Bilingual Farming Town Boasts Uncommon Education Results

Barely bilingual, most Hispanic students fell through the cracks in the Sanger Unified School District. Most of them were forced to drop out or pushed into trades as they lacked basic math and English skills. However, by shaking up the way teachers worked with students, parents and each other, the district reinvented itself, making huge strides in lifting the fortunes of these students.

As Gosia Wozniacka of ABC News reports, Sanger Unified School District graduated 94% of its Hispanic students, 20% points higher than the state average and similar districts in the year 2012. The Hispanic dropout was a remarkable 3% compared to 18% statewide.

In 2014, Latinos are set to become the largest ethnic group but they continue to score lower on standardized tests, graduate at lower rates and drop out more often than other students. However, with Gov. Jerry Brown recently signing legislation that will funnel more money to help poorer schools, Sanger's success serves as a model for how a district can make vast gains despite budget cuts.

Sanger Unified School District was named one of the 98 lowest performing in the state in 2004. The district as whole together with Wilson Elementary School and six other schools were declared in need of improvement under federal law. In that same year, just 5% of English learners scored proficient in language arts on a standardized test at Wilson. Districtwide, just 18% of Hispanic students and 10% of English learners scored proficient.

"When we looked at those scores, it was eye-opening; we were shocked," said Marc Johnson, who became superintendent in 2003 and retired in June. "We knew we had kids who struggled, but we had no idea it was that bad."

As student Yadir Sanchez recalls, coming from a poor Mexican family, being Hispanic and barely bilingual, her struggles were palpable. It was really difficult for her as she could not speak English despite a majority of Sanger students being Hispanic.

"Not knowing English, it was definitely isolating and frustrating," Sanchez said. "I thought I would never be able to learn it."

In a bid to help students like Sanchez, the district pulled them out of class for small group reading and writing sessions. However, this was not enough according to federal testing. Many children's progress was slowed by deeply engrained beliefs as administrators put it.

"The mentality was: these kids who have darker skin or who don't speak English are not going to go to college; they're going to work with their hands," said Daniel Chacon, principal of Sanger High School. "Teachers had to start believing in their potential."

Jane David of the Bay Area Research Group, co-author of a study about the district said that most districts faced with failure respond with quick fixes geared for immediate results but few long-term gains. Sanger set out to change its culture instead of spending on costly programs or teaching aids.

The district made "an investment in time versus money," said Matt Navo, Sanger's superintendent. "It allowed us to use personnel who already existed," train teachers and provide additional help to students by changing schedules and trying new approaches.

A model requiring collaboration among teachers, data to track students and holding teachers accountable to each other was the key to change. The district also created its own standardized tests to better understand why Hispanic students struggled. To determine what succeeded and what failed, teacher teams regularly analyzed scores. Goals were set, strategies exchanged and new teaching methods tried out. Students were even re-taught. Additionally, the district also tracked students with high absentee rates and placed hundreds of high school kids in a mandatory after-school program.

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