(Source: California Department of Education)
Not far from the mile-of-cars, industrial parks and warehouses of National City, students at Sweetwater High are being challenged academically and succeeding.
Along with students from Granger Junior High and National City Middle, Sweetwater High surpassed the 800-point target on the state's recently released Academic Performance Index (API).
The Red Devils delivered a 72-point gain on the API to push their school up from 733 to 805. School Board president John McCann said the great gains came about as students took full advantage of tutoring after school, on Saturdays and during school breaks to learn.
"Sweetwater High's teachers, students and parents are turning the tables on the myth that says children who have the odds stacked against them can't learn," McCann said. "We identified the students needing help, provided them the extra teaching they needed and they worked hard to make these great gains."
With the arrival of a new principal last school year, Sweetwater adopted a program of intense academic support for struggling students.
It's a year-round effort that has teachers going above and beyond what is required to improve student learning schoolwide and among subgroups of students.
In all core subjects, teachers use frequent tests to check for understanding and identify areas where students are weak. Analyzing the results, they can easily identify which students need additional instruction. Then they refer students to targeted after school, Saturday school or intersession tutorials.
Roman Del Rosario, who finished his first year as Sweetwater High principal in June, said intervention is not offered to students as a quick fix before testing.
"Academic support is provided from the first week of school to the last week of school," he said. "Instead of waiting for students to fail, intervention is offered to all struggling students at the first signs that they've fallen behind."
But an anonymous complaint sent to the California Department of Education (CDE) sought to discredit Sweetwater High's gains by implying that teachers improperly prepared English Learner and Special Education students before administering the test in order to bring scores up.
A news report alleged that 226 students who attended a spring break intervention course received "special training" that helped boost their test scores. Although the complaint was emailed to the CDE in May, no one has come forward with evidence of cheating.
At the request of the CDE, Gene Baker, the district director of research and evaluation, examined the process of providing inappropriate test preparation to students during the break. He prepared a nine-page report to the state on the review of the testing process at Sweetwater High and determined that there was no validity to the allegation.
In an email response to Baker's report, John Boivin, administrator of the CDE's standardized testing and reporting office, wrote: "Thank you for you detailed investigation in the allegations made in the anonymous letter...we concur that there was no testing irregularity. We appreciate the time and effort that you invested in this thorough investigation."
Growth in API scores at Sweetwater High, the only high school serving National City, is in keeping with the upward trend in student achievement communitywide.
Students at the elementary, middle and junior high schools in National City have consistently increased performance on the API since 2007. In addition, none of the feeder schools have fallen into Program Improvement, the status given to schools failing to meet academic benchmarks established by the federal "No Child Left Behind" act.
By showing big improvements in on standardized testing, National City schools are thwarting the cliché that students from a disadvantaged community can't achieve. Indeed Sweetwater High is home to a population of students traditionally considered at risk.
National City has the lowest median household income among all incorporated cities in San Diego County. More than 95 percent of the student body belongs to an underserved ethnic minority group, with Latinos accounting for more than 81 percent of the student population.
Nearly one in three students is an English learner and 85 percent qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program. Many students are from immigrant families where a language other than English is spoken at home by parents who did not finish high school.
Even so, students in all demographic groups posted big increases in student achievement including socio-economically disadvantaged, English Learners and Students with disabilities. [See chart above.]
"It's happening because a skilled and talented new principal, working with a dedicated and outstanding faculty and staff, is determined to create a legacy of academic excellence at Sweetwater High," said Superintendent Dr. Ed Brand.
Principal Del Rosario said, "I am convinced that given the right instruction and support, every child can learn. My vision is for every child in National City to be prepared to go to college."
Teachers have embraced Del Rosario's high expectations and are enthusiastically signing up to work evenings, weekends and school breaks to help their students succeed.
Students too are being motivated by the hundreds to give up vacation days, Saturdays and free time after school voluntarily in order to catch up and get ahead.
Though Del Rosario, a newly minted Ed.D. in education, is just starting his second year as principal at Sweetwater, the school's success in applying the district approved intervention strategies has already caught the attention of educators who are coming from around the region to get pointers on how to improve student achievement.
"It's rewarding to see the hard work of our students, teachers and parents paying off," Del Rosario said. "But our growth has just begun. We'll continue to offer a variety of opportunities for our students to excel. And, we'll offer academic support to any student who is struggling and wants the help."