The view from Valley High

How one troubled high school turned itself around

Valley High students have better test scores and fewer riots. These “Breaking Down the Walls” sessions are part of the reason.

Valley High students have better test scores and fewer riots. These “Breaking Down the Walls” sessions are part of the reason.

Courtesy Of John Harrigan

Lamont told me about his siblings and about camping out by Lake Camanche with his stepdad. I can’t remember the details because we spoke for maybe five minutes. I don’t know how old he was, probably 16 or 17. He was tall and held his chin up as he looked down at me under the brim of his baseball hat. At the end of our conversation, we shook each other’s hands and both said, “You’re gonna miss me.” Two-hundred teenagers around us did the same.

In those few minutes, Lamont and I didn’t exactly become friends, but we weren’t strangers any longer. We had spoken to one another as part of Breaking Down the Walls, a program that teaches community building through ice breakers and interactive exercises. For three days in mid-October, the small gymnasium at Valley High School in south Sacramento in the Elk Grove Unified School District turned into a stage for students to learn the value of “knowledge before judgment.”

This year, Valley celebrates its 30th anniversary. Had it been six or so years ago, the school may not have had much to commemorate as daily fights, low staff morale and poor academics plagued the campus. Back in those days, Valley was not often shown in a positive light. If the school was noticed, it was likely for campus riots and the occasional talented football player that made it to the NFL. But that’s starting to change.

On a recent Friday morning, I sat waiting in the school’s main office for Principal Chris Evans to return from his morning tour of the campus. A banner hung on the back wall stated the school’s “Bold Goal” to reach an Academic Performance Index score of 700. Last year’s score, released in September, was written in: 693. Over the PA system, a student-body officer announced that students could visit a career guidance counselor for help filling out UC applications.

Evans returned and accompanied me to the gym, talking about the harsh period the school experienced when he joined the staff about five years ago. “The school didn’t have a purpose back then,” he said, and there was a different administration that didn’t always support the teachers.

Students piled into the gym, grabbing name tags and finding seats on the bleachers. Not every one of the school’s 1,600 students had the opportunity to participate in the training. Only about 600 had the chance, each of whom was selected by Activities Director John Harrigan, who spent hours pouring through yearbooks selecting students from different backgrounds and social groups to create a good mix. Between 50 and 70 teachers also went through the training.

Program creator Phil Boyte led the group in clapping exercises as he weaved in an explanation of the program’s objective: to promote positive human interaction and understanding by talking to one another, and more importantly, by listening. “It’s hard to hate someone whose story you know,” he explained.

Earlier in the day, he had posed a question: “If I went to ask you what Valley High School is like, I wonder what you would say about the people?” I wondered, too. Based on last year’s data (comparable to this year’s), 32 percent of the population was African-American, 29 percent Hispanic, 22 percent Asian, 7 percent white and the rest a combination of Filipino, Pacific Islander and American Indian. The school has one of the largest populations of students on the free- and reduced-lunch program in the district at 74 percent. It also has the largest English-learner population, with 509 students speaking a combined 22 languages.

By some people’s preconceived notions, Valley shouldn’t be a “success” story. The school is situated in the rough neighborhood of Valley Hi, but when it was built, it resided on the outskirts of Sacramento, near the rural community of Elk Grove.

It was the second high school built in the area. Before long, Valley went from being an almost exclusively white, suburban school to an urban one with a student population perpetually in flux. Developers built apartment complexes in the area, which led to a more transient population. Students entered the school system late or failed to stay the whole four years, making it difficult for the administration to measure its success or failures. The school continues to face that challenge. Changes in school boundary lines followed after Laguna West built up, creating a new suburban area—a pattern that repeats itself today as growth spreads farther and farther south.

But a new group of administrators began focusing on those issues that interrupted the educational climate, such as discipline and attendance problems. They implemented policies that held kids accountable, helped teachers with discipline enforcement and piloted programs to encourage school spirit. Over time, the atmosphere improved, Evans said, and Valley definitely isn’t the same school it was 10 years ago.

“At one time, Valley was one of the lowest-achieving high schools in the region,” he said. “Now we are not even the lowest in our district.”

In fact, Valley has experienced six straight years of API growth. According to Chris Hardwicke, co-chairman of the social studies department, U.S. History scores on California Standardized Testing went from last in the district to second and is one of the highest in the county. Valley is the only school in the district to show continuous improvement in U.S. History on the CST, and African-American and Hispanic students are scoring above the state average for all students in this subject matter. World History is also now top in the district. EL students are excelling on the CSTs and earning high grades, Hardwicke said. He also noted the school’s open Advanced Placement and honors-enrollment program, and a renewed commitment by teachers to do right by their students. Teachers put together instructional calendars along with common assessments and vocabulary and review sheets, and voluntarily spend lunch breaks running interactive and investigative review sessions. The district helps by mandating and paying for every 10th grader to take the PSAT.

I have a personal interest in Valley’s rise from the ashes. My dad has taught at the school since it opened and through my lifetime, I’ve heard stories of disrespectful students, parents who make excuses for their child’s bad behavior or plagiarism, and fellow teachers who fail to teach. On several occasions, I remember my dad returning home from school with a stiff back, having broken up a fight on campus. But he told me other stories, too. He talked about kids who seem like they’d be the toughest gangsters or biggest punks, but in reality turned out to be some of the nicest or smartest kids he’d ever met.

Last weekend, I asked my dad if he heard about the former Valley student who got shot. He needed clarification: “Which one?” he asked. I was referring to Sione “Johnny” Folan, a young leader in Sacramento’s Tongan community who was shot to death in early October. Yes, he knew who I was talking about. During one school year, Folan had the teacher in the room next door to my dad’s and he’d say hello to my dad before entering class. “He was a real nice guy,” my dad said.

On that Friday, as much as I didn’t want to, I had to leave the Breaking Down the Walls workshop after two hours. The students spent the rest of the day together. In the time I was there, I met Lamont and also Sergio, a thoughtful soft-spoken guy who was born in a town in Mexico, and Lizette, a young woman from Watsonville who was always the shortest kid in class. When we sat cross-legged facing each other with 60 seconds to say something about our lives, Lizette told me about a painful experience she had as a child when she ran around a playground barefoot and a needle lodged itself into her toe. In between these moments when we’d converse with someone, the group walked in two lines, high five-ing with the kids across from us, stopping a moment to say something like, “I won’t forget you.” And when we said it, I really feel like we believed it.

It’s hard to gauge the impact of a workshop like this, or for that matter, the importance of rising test scores, on the lives of individual students. Who knows if these Valley students would remember any lessons learned? Maybe they won’t remember the details, the names of all the U.S. presidents, the mathematic equations. But maybe they’ll remember those teachers and an administration that didn’t dismiss them as inevitable failures but who gave them a chance.

At the start of Breaking Down the Walls, Harrigan addressed the students with a heartfelt plea: “This has been a really awesome week on campus. We want it to start here and continue.”

I know enough not to glorify all the students at Valley as angels mistakenly pigeonholed as gang bangers and I’m not trying to sugarcoat reality. Just the other weekend, a gang graffitied school property and school administrators worry that neighborhood issues will manifest themselves on campus. I realize this. But I also know enough to know that these students and this school deserve, at long last, some respect.