High School Redesign in San Diego, California

High School Redesign in San Diego, California
High School Redesign in San Diego, California


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), working with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), facilitated a series of field trips around the country to help state policy leaders learn more about high school redesign. This project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supported The Honor States Program, an initiative of the National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices, by providing hands-on professional development activities to state teams comprised of governors, their staffs, members of state education boards and commissions, state legislators, and senior state officials working in K-16 education.

The first field trip in the series was to San Diego, California to visit redesigned high schools and engage in policy discussions with state and district leadership in San Diego and California. Field trip participants came from the states of Maine, Arkansas, and Texas.


The purpose of this trip was to expose state policy leaders to policies and practices in San Diego that support high school redesign, provide time to learn about the context of the reform in a different state, encourage peer-to-peer learning among participants, and help participants build a network of information, resources, and contacts. Specifically, the trip was designed to enable participants to learn about the following:

  • San Diego’s efforts to increase student achievement, reduce dropout rates, and better prepare all students for postsecondary education and careers;
  • California’s state-level policies and efforts to support high school reform through its High Performing High School Initiative; and
  • Impacts that California’s state and district policies have on schools and classrooms.

The trip enabled participants to see a range of secondary learning options for students, including a comprehensive high school with small learning communities, a small school within a larger educational complex, an alternative high school, and a public charter school. It also provided a forum to meet with district and state reform leaders, including Sue Stickel, California Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Carl Cohn, Superintendent of San Diego City Schools (SDCS), and Geno Flores, Deputy Superintendent of SDCS.

The Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High (High Tech High)

High Tech High is a public charter school designed around three key principles: Personalization; Adult World Connection; and Common Intellectual Mission. It was conceived by a group of San Diego high technology business leaders and local educators to address the high tech industry’s problems of finding qualified people locally to fill the growing number of job opportunities in San Diego. Starting with one high school in 2000, and today, the High Tech High “village” now houses six autonomous small schools on the grounds of the former naval academy in San Diego and one school in Redwood, California. Since its inception, the school has received significant support to replicate up to 15 other schools. To help manage the opening and ongoing operations of multiple charter schools, and to help assure quality replication across the entire portfolio of High Tech High schools, High Tech High Learning, a charter management organization that provides comprehensive management supports to new High Tech High replications was established.

Larry Rosenstock, CEO and principal, began his overview by saying “when we designed High Tech High, we realized there are things that we had to stop doing in high schools. For instance, we had to ignore perceived differences between students.” The design concept comes from Rosenstock’s experience as a former teacher and headmaster in Boston as well as from his experience as director of the federal New Urban High Schools project, which studied urban high schools that were using school-to-work strategies as a lever for whole school reform. He also drew from the Carl Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which focuses on the integration of academic and career coursework. “The methodology of vocational and the ideology of content are married here. This is exactly how Perkins money should be used,” he said.

Students apply to attend High Tech High and are accepted through a computer-assisted lottery process. The computer uses ZIP codes to ensure the student body is drawn from a diverse set of neighborhoods, ensuring that the school continues to reflect the demographics of San Diego. Over 11% of students at High Tech High are classified as special education, which is a relatively high number for a charter school. Rosenstock said that because of the personalized nature of the school, it has gained a reputation for serving special education students well. As a result, more and more special education students apply.

High Tech High spends $6,200 per pupil per year, whereas San Diego City School District spends $8,300 per pupil. High Tech High also receives private funds, separate from the per pupil expenditure, all of which are spent on improving the facilities or purchasing new equipment. San Diego schools spend $67,000 on average to build one seat for a student. It costs High Tech High $16,000 to build the same seat.

Since the school started in 2000, 100% of students have graduated and gone on to pursue postsecondary education. Fifty-six percent of High Tech High graduates are first generation college attendees. On California’s Academic Performance Index (API), High Tech High scores 10s on every indicator, which is the highest score possible. Statewide in California, 38% of students take the A-G curriculum, the minimum entrance requirements for the University of California and Califorinia State University systems a tth etime of graduation, whereas 100% of High Tech High students complete the college-ready curriculum. The A-G curriculum includes four years of English, three years of math, two years of a lab science, history, or social science, one year of foreign language, and electives. High Tech High also has the highest test scores for Latinos and for disadvantaged youth in California.

Key Features

  • Statewide Charter: High Tech High Learning, the charter management organization, has received special “statewide benefit charter” status from the California Board of Education by an 8:1 vote. This status allows High Tech High to open new schools in California without waiting for approval from local school districts. Rosenstock said that this state policy is critical, because school districts are often in competition, in some sense, with charter schools.
  • Respect and Relationships: Rosenstock said the “whole proposition of high school is to engage kids and treat them with respect.” Each adult in the building leads an advisory of students and students remain in the same advisory for all four years. Advisories have a 1:15 adult-to-student ratio. Advisory teachers get to know the students and their families and are encouraged to visit families before the school year starts, which is not always easy since many students have long commutes. Teachers and students have democratic relationships, and students often address teachers by first names. The advisories and small course loads (teachers usually teach 50 to 80 students) keep the unit of accountability between the teachers and individual students rather than between the school and a classroom.
  • Teaching and Staffing: Teachers have great flexibility to design their own courses within the state standards, allowing teachers and students the opportunity to explore their passions. All courses are approved by the University of California (meet A-G curriculum requirements) or accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. All teachers are hired on one-year contracts. Most teachers are young, which Rosenstock calls “quasi-intentional.” They tend to have deep content knowledge and impressive academic backgrounds. The schedule is designed to allow teachers to have common planning time everyday. Teachers at High Tech High are paid at or above the salaries offered by the school district. In addition, High Tech High can give out small merit awards.
  • Teacher Certification Program: Although teachers come from all over the country to teach at High Tech High, they do need a state certification to be “highly qualified” under the law. This policy creates a barrier to hiring for schools like High Tech High that employ teachers with extensive industry experience and/or advanced degrees but no teaching credential. In August 2004, the state approved High Tech High’s application to operate an in-house teacher credentialing program. Since the program started in 2004, High Tech High has certified 24 math and science teachers, the first district in the state to do so.
  • Curriculum/Project-based Learning: All students in High Tech High take rigorous coursework and qualify for entrance into the University of California system. Advance placement (AP) courses are not offered at the school, on the grounds that they are fact-intensive, survey-style courses that allow for minimal in-depth learning. However, juniors and senior can take core courses for honors credit (weighted courses). High Tech High has state of the art technical facilities that support students’ abilities to use digital media for portfolios and projects. Writing is an essential competency at High Tech High, and every class focuses on developing good writing skills. Special education and English Language Learners are fully immersed in classes and teachers will work with students in the mornings before classes, at lunch, and after school to provide the extra supports they need. All students take physics, chemistry, and advanced calculus, which physics coming first in the science sequence High Tech High’s emphasis on project-based learning as a strategy also helps students develop a personal connection to their work. Students explore their individual interests and passions and collaborate with adults on work whose success has meaning well beyond that of a graded course.
  • Internships for all Students: High Tech High maintains close links to the high tech workplace. All students participate in internships while in high school. High Tech High has an 80-20 rule:  students spend 80% of their time in school and 20% at internships. Internships allow students to be placed in an environment of respect where they are engaged in meaningful work. “If you put kids in a complex environment that invites suspicion, kids typically fail. Put them in a simple environment and expect complex activities, and they succeed,” said Rosenstock. At the end of the internship, students do a presentation of learning that showcases what they learned in their internship. Rosenstock underscored the importance of internships by commenting, “one thing I’d do as a state policymaker is make sure every student in the state had access to an internship.” Internships and connections to careers are not intended to put young people into a particular career, but rather to use the career to make learning relevant to students and to connect the business community to the schools.
  • Performance-based Assessments: High Tech High uses performance-based assessments, in which students move through courses at their own speed. Students use technology as a tool to complete their projects, but technology is not a subject in itself. Every student creates a digital portfolio that provides a comprehensive look at each student’s work and learning. Each digital portfolio includes a personal statement, resume, work samples, and information about projects and internships. All students do presentations of learning so that students learn how to give and take constructive criticism. One project example that students completed recently were documentaries, in which students use technology, writing, presentation, and other skills. Teachers at High Tech High use web-enabled software to record comments on student progress, which allows teachers and parents to keep track of how the students are performing.

San Diego City Schools High School Renewal – “Portfolio of Excellence”

The San Diego City Schools (SDCS) high school renewal team provided an overview of the district’s high school reform strategy for the past five years as well as its challenges. San Diego is in its fifth year of the Schools for a New Society (SNS) program, a seven-city initiative to redesign high schools supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The school district has experienced three years of improved scores on the California Academic Performance Index (API), illustrating progress in student performance in the core subject areas.

Much of the high school reform work in SDCS started when Alan Bersin became superintendent of schools in 1998. The SNS Initiative helped the district to aggressively create and implement the plan for high school reform. In 2005, Carl Cohn took over as superintendent and much of the conversation in the district is around sustaining reforms and ways to continue to move the plan forward. Rob Atterbury, Director of High School Renewal, said that the 25-member high school renewal team is one structure in place to help sustain the momentum and strategic direction of the renewal efforts. The way the team is structured allows members to work across organizations and content areas.

Quick Facts about SDCS

  • SDCS is the second largest school district in California and the eighth largest urban district in the United States with an annual budget of $1.06 billion.
  • During the 2004-2005 school year, the district served approximately 138,000 K-12 students.
  • The district includes 202 schools: 113 elementary, 23 middle, 27 high, 10 alternative, 25 charters, 25 child development centers, and 4 atypical (grade configurations) schools.
  • SDCS has a diverse student body: 41.9% Hispanic, 25.9% White, 16.2% Asian, and 14.5% African American, and 28.4% are English Language Learners (ELLs).
  • Approximately 13% of SDCS students are classified as Special Education students.
  • Over 55% of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

In a cohort study of 9th grade students in the 2004-2005 academic year, 67% graduated from high school on time. Of these graduates, 38% met A-G curriculum requirements, and 22% did not pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), a graduation requirement.

Theory of Action and Goals for High School Renewal

The mission of SDCS is “to graduate all students with the skills and qualifications to meet UC/CSU entrance requirements without needing remediation in English or mathematics.” Underlying this mission is the core belief that the knowledge and skills required for successful transition from high school to postsecondary education or a career is one in the same.

The district took a two-pronged approach early on, forming two high school renewal offices to carry out distinctly different work. One office focused on improving instruction at 11 comprehensive high schools, while the other led the conversion of three comprehensive high schools into 14 small schools. In the 2005-2006 school year, the two offices were merged into one to lead the “portfolio of schools” approach and to tailor the renewal actions to the needs of individual schools.

The district’s “portfolio of schools” strategy is to provide a range of schools for students: comprehensive high schools with small learning communities, small free-standing high schools, small schools within a large complex, and charter schools. This approach centers on offering families and students choice in selecting schools. SDCS created five school models that students and parents could choose to attend. These five models include:

1) Challenge High Schools: large high schools that have struggled to meet API standards focused on improving student achievement and closing achievement gaps. The team admits that the name “challenge schools” has created some public relations issues because “challenge” carries a negative connotation.

2) Community Engagement High Schools: large high schools created to enhance student engagement to maintain neighborhood student enrollment.

3) Small School Educational Complexes: (conversions from comprehensive high schools): small, newly converted high schools within large education complexes. Each school has a theme and has the authority to implement its own curriculum.

4) Alternative High Schools: small high schools focused on reinvigorating nontraditional formats and options in order to enhance student engagement.

5) New Freestanding Small High Schools: new, small high schools designed by the High Tech High Learning network in conjunction with district teams which include parents and community members.

The district has identified common goals across all high schools. These goals serve as the primary tenants for advancing the high school renewal work to: 1) establish system coherence by aligning central office and site programs, and accelerating student learning by leveraging and expanding knowledge and skills among staff, parents, and community members; 2) improve the quality of instructional leadership by providing ongoing professional development for school leaders; 3) improve the quality of teaching throughout the district through embedded professional development; 4) increase student engagement in the learning process by personalizing learning environments to build on student interests; 5) increase community involvement in schools by giving principals ownership of the change process, expanding student voice, and bringing parents and students into the school renewal process.

Keith Nuthall, Program Officer in High School Renewal, said that the high school renewal team is “promoting a data-driven dialogue that informs decisions; not data-driven decisionmaking.” SDCS is very focused on making school leaders, teachers, and the community aware of the data to engage them in the reform process. In particular, the district has used data as a lever in getting principals to accept, and eventually lead, school change.

The district has invested heavily in improving the capacity of instructional leaders by providing monthly training opportunities for principals. The training sessions center around helping principals learn to identify and support quality instructional practices. Mary Asbury, Principal in Residence, discussed the challenges of redesigning a high school based on her experience as principal of Crawford High School leading up to its conversion into four small schools. “Principals need a lot of support from the district when a school is going through conversion,” she said. “Principals’ jobs expand during this time to include getting staff buy-in and selecting themes, getting community involvement, overseeing curriculum and budget development, and many other additional duties to be successful.” Asbury also mentioned that one policy that can create a barrier for instructional leaders is contending with teachers’ union contracts, which can make it difficult to dismiss poorly performing teachers from the district.

Rob Atterbury agreed by saying “There’s a big difference when you have a teacher on a one-year contract [like High Tech High] versus a standard union contract like other public schools in SDCS.”

Ongoing Challenges

Members of the high school renewal team acknowledged that there have been and continue to be challenges along the way.

Achievement Gap: One challenge that remains is the existing achievement gap, whereby African American, Hispanic, and ELL students continue to graduate from high school at a lower rate than White students. In particular, the growing number of ELL students could cause the achievement gap to continue to widen if more attention is not paid to student needs. The team mentioned that SDCS must work to create a system for providing academic instruction across the content areas for a growing number of ELL students who currently miss out on content instruction due to language barriers.

Data Collection: While conversations about the California P-16 council are promising, it is still difficult to collect data beyond high school because there is not a single database system for all the data. However, the state is currently working on a P-16 database system to address the issue. Other states are  in the process of linking their higher education data systems and high school systems to create one coherent system that tracks students throughout the school years. California will soon have similar legislation on a K-16 data system, according to Karen Shores, a participant on the trip from the California Department of Education.

Technical Assistance: The High School Renewal Team mentioned that technical assistance can easily become irrelevant and disconnected when it is provided at the state-level. American Institutes for Research (AIR), a research and evaluation think-tank, works with the school district to provide technical assistance on its reform plan, which has been critical to their ongoing efforts.

In-Seat-Time Law: California currently has an “in-seat time law,” which requires students to be in school 240 minutes per day in order for the school to receive its full per-pupil funding. The law has an unintended consequence: it prevents many schools from offering dual enrollment programs and internship opportunities because they conflict with the in-seat-time requirement.

California Statewide High School Reform Policies and Strategies

To provide context to the high school reform work in San Diego, Sue Stickel, Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction, California Department of Education, described some of the state strategies and policies related to high school reform. A few statistics help define the challenge: there are 1.9 million high school students in California; 50% are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches; and almost 20% of the state’s 9th grade students are English language learners ELL. According to a study by Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters on promoting power, 20% of all minority students in California attend “dropout factories,” or high schools where there are 40% or fewer seniors than freshmen four years earlier.”*

Stickel discussed the state’s High Performing High Schools (HPHS) Program, which focuses on five initiatives aimed at boosting achievement and graduation rates for all high school students:

  • Implementing high expectations for all students
  • Fostering the development of world-class teachers and administrators
  • Developing world-class instructional materials
  • Creating and supporting successful transitions to postsecondary education
  • Nurturing and developing a community of support for high-achieving students

Stickel focused her remarks on a few areas to ensure more students graduate from high school prepared for post-secondary education and success. The University of California and California State University have made their entrance requirements, referred to as “A-G,” known to all schools so students know exactly what is required to attend a state university.  Last year, Jack O’Connell, California Superintendent of Public Instruction, submitted a proposal that would require all students in the state to take the A-G curriculum in order to graduate from high school, which would make all students in the state college-ready at graduation. This proposal was not supported by the state legislature; therefore curriculum is still decided by local school districts. Stickel said that some districts, such as San Jose, have made the A-G requirements the district’s default curriculum. However, most districts are opposed to adopting the A-G as a high school graduation requirement for all students. Most districts believe that such a measure would be too costly—new curriculum standards would require further teacher training and new materials. Some districts also believe that requiring all students to graduate from high school ready for college would push some students out, increasing high school dropout rates. Stickel referenced those concerns by saying that San Jose’s dropout rate actually decreased slightly when the more rigorous standards were implemented.

Another issue Stickel discussed is CAHSEE, the California High School Exit Exam, which is a new graduation requirement for the class of 2006. This high-stakes test raised some questions from the group about the use of a single assessment to make such determinations as graduation, but Stickel responded that students are allowed six chances to pass the test, beginning in sophomore year and ending the year after they finish grade 12. In addition, high schools offer preparatory classes, Saturday classes, and afterschool tutoring.

The state is also focusing on the following:

  • Increasing the numbers of students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs statewide, particularly for minority and low-income students who have limited access to those courses.
  • Recruiting and supporting new teachers: Stickel mentioned that, in the next five years, the state will need 300,000 teachers to replace those who are retiring or leaving, as well as to meet new needs of a growing student population. The state is also supporting new teachers during their first three years in the profession through a new teacher induction program.
  • Utilizing California’s P-16 council to examine ways to improve student achievement at all levels and link preschool, elementary, middle, and high school, and higher education to create a comprehensive, integrated system. The P-16 is also focusing on ways to improve academic achievement for students performing two or more grades behind and increase public awareness of the link between education and a healthy economy.

Madison Senior High School

Madison Senior High School is a comprehensive high school with 1,500 students in grades 9-12. The school uses the SDCS High School Renewal Initiative’s Community Engagement Model, which focuses on retaining neighborhood students and broadening community participation. Madison has a diverse student population: 40% are Latino, 30% White, 15% African American, and 15% Asian/Pacific Islander. The school is in its second year of a three-year Smaller Learning Community (SLC) grant and currently has four SLCs or “houses.” In addition, Madison uses the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, a national school-based, college-preparatory program for low-income and first-generation students used in 21 states and Department of Defense schools. It requires students enrolled in the program to attend an elective course and enroll in college preparatory classes, receive tutoring, attend sessions with guest lecturers, and participate in field trips to colleges and universities.

When Virginia Eves, Principal, came to Madison High School in 1999, it was considered an “underperforming” school by SDCS. It had sporadic attendance rates by teachers and students, low student participation in school activities, and had barely received accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). The accreditation review identified eight major points that the school would need to improve for the next accreditation review, including the need to engage all stakeholders in the development of schoolwide, systemic improvement of the instructional program and the need to address the lack of accountability for students and staff.

Eves said that her strategy was to focus on the “I’s”: “Instruction, Incentives, and Intervention.”, and all the work that the school did to improve achievement was focused on them. Part of the change process at the school involved meeting with teachers and students and asking, “What do we want to keep?” A resounding answer was to keep the performing arts program and the JROTC program, two strong programs throughout the school’s history. The next question, “What do we want to fix?” had a bit more variation in the answers, but safety and parent and community involvement came out on top. The school decided to focus on three areas for improvement:

  • Increasing achievement in reading, language arts, and math
  • Using data about student progress to inform instructional planning and professional development
  • Raising expectations for behavior and parental involvement

Madison uses personalized learning plans for all students, which outline classes and activities intended to help students reach their goals. These plans are developed in the freshman year between students, counselors, and parents, and are revised annually. The plans help to involve parents in the early stages of students’ high school experiences and keep them involved in the courses and extracurricular activities students pursue. It also acts as a communication tool for teachers to relay progress to students and parents.

Madison has four SLCs, called “houses” that students apply to when they come to Madison: Design and Technology Academy (DATA), School of the Arts (SOTA), JROTC, and the Frosh House, a freshman academy to help ease transitions into high school as well as from grade 9 to grade 10. The school is currently developing a new SLC, Hawk House, for students that are not in any of the other academies.

The 170 students in the DATA House work with robotics, computer animation, multimedia, and other hands-on projects. These projects are designed to integrate science, math, technology, and design in an interactive and educational way, providing students with the opportunity to travel to international competitions and build an understanding of the real world of technology and design. The SOTA House, with about 250 students, brings together the school’s existing strong program in visual and performing arts and extends the program into the core curriculum. Mr. Loescher, a teacher in SOTA, mentioned one new class in music theory and production, where students learn the basics of producing music by working in groups where students take on the roles of producer, engineer, writer, marketing manager, graphic artist, and others. Loescher says that the number one goal of the class is “to teach ethics” to students and help them recognize the hard work that goes into the creation of songs and albums. The JROTC House focuses on leadership and citizenship through the JROTC program. The school has won many awards and titles for its JROTC program and wanted to give it a focus by making it the theme of one SLC. Eves said that the JROTC house is not intended to transition all students to the military or military academies, although that sometimes occurs, but is used as a vehicle to develop and improve students’ self-discipline, confidence, and leadership skills. There are about 170 students in the JROTC House and almost 70% of the House is comprised of young women who are drawn to its leadership focus.

The school is in the planning process to create the HAWK House for the 600 students who are not currently in one of the four existing academies. HAWK will be divided into three themed academies; each will house approximately 200 students.

Key Changes since 1999

  • Staff Turnover: Over 90% of the staff is new to Madison High School. Eves said the change process was not easy, but the turnover in staff was inevitable and helped move the school’s new “high expectations for all students” in a more positive direction.
  • Breakthrough High School- NASSP: Madison has gained national recognition as a Breakthrough High School, a designation by the NASSP (National Association of Secondary School Principals) for dramatically improving student achievement over last few years (over the past three years, Madison has seen an 87 point increase in its API).
  • Professional Development: All teachers participate in job-embedded professional development using student assessments/data to drive instructional and curricular decisions.
  • AVID: Madison implemented the AVID program and AVID strategies and techniques (writing, inquiry, collaboration, and reading) into all classrooms.
  • Out-of-School-Time Activities: Student involvement in extracurricular activities has increased by 300%. And teacher involvement has also increased as all teachers are required to take part in some extra curricular/out-of-school-time activity.
  • Senior Portfolios: In accordance with district graduation requirements, all seniors create senior portfolios, which lead to exhibitions with presentations before a panel of staff and community members. The school views senior exhibitions as a learning opportunity for students in grade 11; therefore, they are invited to participate as observers.
  • Relevance and Relationships: In a meeting with students, the AYPF group was told repeatedly that classroom learning is tied to the real world, making the curriculum relevant and engaging to students. They also said that smaller groups of students and teachers allow them to develop relationships with adults in the school, which help to keep them focused and prevent them from “falling through the cracks.”
  • Shift in School Culture: By addressing the issues around safety and security, students said that they feel the culture of the school is “safe, caring, and nurturing.”

School of International Business

In the 2004-2005 academic year, Kearny Senior High School, a comprehensive high school, was changed into an education complex with four new, small schools. The School of International Business (SIB) is one of the four small schools housed at the Kearny Education Complex. The other three small schools that the group did not see are the School of Science, Connections and Technology; Construction Tech Academy; and the School of Digital Media and Design. The transformation into autonomous small schools is based on the small schools model set forth by SDCS intended to enhance student engagement and improve student achievement and attainment. Each small school has its own career theme and the authority to implement its own curriculum and school structure. SIB’s mission is to produce innovative, principled, and insightful leaders of business, government, and nonprofit organizations. It has three areas of focus: marketing, entrepreneurship, and international trade.

Ana Diaz Booz, Principal, was a math teacher and content expert at Kearny prior to its conversion into small schools. Diaz-Booz told the group “small schools are more work for adults but better for students.” Diaz saw the creation of new small schools as an opportunity to improve Kearny’s low student achievement and staff involvement levels. Kearny has about 440 students and 17 classrooms. There are 3 special education teachers at SIB and special education students are spread across all four schools so no one school becomes “the” special education school. The student body is 42% Latino, 18% African American, 11% Asian (mostly Vietnamese), and 29% “other,” including White. Most of the students come to the school from the City Heights areas of San Diego, and 71% are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch.

SIB has a high percentage of ELL students—higher than the average school in SDCS and higher than the average at Kearny Education Complex, because, according to Diaz-Booz, SIB welcomes ELL students and teachers that “have a special place in their hearts for ELL students.” While the school is only in its second year, Diaz-Booz mentioned that students’ test scores are moving in the right direction. The CAHSEE pass rates for English Language Arts rose from 75% at Kearny in 2003 to 81% today and math scores rose from 71% to 73%. The API score also rose for ELL students. In 2003, the score at Kearny was 630 (20% of ELL students passed) and at SIB the score was 658 (28% of ELL students passed). These are modest gains, but the school is only in its second year and Diaz-Booz believes the score will continue to increase.

Students must rank their selections among the four small schools when they elect to attend Kearny Educational Complex. Sometimes students at SIB did not choose it as their first choice, yet Diaz-Booz points out that they almost always stay in the school even though they have the option transferring after their first year. Students say they are happy and decide not to change schools because of the relationships they have with teachers, students, and principal.

The school is located near the campus of Mesa College, and students can take college classes and concurrenty earn high school and college credit (students are not allowed to take remedial classes for credit). A coordinator at the Kearny Complex, works with all four small schools at Kearny to coordinate the program with Mesa College. About 50 students in each of the small schools take advantage of the partnership by taking classes at the community college. In this partnership, students are allowed to attend Mesa College tuition-free; their only out-of-pocket expense is for books and materials for the class. She mentioned that one of the benefits of being in a small school is that it is much easier to manage the smaller scale of the program when it is divided into fourths. This way, teachers are aware of which students are enrolled at Mesa College and can work with the coordinator to support the students.

One key element that helps make the school effective, according to Diaz-Booz, is the committed and hard-working staff. She said that when she decided to become principal at SIB, she knew that the quality of the staff would be extremely important. When she met with prospective SIB teachers, she explained to them the high-level of work and commitment that she could foresee being necessary with the new school, which was an effective way to “weed people out” that might not be a good fit for SIB. Teachers discussed the importance of meeting students’ needs and putting in extra hours before and after school to make this possible. They also mentioned that the school’s culture is one where teachers are encouraged to know the students well. Students said that they like the small environment where they can take concerns and problems to their teachers or even directly to their principal. They also said that the teachers “are like family” to them and will not let them get away with not trying their best. Students talked about feeling valued and said that their voice matters at SIB. An example that a student mentioned was that teachers brought fruit and muffins to the Saturday morning CAHSEE prep periods, which made students feel like they were “adults attending a conference.”

Key Features

  • Shared Activities: Students at SIB are able to take part in sports, extracurricular clubs, and other programs with students enrolled in the three other small schools at Kearny Education Complex.
  • AVID: About one-third of the students at SIB are in the AVID program.
  • Empowerment: SIB focuses heavily on empowering students and teachers. There are a variety of interventions the school sets up for students, including before and afterschool tutoring, Saturday school, and CAHSEE preparation.
  • Governance: Some teachers serve on a governance committee at SIB to oversee expenditures and make funding-allocation decisions.
  • Advisory Class: SIB has an Advocacy Class, which operates like a student advisory where every adult in the building is matched with 15 students for all four years. This enables them to receive extra support throughout the school year and helps to foster relationships between students and teachers and among students.

The San Diego Met (Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical High School)

On March 2, 2004, the SDCS School Board of Education approved the opening of a new, small high school, the San Diego Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical High School, for the 2004-2005 school year. This required state approval and changes to certain policies, such as required seat time, for certain aspects of the Met to work as it is intended. The school, located on the grounds of Mesa College, opened with 64 9th grade students. A new 9th grade class was added the following year (2005-2006) doubling the enrollment, and each year, an additional 9th grade class will be added, resulting in grades 9-12 after four years. When students select the San Diego Met as their high school choice, the applications are sent to the district office, where students are selected on a first-come, first-served basis. The Met does require parents to commit to be an active participant in school activities.

Almost 60% of students at the San Diego Met qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. The breakdown by ethnicity is: 37% Hispanic, 35% African American, 19% White, 3% Filipino, 2% Cambodian, and 1% Vietnamese. The student population is 31% male and 69% female. Mildred Phillips, Principal, mentioned that the low percentage of boys is likely due to the lack of sports and other extracurricular activities offered. Next year, students will be able to participate in athletics as part of a SDCS agreement with the California Interscholastic Federation.

The San Diego Met is modeled after The Big Picture Company’s small schools model called “The Met.” The Big Picture Company has been successful in opening small, student-centered high schools across the country; their approach has resulted in a 96% attendance rate and 100% of graduates being accepted to college. The first Met school opened in Providence, Rhode Island in 1996.

Phillips told the AYPF group that the San Diego Met is a college preparatory school that aims to educate “one student at a time.” The academic program meets district and state standards for graduation and all graduates will meet the A-G requirements for admission to the California university systems. The school also offers additional tutoring to prepare students to pass the CAHSEE, the state exit exam. Students attend classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they work all day at an internship.

At the San Diego Met, each student works with a teacher advisor, a math specialist, a science specialist, Spanish specialist, an internship coordinator, and a college counselor who prepares students for the SAT/ACT and college and financial aid applications. All students are assigned to one advisory for all four years.

The mission of the school is to provide students with the opportunity to graduate with from high school having earned enough college credits to enter college as a sophomore. This is why most Met schools are located near the business community to facilitate internship opportunities or near a community college or university campus. At the San Diego Met, 10th graders will begin taking college classes in April 2006 at Mesa College. The Met is the only school in the SDCS district in which 10th graders are approved to take courses for college credit. The school district and Mesa College are working out a way to cover the cost of the college classes.

The San Diego Met is structured to allow a student’s interests and passions to drive his or her education in an attempt to develop life-long learners with the ability to apply academic, practical, and creative knowledge to real life experiences and challenges. As such, a hallmark feature of the school is its internship program that combines school-based learning with outside work experiences to help students utilize the knowledge and skills they acquire.

Jill Badger, Internship Coordinator, described the internship program, called Learning Through Internship (LTI), and her goal of building business partnerships over time that will ensure students’ internship experiences are enriching and relevant. Badger works with students and businesses to match students with adult mentors in the real world where students work two full days every week.

Key Features

  • Advisories: Advisories meet on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and serve as the core learning community and center of accountability for its members. Advisories have a 17:1 student-to-advisor ratio, which facilitates relationships between advisors and students and among students. All advisors have teaching credentials in English and at least one other content area. Phillips described the job of the advisor as a “teaching generalist” who works with students, parents, mentors, and the internship coordinator to ensure students reach learning goals.
  • Individualized Learning Plans (ILP): An ILP is a nine-week curriculum that builds on the students’ interests, goals, and needs and aligns to the state standards. Students co-create the ILPs in collaboration with advisors, parents, and the work place mentor. This helps communicate clear expectations of all who are involved and guides students’ learning goals—inside and outside of the classroom.
  • Learning through Internships (LTI): The LTI format is a personalized teaching and learning process that involves each student working with a mentor who has expertise in a student’s interest area. Badger works with teachers, parents, and mentors to help students find internships that will extend their classroom learning. This year, students’ internship sites include a police department, a veterinary clinic, and a circuit court.
  • Exhibitions: At the end of their internships, students demonstrate their learning by presenting their projects and other ILP work before a panel of community members and peers. Student exhibitions occur every nine weeks throughout the school year. Advisors help students prepare for the exhibitions, and Saturday school is also available for students.

Briefing with Superintendent Carl Cohn and Deputy Superintendent Geno Flores

Carl Cohn, Superintendent of San Diego City Schools and Geno Flores, Deputy Superintendent, are newcomers to the San Diego City Schools system, starting their positions in summer 2005. Cohn has more than 35 years of experience in education. Prior to joining San Diego City Schools in 2005, Cohn worked for 10 years as Superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, California’s third largest district. During this time, Cohn became the longest serving superintendent of any large, urban school district in the nation. In the late 1990s, Flores worked with Cohn in the Long Beach Unified School District as Director of Accountability, where he led the Research and Evaluation Unit and the High School Reform program. Flores has also worked at the California Department of Education directing the Assessment and Accountability Branch.

Cohn and Flores met with the AYPF group to share their perspectives on the high school reform work and discuss their plans for moving the work forward.

Many of the reform efforts in the SDCS district were started by Superintendent Cohn’s predecessor Alan Bersin, current California Secretary of Education. Cohn wants to continue the reform work with a greater focus on building relationships and community engagement around reform efforts at the district level. Cohn is also focused on relationships at the school level. “We’re trying to buy time to allow schools to develop new ethics for how students relate to teachers and vice versa.” In order to “buy time,” the Superintendent plans to sustain current reform efforts to ensure that reform is in place long enough to make a difference. “Smaller learning communities and small schools are all about relationships,” he said. Cohn said that not all schools need to be small, but all schools do need to foster healthy relationships with students. Future reforms in San Diego will continue to focus on a “portfolio of schools” approach and offer different types of schools, including comprehensive high schools. Comprehensive high schools have a lot to learn about relationship dynamics from the small schools. Cohn said, “We need to figure out how to develop new relationships in comprehensive high schools, and it will take some time for this to happen.”

Another important issue for the superintendent is to ensure that the school board is knowledgeable of the research on high school reform. As such, the district recently began holding regular workshops for school board members to focus on critical high school reform topics.

The group was interested in hearing more about how the state supports or could better support the high school reform work of the district. “I’m concerned that exit exams begin to drive reform policies. Exit exams are not diagnostic; they do not help teachers identify what students really need” said Flores. He mentioned the need to focus on what students need to know and be able to do instead of placing a heavy focus on preparing students for a test. He also suggested that the state could help better prepare teachers to “go deeper” in their teaching rather than try to “cover” too much material in an attempt to prepare students for tests. Flores said, “We tell teachers to calm down, let kids engage in deeper learning, and not to get too frantic because of the testing requirements.” Teachers need to be encouraged to use various and authentic assessments to check for understanding while teaching to better monitor student learning. “We are trying to create the environment that people use assessments more effectively” said Flores.

Flores discussed the challenges of trying to calculate graduation rates at the local level. “It is bettter to measure high school graduation rates at a state level because it is very difficult to measure graduation rates at the district because of high mobility rates among students. They also mentioned that the four-year limit when calculating graduation rates is problematic since some students, particularly students learning English, need an extra time to complete high school. Flores suggested that the state move to a five-year graduation rate for some students, but they acknowledged that such a move would be costly and the state would have to figure out how to pay for it.

* Locating the Dropout Crisis by Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters, Johns Hopkins University (http://www.csos.jhu.edu/news.htm). They calculate promoting power by comparing the number of seniors enrolled in a high school to the number of 9th graders enrolled in the same school four years earlier.

Contact Information

Mary Asbury

Supervising Principal, Office of High School Renewal
San Diego City Schools
Eugene Brucker Education Center
4100 Normal Street
San Diego, CA 92103

Rob Atterbury

Director, Office of High School Renewal
San Diego City Schools
Eugene Brucker Education Center
4100 Normal Street
San Diego, CA 92103

Ana Diaz-Booz

School of International Business
Kearny High Education Complex
7651 Wellington Street
San Diego, CA 92111

Virginia Eves

Madison High School
4833 Doliva Drive
San Diego, CA 92117
858-496-8410 x2200

Angela Faherty

Distinguished Educator
Office of the Commissioner
Maine Department of Education
23 State House Station
Augusta, ME 04333-0023

Steve Floyd

Deputy Director
Arkansas Department of Higher Education
114 East Capitol Avenue
Little Rock, AR 72201

Luke Gordy

Arkansans for Education Reform
300 Spring Building, Suite 508
Little Rock, AR 72201

Maria Guasp

Principal Research Analyst
American Institutes for Research
1000 Thomas Jefferson Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007

Terri Hardy

Education Advisor
Office of Governor Mike Huckabee
State of Arkansas
Room 11 State Capitol
Little Rock, AR 72201

Linda Harper-Brown

State Representative
Texas House of Representatives
125 E. John Carpenter Fwy, Suite 250
Irving, TX 75062

T. Kenneth James

Commissioner of Education
Arkansas Department of Education
Four State Capitol Mall, Room 304 A
Little Rock, AR 72201-1071

Sunny Kristin

Senior Policy Specialist, Education Programs
National Conference of State Legislature
7700 E. First Place
Denver, CO 80230-7143

Geanie Morrison

State Representative
Texas House of Representatives
P.O. Box 4642
Victoria, TX 77903

Jacqueline Norton

Chairman, Joint Standing Committee on Education
Maine House of Representatives
85 Thomas Hill Road
Bangor, ME 04401

Keith Nuthall

Program Manager, Office of High School Renewal
San Diego City Schools
Eugene Brucker Education Center
4100 Normal Street
San Diego, CA 92103

Mildred Phillips

The San Diego Met
7250 Mesa College Drive
San Diego, CA 92111

Larry Rosenstock

President and CEO
Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High School
2861 Womble Road
San Diego, CA  92106-60125

Valerie Seaburg

Policy Director
Standards, Assessment, & Regional Services Team
Maine Department of Education
23 State House Station
Augusta, ME 04333

Torrey Shawe

Senior Policy Analyst, Education Division
National Governors Association
444 North Capitol NW, Suite 267
Washington, DC 20001

Karen Shores

Education Program Consultant
Secondary, Post-Secondary & Adult Leadership Div.
California Department of Education
1430 N Street, Suite 4503
Sacramento, CA 95814

Sue Stickel

Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction
Executive Office
California Department of Education
1430 N Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

Carol Whaley

Supervising Principal
Office of High School Renewal
San Diego City Schools
Eugene Brucker Education Center
4100 Normal Street, Room 2038
San Diego, CA 92103

This brief, written by Iris Bond Gill, summarizes a field trip that took place on February 15-17, 2006 in San Diego, California. Betsy Brand, AYPF; Sunny Kristin, National Conference of State Legislatures; and Torrey Shawe, National Governors Association also contributed to the content of this report.

The trip, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supports the Honor States Grant Program, an initiative of the NGA Center for Best Practices, by providing hands-on professional development to state policy leaders working on high school redesign.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) is a non-profit, nonpartisan professional development organization that bridges youth policy, practice, and research for professionals working on youth policy issues at the national, state, and local levels.



The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.