The re-education of Sacramento High
Once marred by controversy and disunion, Sacramento High is now home to a brand-new school, with students and staff chartering a new course
Spring 2003: If you attended Sacramento City Unified School District meetings or opened a local newspaper, you knew that Sacramento High School was the subject of uproarious debate. St. Hope Corp., which previously had run Christian-based after-school programs, had submitted a charter proposal to turn a public high school with dismal test scores into a charter school independent of the district and teachers unions. From the beginning, a majority of school-board members and former Superintendent Jim Sweeney supported the St. Hope charter proposal. Lots of vocal parents and union representatives did not.
St. Hope critics didn’t trust celebrity basketball star Kevin Johnson to run a public high school, especially considering he’d never done it before. Concerned parents bristled at the idea that the school board had let Sac High limp along and that now they were turning over their responsibility, and a public institution, to a corporation. Teachers worried about their jobs, and students about their classes.
In spite of these concerns, a majority of school-board members voted in favor of radical reform. They voted to close the old Sac High and open up a new charter school.
Spring 2004: There’s not much debate on campus now. St. Hope has completed the transition to a charter school made up of six small, independent, theme-based schools. Teachers and students both seem pleased with many of St. Hope’s innovations and are reporting improved academic performance. The fears that community members reported during board meetings have faded into the background, and the school functions on a day-to-day basis without the frictions and fears of last spring.
The new charter school is still young, so many important questions remain unanswered; no data from standardized tests is available yet, so Sac High can’t confirm its academic progress. Program Coordinator Patti Kolb reported, however, that in the charter school’s first semester, 35 percent of the student body earned a grade-point average (GPA) of 3.0 or better. Only 27 percent of the student body had a GPA of 3.0 or better throughout their high-school careers. Informal interviews with students also found dramatic increases in individual GPAs. Scores on California’s high-school exit exam, which was administered to the sophomore class and will be the first official indication of academic progress, will be reported in late spring.
Sac High’s old teaching staff was disbanded. Though some teachers accepted jobs with St. Hope, most of the others were placed in other schools. At least one is tutoring, and teachers from the former school’s arts academy launched their own charter school this year. St. Hope’s current staff includes a number of first- and second-year teachers. Though the teachers may lack experience, students claim they’re attentive. So far, Sac High teachers haven’t unionized.
St. Hope and the district assured upperclassmen that Sac High would maintain its accreditation, and the school attracted 1,640 students in its first year. Eighty percent of the current student body attended Sac High last year.
The charter school, which is still a public school, has no religious component, according to administrators.
Apparently, even a nonprofit that’s never run a high school can introduce reforms that satisfy teachers and students. But there is one notable exception: In interviews, seniors who’d survived most of high school and expected a glorious, celebratory final year said they continue to feel neglected while St. Hope scrambles to meet its countless obligations in its first year of operation.
“That we have six schools running well,” said St. Hope Public Schools Superintendent Margaret Fortune, “is very remarkable.”
Since the transition, the Sac High campus has been secured. Monitors man the entrances all day. Access to the campus also is controlled for journalists. The school receives so much media attention that journalists’ visits are carefully planned. SN&R was allowed to interview students randomly but only within earshot of administrators. We also were invited to a day’s worth of classes, mostly college-prep classes, which were impressive.
The classes we visited ran at 20 students apiece or less, and classrooms were decorated with student-made posters explaining St. Hope’s five principles: high expectations, more time, the power to lead, a focus on results, and choice and commitment.
During an honors English class of eight juniors (a jocular and theatrical group of smarty-pants), teacher Erik Jones obviously inspired commitment. He handed back a test to his students, and Tara Spinella, who got the highest score, huffed and puffed in shock until she could contain herself no longer. “Just give me a hug,” said Spinella, as she got up and squeezed a bewildered Jones. “I thought for sure I saw a D in my future,” she said.
And when Jared Childress got the highest score on an in-class quiz on poetic devices, he was rewarded with a bright sticker that said, “Great.” Jones popped it onto his student’s forehead, and Childress rubbed at the corners to make sure it stayed there. He wore it proudly in class and out.
But these were some of Sac High’s more gifted kids. During breaks, student Sean Chapman tried to kick-start discussions on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Then he held a whispered conversation with the teacher’s assistant about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Other, less advanced, classes didn’t quite resemble college workshops, though.
During first period, Nancy Kidd, a health teacher and liaison with the University of California, Davis, told her first-year health students they would have to wait another day for their grades. Like Jones’ students, they groaned with anticipation.
But Kidd’s class included street-smart girls from Los Angeles as well as students bewildered when asked to formulate projects on their own. While one team of enthusiastic girls analyzed and deconstructed ideas for a poster encouraging younger students not to smoke, other students sat in groups silently, not looking at each other, apparently waiting for inspiration to strike or for more direction.
Because one of St. Hope’s major innovations was a “block schedule” of four lengthy 86-minute classes per day, even Kidd’s reluctant students had enough time to get to work before the next bell rang.
Kidd raved about innovations like the elongated class time and smaller, theme-based schools. As a liaison with UC Davis and other partners, Kidd hopes to expose her students to virtual labs and videoconferencing so they can observe conferences from around the country. She’s working on job-shadowing programs, hospital tours and fast-tracking her students into coveted nursing programs. “It’s endless,” she said.
From interviews with students and teachers, it was clear that the most important changes at Sac High, such as the elongated class periods, would not have been easy to implement under the old public-school model, in which big changes needed community, district and union support.
Sac High, before it was turned into a charter school, was a comprehensive public high school, meaning it served a general high-school population under the Sacramento City Unified School District. Its academic record, for the majority of students, was poor. In the 2001-2002 school year, only 9 percent of all juniors met or exceeded the state standard in mathematics; only 28 percent met or exceeded the state standard in English. It was judged a failing high school.
For three years, Sac High had accepted state funding to raise test scores. Even when gains were made, the school failed to meet project goals. [See “The miseducation of Sac High” by Chrisanne Beckner; SN&R Cover; February 6, 2003.] Former Superintendent Sweeney claimed that the school didn’t have the flexibility, especially under union contracts, to make the dramatic changes that would improve academic performance. Teachers had worked hard to prepare Sac High for a transition into small learning communities similar to the six small schools currently at Sac High, but they ran out of time when the school board basically voted them off the island.
Under an independent charter, St. Hope Corp. had no obligation to hire union teachers or to meet union demands. It had little obligation to the school board. It does, however, receive state funding and, therefore, some oversight, though it answers mainly to the St. Hope Public Schools Board of Directors.
St. Hope divided Sac High into six mostly autonomous schools: the School of Public Service; the School of Journalism; the School of the Arts; the School of Health; the School of Business; and the School of Math, Engineering and Science.
In each small school, 200 to 300 students take core classes and electives with the same 15 teachers. A regular public school enrolls students in six to seven school-year-long classes, but St. Hope divided its nine-month school year into two semesters. Each semester, students take four classes, for a total of eight classes a year—one to two more than at an average high school.
In interviews with teachers and students, the longer classes got great reviews. With only four classes per semester, students mix their more demanding classes with easier ones, and they study and do homework in only four subjects at a time. And, by sitting through 86-minute classes, as opposed to the regular 50-minute ones, students prepare for longer college classes.
Sgt. Shirley Grier, who runs ROTC, said she used the extra class time to provide for exercise and studies in military history, geography and land navigation. At the end of class, her students still have time to practice marching.
Suzanne Goldring, a physics teacher, explained that she used the extra class time to help with homework problems and to add interactive lab experiments. On a recent Monday, her students used bowling balls and yardsticks to work out weight-times-displacement formulas. A few students also used the last few minutes of class to argue about the existence of God rather than to complete homework problems.
The goal, said Goldring, was 30 minutes of homework per class per day. Many students said they don’t even have that much.
Without standardized test scores, it may be too early still to say whether converting a public school to a charter was worth the acrimony, or whether a private nonprofit can improve on the public-school model, but it wasn’t too early to ask students whether St. Hope had succeeded. The students, after all, are what this whole transition was about.
In interviews, there were complaints: a shortened lunch period; a less-social atmosphere, now that students have been divided into small schools; and no chartered buses, which means expensive regional transportation. But students and teachers also reported an almost overwhelming satisfaction with the new school structure and the teachers.
On a warm afternoon, SN&R staff entered the campus; met with Kevin Johnson’s assistant, Adrianne Hall; and, as soon as the final bell rang, began approaching students.
The first set the tone for a series of mini-interviews. The first thing she said was, “Everything’s better.”
Her friend, a sophomore who attended C.K. McClatchy High School last year, agreed. “The teachers are more involved in your work,” she said.
The two girls were leaving the commons at the end of the day, but other students stood in the clean, open space and talked, milled around, stretched or just watched the student body pass by. Their peers couldn’t have been more diverse. Black, Asian, Latino and Caucasian students flowed from the various tributaries that led into the commons. There were no fights among students, no visible friction.
Fred Ellis, a tall, lean freshman who was chatting with a number of other basketball players, said an early interest in math landed him in the School of Math, Engineering and Science, where he’s raised his 2.8 GPA to a 3.6.
Sarah Shaad, a sophomore from the journalism school, went to West Campus at Hiram Johnson High School last year. “The classes were really, really hard,” she said, “and too many kids, like, in class.” This year, she, too, has improved. “It’s easier when you have more time in classes so you can ask the teacher questions,” she said. Like other students, Shaad claimed to have no more than an hour of homework a day.
Rodney Jackson, a break-dancer who’s been teaching other students, is now a sophomore in the journalism school. He attended Sac High last year, as well. “It’s kind of more organized,” he said. “It’s, like, easy because then you got four classes. … You ain’t got to worry about, like, too much homework.” Asked about his grades, the charismatic Jackson said, “This year, it’s, like, hecka better.”
Jonathan Hunn, an eloquent senior, sat on a card table and looked over the student body as if he owned it. He’d been an early supporter of St. Hope, he said, and had picketed, made signs and done everything to promote it. But, at the beginning of the year, he was disappointed. “The senior class feels a little neglected,” he said. “We weren’t getting any attention.” Other seniors claim their budget for special events is missing and that they don’t get the best seats at the rallies, or a senior trip or any of the glory of having made it through high school.
“But they gave us a little committee,” said Hunn. “They listen. That’s more than last year.” Hunn believes that the administration currently is working to satisfy him and his classmates.
Hunn also noticed a wave of optimism from students. The curriculum hasn’t changed much, he said, but the attitude of the students has. “Last year,” he said, “nobody cared about anything.”
The transition to the small-school environment must have been as much of a challenge for school administrators and teachers as it was for students. Hall said that the school opened in September as a comprehensive high school, but within a month, it transitioned into small schools. Some schools were more popular than others, so not all students got their first choice.
Geena Rodriguez, a slender freshman with long, straight hair, is in the School of Journalism, even though she wants to be either a dancer or a veterinarian. She’d hoped to join the School of the Arts, but journalism was her second choice.
An hour or so after school, Rodriguez was still in the photography classroom, talking with a friend, while her teacher, Wendi Everett, was cleaning up the darkroom. Everett, an enthusiastic first-year teacher, came out of the lab with wet hands. “It’s amazing,” she said of Sac High. “I love it.”
Everett’s class is part of the journalism school, but it also is open to art students.
“A lot of kids have really gotten a good sense of community, I think, within their small schools,” said Everett. “I think that kids are so open to having new teachers. Not necessarily brand-new teachers—just having a group of teachers that have more positive things to say or have a more positive environment.”
According to Everett, the rise in GPAs was due to an increase in expectations. “I think now [students] are saying, ‘Wow, people have expectations for us now.’ And they wanted that but never had it, I don’t think.”
Everett did her student teaching in a large, comprehensive high school in Chico, she said, where she felt lost. Here, she is in constant contact with her principal and other teachers. “We can go to staff meetings and go, ‘How’s Johnny doing in your class?’ We can say their first names and know who we’re all talking about.”
According to St. Hope policy, any student with a D attends an intervention meeting. Parents, counselors and staff help produce an “individual education plan” to improve grades, study habits, etc. Tom Rutten, the principal of the School of Public Service, said that at the end of the first term of this year, 59 percent of students had a GPA of 2.0 or higher, a C average. By the end of the first grading period of the second term, 74 percent had reached that goal.
Even discipline problems are easier at Sac High, said Everett, because she can walk a student directly over to the principal. “We’re going to talk about it, and it’s just going to be dealt with on a much more personal and effective level.”
Dale Means, a teacher from the School of Math, Engineering and Science, wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as Everett. On the same afternoon, he walked down the hallway after school looking slightly shell-shocked. Asked what it was like to work at Sac High, he said with little expression, “It’s been the greatest challenge I’ve faced so far.” Means, too, is a first-year teacher, and he said that his days are 10 to 12 hours long because it is tough preparing a curriculum for the first time.
“The challenge is to engage the students daily and inspire them and to create the curriculum and just do it day in and day out, dealing with all the variables—from personality to learning styles to where we’re at with the budget.”
The school has a computer lab with multiple machines, but Means said they need some upgrades and that the lab badly needs software. Asked whether he had a budget to fill out his lab over time, he responded, “I have no idea.” He’s currently considering partnerships with software developers who might be willing to help stock the lab.
Tony Kline, assistant to Fortune, later said that a proposal was in the works for requesting money from the state for more technology but that the school spent half a million dollars during the summer on books and couldn’t do everything at once.
Sean Halverson also teaches at the School of Math, Engineering and Science, but as one of the school’s two English teachers. After school, he turns up Michael Jackson and sells snacks out of his classroom to raise money for a small school library. Students who have rides coming late or who want to work on billboard projects hang out in what Kline refers to as Cafe Halverson. “Some of the students just come and listen to music, mop the floor. I just give them things to do to stay busy,” said Halverson.
Halverson, like Everett, came from Chico, where he had “one African-American boy and, I think, one Asian, and the rest were all Caucasian.”
Ethnically, the new Sac High looks much as it did last year. Then, the school enrolled 1,856 students, with Latino, black and white students each accounting for approximately a quarter of the student body. This year, almost a third of Sac High’s 1,640 students are black, and almost a fifth are white. Latinos still make up a little more than a quarter of the student body.
Sac High’s teaching population looks a little less diverse this year. Eight of the 11 teachers we met were white.
Halverson, like other teachers, believes the school is still developing. Everett mentioned that teachers with specialties are envisioning electives in women’s literature or advanced-placement classes in photography.
Hunn, the senior who supported St. Hope, mentioned that law and public-speaking classes were not available in previous years but are now. And Steve Clinton, who teaches the school’s one calculus class, said that students now can conceivably take two math classes a year instead of one, so he might teach college-level courses in the future and add computer-programming classes.
The ability to rack up extra credits early in one’s high-school career with the semester system has already had an effect on Sac High’s student body. Some seniors had enough credits to graduate mid-year, and a number of them took advantage of that opportunity. Halverson’s senior English class was small.
“It makes me wonder if it’s because some of the students that are juniors don’t make it to be seniors,” he said, concerned about possible dropouts.
The question of whether or not Sac High could retain students caught the attention of community members like Jean Crowder, a teacher from Sac High’s previous incarnation who currently works off campus with a small group of motivated students. She remains a critic of the new administration and collected student stories that suggest the transition wasn’t easy for everyone. Crowder introduced us to some of her students.
When the school year began, said recent graduate Hong Ly, she didn’t know if the school would offer high-level classes like calculus. By the time St. Hope did offer a calculus class in the second term, Ly had left already. She had enough credits to graduate mid-year and said she knows of at least five other seniors who did the same. She called her first term at Sac High “really chaotic.” Ly said, “We felt lost. A lot of things we used to do, traditions, were different.” If she’d known Sac High was about to offer the classes she wanted, Ly said, she would have stayed.
Fouche Smith, a freshman at Sac High, also had trouble getting classes. After joining special programs for math-and-science whiz kids as a middle-schooler, Smith, along with his mother, Dorris, found nothing comparable at Sac High. Fouche ended up repeating a year of physical science his first term, and Dorris had to work to get the gifted student into an advanced-placement world-history course. She said it’s the only class offering her son any challenge at all.
Fouche, interestingly enough, enjoys attending Sac High, but he said he has very little homework, except in world history. He’s pleased with the block schedule and the opportunity to complete eight classes a year.
“That way,” he said, “I can move faster and stay ahead of everybody else.”
Stories like those from the Smiths lead Crowder to speculate that students may not realize what they’re missing from a rigorous academic life. “In a situation like this, as in many inner-city schools,” she said, “too often, the students and parents don’t know what they don’t know.”
Whitney Sisco, another senior, agreed. Hearing that many underclassmen like the new Sac High, she claimed they don’t have much to compare it with.
Sisco also has improved her grades this year. She said she got her first 4.0 since the seventh grade, but she thinks students’ high GPAs are tied to easier class work. In one class, she said, the teacher never checks homework, so sometimes Sisco just doesn’t do it. She wouldn’t say she’s not learning, but because the school isn’t all that she expected, she feels cheated out of her senior year.
Amber Childress, also a senior, said her class wanted a lot of information on college, and it took a while to get it. She also said it is harder to work with this administration. But, as with other students, her concerns were tempered. “I was just placed in math, engineering and science,” she said, “but it’s cool, and I’m learning.” She said her classes are “harder. And they’re better.” Childress said her GPA has improved from a 2.6 to a 3.5.
Because of a series of court battles, St. Hope officials weren’t sure, until summer, that they would open a new high school in 2003. Once granted control of the campus, they had to staff six small schools, place students, buy books and equipment, and plan curricula. The school’s total operating budget for the year equaled $11.05 million, which included $8.8 million in state funds and $2.775 million in grants and donations. Out of its budget, St. Hope pays the district for services, including rental of the Sac High campus. According to Kline, the school received no federal dollars this year.
The district, the Sacramento City Teachers Association, St. Hope and concerned community members settled their final disagreements through a mediated settlement in late December 2003. As a condition of the settlement, according to Maria Lopez, a district communications officer, all litigation against the charter school was dropped. The contempt-of-court cases facing four board members who approved a second St. Hope charter after a judge invalidated the first also were dropped.
But, from now on, said Lopez, the district will have to wait a year after the closure of any other comprehensive school before opening a charter on the same site. The district also must explore the possibility of opening a new comprehensive high school to replace Sac High, because state law says that no student can be forced to attend a charter school. Lopez said that the district is working now on surveying the community to see if there’s enough support for a new public high school.
The district, having taken such risks in turning the school over to St. Hope, lost much of its control of the campus under the laws governing an independent charter. But some board members have stayed involved.
Board member Jay Schenirer, one of the early and active supporters of St. Hope, said he’s spent much time on campus since September. “What I’ve seen has been extremely impressive,” he said by phone. “What they’ve done is just short of a miracle.”
Schenirer added that he’s pleased by what he’s seen inside the classrooms where students have been kept “on task” nearly all the time.
“To be fair,” said Schenirer, “they have a ways to go, but I think they’ve been incredibly agile.”
St. Hope still faces challenges, including that of discipline, which can be a difficult issue for any urban high school. Goldring confirmed a student’s statement that a school dance had to be canceled after a big fight broke out on campus one afternoon.
Manuel Hernandez, a school-board member who voted against the closure of the former Sac High, wouldn’t discuss the details of private conversations with parents and students, but he did say that discipline and safety issues have been raised at school-board meetings.
“Most schools, when they start, have growing pains,” Hernandez said.
In spite of challenges, the administration at Sac High counts the experiment a success. Fortune, during an interview, reiterated that St. Hope’s goal is to manage one of the finest urban educational systems in America. “We want a continuous school system, K through 12,” she said.
To that end, St. Hope is in a setup mode. St. Hope officials are about to discuss a proposal for a preschool with administrators, and they’re adding a fifth grade to their new elementary school, St. Hope Public School 7, which opened this year to grades one through four.
With an elementary school and a high school up and running, the organization expects innovations like the block schedule, the small-school environment and the intervention program for underachieving students to build a college-ready student body.
Kidd agreed. “The kids make a choice to come here,” she said. “They’re committed to what we’re trying to do.”