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Farm town develops education success formula

Sunday - 12/22/2013, 3:09pm  ET

In this June 26, 2013 photo, students show off their assignments at the end of the school's summer program at Jefferson Elementary School in Sanger, Calif. The Sanger Unified School District, which was once named as one of the lowest performing in the state, is now known for its success in educating its predominantly Latino student body: It graduated 94 percent of its Hispanic students in 2012, 20 percent more than the state average. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)

Associated Press

SANGER, Calif. (AP) -- When Yadir Sanchez arrived in this San Joaquin Valley agricultural town at age 5, she joined a well-traveled path to academic failure that children of other Mexican farmworkers had been on for years.

Students like Sanchez -- poor, Hispanic and barely bilingual -- routinely fell through the cracks in the Sanger Unified School District, which had one of the worst records in the state. Lacking basic math and English skills, students were pushed into trades or allowed to drop out.

Sanchez appeared to be no different, speaking only Spanish in kindergarten and struggling with English until fifth grade.

But something remarkable happened that lifted the fortunes of Sanchez and so many like her. The district reinvented itself, making huge strides by shaking up the way teachers worked with students, parents and each other.

In 2012, the district graduated 94 percent of its Hispanic students, 20 percentage points higher than the state average and similar districts. Its Hispanic dropout rate was just 3 percent, compared to 18 percent statewide.

Sanger's success is still the exception across California. While Latinos are poised to become the state's largest ethnic group in 2014, they continue to score lower on standardized tests, graduate at lower rates and drop out more often than other students.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that will funnel more money to help poorer schools, but Sanger's success serves as a model for how a district made vast gains despite budget cuts.

In 2004, the year Sanchez entered fourth grade at Wilson Elementary School, the district was named one of the 98 lowest performing in the state. Wilson, six other schools and the district as a whole were declared in need of improvement under federal law.

At Wilson that year, just 5 percent of English learners scored proficient in language arts on a standardized test. Just 18 percent of Hispanic students and 10 percent of English learners scored proficient districtwide.

"When we looked at those scores, it was eye-opening; we were shocked," said Marc Johnson, who became superintendent in 2003 and retired in June. "We knew we had kids who struggled, but we had no idea it was that bad."

As a child of farmworkers who toiled long hours in the fields, Sanchez was hardly unique in Sanger, where 82 percent of the students live in poverty and more than half come from homes where the adults lack a college degree and do not speak English.

Sanchez's struggle was palpable. While the vast majority of Sanger students are Hispanic, most of the children around her spoke English, a language she did not understand. She had few friends, had an especially hard time writing in complete sentences and expressing what she wanted to say. Her report cards showed very low grades.

"Not knowing English, it was definitely isolating and frustrating," Sanchez said. "I thought I would never be able to learn it."

Sanchez was among a quarter of English learners pulled out of class for small group reading and writing sessions.

But federal testing showed that wasn't enough. Deeply engrained beliefs, administrators said, slowed many children's progress.

"The mentality was: these kids who have darker skin or who don't speak English are not going to go to college; they're going to work with their hands," said Daniel Chacon, principal of Sanger High School. "Teachers had to start believing in their potential."

Faced with failure, most districts respond with quick fixes geared for immediate results but few long-term gains, said Jane David of the Bay Area Research Group, co-author of a study about the district. Instead of spending on costly programs or teaching aids, Sanger set out to change its culture.

The district made "an investment in time versus money," said Matt Navo, Sanger's superintendent. "It allowed us to use personnel who already existed," train teachers and provide additional help to students by changing schedules and trying new approaches.

Key to change was a model requiring collaboration among teachers, data to track students and holding teachers accountable to each other.

To better understand why students like Sanchez struggled, the district created its own standardized tests. Teacher teams regularly analyzed scores to determine what succeeded and what failed. They set goals, exchanged strategies and tried out new teaching methods. They even retaught each other's students.

Some teachers initially resisted, but administrators emphasized the approach was not punitive.

"There wasn't that fear of failure, so we could be creative and innovative," said Cathy Padilla, principal at Jefferson Elementary School.

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