and enforce rules consistently and fairly, staff turnover is low and collegiality has become an expectation. It's what we do here. At the School of International Business, a simple mantra has become our guiding principle, "Beyond Borders, Beyond Barriers."

Though this slogan is designed to inspire students from all backgrounds to reach their goals, it also reveals the lengths to which we have gone to recruit and retrain qualified teachers with just the right amount of "edge." I base this on a simple set of experiences, which has provided me with a successful staff profile. It may not be as easy as picking blackberries as a child with my father in Otay Mesa near Tijuana, but a few hard and fast rules have served the school well. As my father used to say, "Escoje lo mejor que hayes." When hiring, always pick the best that you can find.

Once discipline was in place, the best staffing options seemed to more readily present themselves. The best and brightest teachers are passionate about the success of others, genuinely curious about their subject matter, and able to empathize with a student who doesn't get it. Also, they just might be crazy enough to try unproven lessons and lead an after-hours literacy or test preparation workshop with English language learners. I have found this happens when they feel supported in the classroom.

Our school's classrooms are organized and well-staffed with teachers who emphasize cultural relevance and communication via Socratic seminar techniques. However, our classrooms also can be found off campus at the local junior college.

When we first began, the emerging Fast Track program with Mesa College produced fewer than 10 students per year graduating with college credits. Currently, every senior graduates having taken at least one class, and many graduates accumulate more than 20 college units. More than 50 juniors and seniors every semester are enrolled dually at our school and Mesa College. This ultimately saves the school district money and allows the school to allocate more resources to underclassmen.

Collegiate Mandate
As with many other endeavors, the staff has had to fight the district on issues particular to Fast Track, such as bus scheduling and weighted credit. However, the families of students matriculating at such schools as UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and Brandeis tend to be our biggest supporters and most audible voices. After all, they are the ones who bring weight to the most critical aspect of our Fast Track program, the concept of "required." All students at the School of International Business must take a college course.

To be honest, the cyclical nature of education often reveals that the tried and true is what ultimately best serves students. This is no more apparent than at the School of International Business, where we have brought discipline, good teaching, high standards and a college-going culture to a traditionally underserved community.

It's not magic, it's commitment. It's a phone call after school for a seemingly innocuous discipline violation. It's a Socratic seminar held on a Saturday for English language learners reviewing a grade-level text. It's a last-minute e-mail to district personnel to preserve the limited funding available for an essential program.

The result is priceless: One morning in August a few years ago, two Latinas with their entire future before them invested themselves in a college class at Mesa College --  Maricela, San Diego State University, Class of 2014, and Guadalupe, California State University, Los Angeles, Class of 2014.

Ana Díaz-Booz is principal of the School of International Business at the Kearny High Educational Complex in San Diego, Calif. E-mail: adiaz@sandi.net