Preparing College-Ready High School Graduates: A Case Study of San Jose, CA

Preparing College-Ready High School Graduates: A Case Study of San Jose, CA
Preparing College-Ready High School Graduates: A Case Study of San Jose, CA


During his address to Congress in February 2009, President Obama announced a goal “to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education.”  The Administration’s call for an equitable education for all students, coupled with the unprecedented increases in education funding at the federal level have provided a unique opportunity to advance an education reform agenda focused on ensuring all students are prepared for college and career success.  This forum, the third in a series, focused on laying the groundwork for a college-going and career-ready culture, highlighted the San Jose Unified School District’s (SJUSD’s) systemic and comprehensive approach to narrowing the achievement gap to ensure all students in San Jose are college- and career- ready.

Dr. Linda Murray, Acting Executive Director at Education Trust-West, opened the discussion by introducing the overarching theme of San Jose’s success in narrowing the achievement gap that has been due to sustained leadership at the district level and includes a shared vision of an equitable education for every student and commitment to a comprehensive approach to reforming the entire system.  Murray served as Superintendent of the San Jose Unified School SJUSD from 1993-2004, with Don Iglesias, the current Superintendent, operating as her deputy as part of the district’s succession planning.  Murray stated that “the 15-16 years of sustained leadership in the SJUSD was an extremely important part of its success.”  The discussion continued with a short history of San Jose’s commitment to providing an equitable education to all students.  A 1986 federal desegregation court order was the impetus for San Jose’s decision to make a serious commitment about enabling every student to be successful by providing all students access to academic programs, enrichment programs, and improved school facilities.  Murray acknowledged that it was challenging to get all teachers on board with the mantra of high expectations for all students; however, with increased communication and support from the district level and school principals, teachers began to embrace this district-wide commitment.  SJUSD also implemented community focus groups with parents, students, and community members to outline expectations and collectively raise the bar for all students.  Additionally, SJUSD participated in a comprehensive communications audit and climate survey to develop a Strategic Communications Plan to bring the entire community together around the shared belief that:

  • Students will achieve when we have high expectations,
  • Students will succeed when we measure progress and help them improve, and
  • All students can succeed when we work together.

Guided by the Strategic Communications Plan and continued public engagement work, San Jose grounded its Strategic Planning around the following basic themes:

  • Closing the achievement gap,
  • Community service built into graduation requirements,
  • Higher graduation requirement, with emphasis on aligning the SJUSD’s requirements with the California State University System requirements, and
  • Strengthening neighborhood schools.

Don Iglesias, Superintendent of the San Jose Unified School, echoed Murray’s statement that the sustained leadership at the district level, strong community partnerships, and the shared belief system that all students deserve the right to succeed in college and careers were indeed the overarching elements central to San Jose’s successful reform efforts.  Iglesias continued the conversation by providing a brief overview of San Jose’s demographics.

SJUSD has 32,000 students, 51% of which are Hispanic, 29% White, 13% Asian, and 3% African American.  Of the 26% that are English Language Learners, 85% are Spanish- speaking.  Of the total student population, 44% are socio-economically disadvantaged, and 11% are special education students.  Iglesias then explained that SJUSD developed a set of vital priorities, based on their own research of successful schools in and around the SJUSD, to:

  • Prepare all students to meet the college preparatory A-G standards,
  • Establish a college-going culture for ALL students,
  • Be fiscally responsible,
  • Staff SJUSD with qualified personnel, and
  • Engage parents and community as an integral part of the educational process.

Iglesias noted that the SJUSD continues to monitor what works in education research and comparable school districts and has developed a belief in continual improvement emphasizing high standards for all students, which is evident in the following outcomes:

  • Students completing all courses required for the University of California/California State University System (UC/CSU) entrance with a “C” or better increased from 35% in 2001 to near 70% in 2006.
  • In 2007, 50% of Latino students completed all courses required for UC/CSU entrance with a “C” or better, compared to 25% of Latino students statewide.
  • San Jose closed the achievement gap between all students and Latino students by 20% between 2002 and 2008.
  • In 2008, 88% of graduating seniors in the SJUSD reported plans to go onto some sort of postsecondary education.
  • Between 2002-2008, Hispanic students doubled their proficiency in English/Language Arts from 17% proficient to 36% proficient.
  • Between 2002-2008, Hispanic students increased their proficiency in math from 18% proficient to 40% proficient.

Iglesias said that in order to achieve success, SJUSD follows three instructional mantras, including “No school or child is expendable,, “SJUSD will find its own solutions!” and “School will know every child by name.”

In 2008, the L.A. Times cited SJUSD as an example of a school system that makes a big difference in students’ lives, specifically Latino students.  The Times credited SJUSD’s push that all of its student complete a college-prep curriculum as one reason why the SJUSD drop-out rate is at 16%, compared to 36% for the Los Angeles Unified School SJUSD and 26% for the state of California.

Programmatic changes to support a college- and career-ready culture have included the implementation of California’s rigorous college preparatory curriculum(the A-G Default Curriculum required for entrance to UC/CSU institutions); operation of College & Career Centers and Career Technical Centers with the Central County Occupational Center (CCOC); concurrent credit with community colleges; algebra at 8th grade; “college talk” (described as hitting the pavement to preach the importance of college to community members); partnerships with local non-profits; outreach to community members to share the district’s vision and; and climate surveys.

Structural and programmatic changes have included master scheduling, which Iglesias described as the road map to success by allowing the school leader to step back and strategically place the best teachers in the most high needs teaching slots; block scheduling; shadow classes; interdisciplinary teaming; open enrollment in Advanced Placement; extended day/week/year; mixed ability grouping in grades 4-9; and desegregated classes in grades 10-12.  Iglesias briefly summarized additional best practices aimed at continuous improvement and closing the achievement gap, such as benchmark testing, utilized by teachers to assess student achievement and inform instruction and school-wide data walls, which allow teachers and administrators to know each student’s name and academic level.

To close out his presentation, Iglesias highlighted the importance of high expectations for all involved in SJUSD’s efforts “to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education,” explaining that all involved in this work must believe in public education and the power of the next generation to achieve college and career success.

Mark Walker, Managing Director of Community Affairs at Applied Materials, described the successful partnership Applied Materials Foundation has with SJUSD.  Since 2001, Applied Materials has partnered with the SJUSD to fund targeted organizations that provide high-quality academic and youth development services to the district in order to prepare all students for college and career success.  The overarching goal of the corporate partnership is to increase the number of students in San Jose who graduate from high school inspired for and prepared to have success in college and life.  Walker explained that the success of the initiative is due in large part to the strong communication and committed partnership Applied Materials has with SJUSD.  To achieve the overarching goal, Applied Materials has implemented a strategy to focus on two high-need communities in San Jose: the downtown core and Alum Rock community on the east side. The goals of this strategic initiative are to engage deeply and invest over a sustained period of time to achieve significant results; support the entire educational pathway from preschool to high school completion and preparation for success in college or careers; focus on systems change, data analysis, and professional development; identify barriers to success along the pathway and support programs to overcome them; engage with partners at critical leverage points along the education pathway; and measure results over time to assess effectiveness.  Walker emphasized that the narrow and deep focus on two communities and the entire Pre-K-12 pathway is the key to ensuring the most effective results.

To monitor the success of the partnership, Applied Materials Foundation developed a set of critical leverage points to gauge and measure success indicators, barriers to success, and results, which are then grouped by student age and grade level.  Overall, schools supported by the Foundation achieved incremental growth which surpassed comparable schools in their communities.  Key learning takeaways from Applied Material’s partnership with SJUSD are that commitment and leadership at all levels are required; engagement must be sustained; a systematic approach is the most effective way to develop teacher and administrator capacity with sustainable lasting results; public/private partnerships can accelerate improvement in student achievement; and the return on investment is demonstrated by progress that is outpacing incremental gains across the county.  Applied Materials Foundation has invested approximately $1.5 million per year since it began its partnership with SJUSD in 2001, for a total of $6.5 million.


Dr. Linda Murray concluded the forum by briefly summarizing the implications of college and career preparation for students and what states, postsecondary institutions, and the federal government can do to support college and career success for all students. Dr. Murray explained that states should align high school standards with the demands of college and careers; require all students to take a college- and workplace-readiness curriculum; provide high-quality teacher curriculum and teacher support materials, including quality professional development, coaching and mentoring; and measure what matters and make it count.  Dr. Murray highlighted the need for postsecondary institutions to partner with schools to ensure high school students are prepared for admission, placement, and success in higher education.  Specifically, Dr. Murray called for alignment of high school assessments and college curriculum, as well as a need for postsecondary institutions to provide information to high schools on the academic performance of their graduates in college and for those same postsecondary institutions to be held accountable for the academic success of the students they admit.

Finally, Dr. Murray stated that the federal government should:

  • provide incentives for students to meet college- and workplace-readiness expectations;
  • offer resources for states to align college- and workplace-readiness expectations;
  • require that postsecondary institutions report annually to students, parents, and the public evidence of student achievement, as well as remediation, persistence, and degree completion; and
  • Align the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), with the American Diploma Project (ADP) benchmarks and require states to administer it.

Highlights of Question and Answer Session

A question was asked to describe, in further detail, the SJUSD’s alignment of the high school curriculum and assessments with the California State University System requirements.  Dr. Murray went on to describe the SJUSD’s participation in the California State Early Assessment Program (EAP). EAP is a collaborative effort among the California State University (CSU) system, the California Department of Education (CDE), and the California State Board of Education (SBE) with the goal of ensuring that college-bound high school graduates have the English and mathematics skills necessary to succeed on a CSU campus. The program attempts to bring together the level of academic work achieved by high school students with the level of work expected by incoming students at a comprehensive university system. Students who pass the EAP requirements are guaranteed to take credit-bearing courses rather than remediation courses if they enter CSU.  A Department of Education official asked for more specifics on the challenges SJUSD faced as they worked to change the mindset of the district.  Dr. Murray explained that one of the biggest challenges the district faced was working with teachers to raise standards and expectations for all students.  As an aside, Dr. Murray explained that she worked first with the math teachers to get them on board, by providing them resources and support, and then in turn the math teachers worked with other teachers to cultivate a culture of high expectations for all.  Iglesias followed by highlighting the need for fearless leadership on the part of principals in order to ensure the culture was cultivated.  Iglesias explained the district worked relentlessly with teachers, parents, and community members to get them all on board with the new higher expectations.


Don Iglesias has been a public school administrator for over 25 years.  He has served as a Deputy Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, Director of Curriculum, Principal and Vice Principal, as well as an elementary and secondary teacher.

Currently, Don is Superintendent of San Jose Unified School District, the South Bay’s largest school district, with more than 31,000 students in Kindergarten through twelfth grade.  The district is culturally diverse with students speaking 85 languages and more than one-third designated as low income.  SJUSD has 3000 employees and a budget of $240 million and covers more than 50 square miles, from the San Jose Airport to the Almaden Valley.

Previously, Don served as the State President of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA).  ACSA represents over 16,000 members statewide and encompasses a broad spectrum of the management and leadership team.

Don is a passionate believer in the power of public schools as one of the few institutions that unite us as a nation.  He is committed to high standards and quality instruction, to meeting the needs of all students and is a tireless advocate for school reform.  His family background and personal values have led him to be an outspoken advocate for the needs of English language learners.

Don grew up in San Francisco and is a product of the San Francisco Unified School District.  He attended the University of California Berkeley, where he received a BA degree in history.  He began his career as an educator in the Teacher Corps Rural Migrant Program over 30 years ago.  He received his teaching credential and a master’s degree in multicultural education through the University of Southern California and has completed advanced coursework at San Jose State University in Educational Administration.

He is an avid and lifelong surfer and his passion for surfing has given him a strong perspective on risk taking and the importance of maintaining a balanced lifestyle. He often uses surfing as a metaphor for the many challenges of the job… “The adrenaline rush of flying down the face of a wave has enhanced my ability to tackle tough issues as an administrator.”

The San Jose Mercury News recently described Don as “committed to helping all students succeed, whether guiding new immigrants through the college application maze or seeing that pregnant teens stay in school…. being an urban superintendent is a high-profile, high-stakes position that puts Iglesias in the eye of the storm.”

For the past two years, San Jose Magazine has named Don as a member of the Power 100, the most influential people in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area.

SJUSD was recently recognized for having the 2nd highest graduation rate in the nation among urban school districts.

SJUSD’s Lincoln High School was recently recognized for narrowing the achievement gap

Don is married and his wife, Cathy is the Assistant Superintendent of Instruction for Campbell Unified School District. They are the proud parents of a daughter who recently graduated from UC Berkeley.

Dr.  Linda Murray is currently serving as the Interim Executive Director and Superintendent in Residence for The Education Trust-West (ETW) and is responsible for helping to lead the practice work of the organization in California.  The work is centered around high school reform to ensure that all California graduates are college and work ready. She also serves on State Superintendent Jack O’Connell’s P-16 Commission, which is focused on closing the achievement gap and was recently appointed to the American Diploma Project Alignment Team for California, which is focused on aligning college and career readiness standards across K-12 and all of the  higher education sectors.  Prior to joining ETW, Dr. Murray served as Superintendent of Schools for the San Jose Unified School District for eleven years from 1993-2004.  In 1998,   the district raised its graduation requirements to meet the UC/CSU entrance requirements, and since then the district has demonstrated major successes, particularly for poor students and students of color.  In addition, in 2002, the district adopted, as part of its mission, creating a “college going culture” in all schools K-12.  Not only are San Jose students academically prepared, students and families are involved in programs and activities throughout elementary, middle and high schools that are designed to help them prepare for a college future.


Mark Walker was appointed Managing Director of Global Community Affairs for Applied Materials in January 2008. He is responsible for the company’s corporate social responsibility strategy globally including philanthropy and employee involvement. He also serves as the chief executive for the company’s Foundation. Applied Materials has received numerous awards for its leading edge Education Initiative work in Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas.

Previously Walker served as President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way Silicon Valley. In his nearly six-year tenure at United Way, Mark worked closely with the Board of Directors to reinvent the organization through a new comprehensive strategic plan and transition to a Community Impact model that focuses on funding programs with measurable results rather than simply funding agencies that support people in high-needs areas. In addition, Mark helped raise the bar on accountability and transparency for United Way Silicon Valley, initiating policies and practices that maximize the organization’s efficiency and improve customer service.

Mark is an active community leader. He serves on the board of directors of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology and Society, the Center for Excellence in Nonprofits, and Strive For College, a start-up national non-profit helping low-income high schools realize their potential of attending a four-year college. He is a member of San Jose Rotary Club, and serves on the leadership council of Destination: Home, a project created to end chronic homelessness in Santa Clara County He also serves on the Tech Museum of Innovation Tech Awards executive committee.





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