San Jose Mercury News
Opinion: Alum Rock success shows how a low performing district can turn around
By Mark Walker
Special to the Mercury News
Posted: 09/24/2011 08:00:00 PM PDT
Devastating budget cuts to public schools have crippled education reforms and jeopardized student achievement. Despite this, a success story is emerging from San Jose's East Side.
In 2008, Alum Rock Union Elementary School District was in serious trouble. Its Annual Performance Index score was below the 800 standard at 713. Only three of the district's 28 schools had hit 800.
But Alum Rock's API score has steadily climbed since 2008 and is now at 770, with expectations to reach 800 within two years. Ten of its schools have scored more than 800, twice as many as the year before, and another 10 are close behind. This is remarkable.
How has Alum Rock become one of the most impressive turnarounds in the state?
Strong leadership can have a transformational effect, as Superintendent Jose Manzo has demonstrated since taking the reins in 2008.
He set a goal to have 100 percent of students reading at grade level, and then he built the capacity to make that goal a reality. The district's school board implemented a four-part strategy: 1) Strengthen core curriculum, particularly in math and language arts; 2) Deepen teaching skills across the schools; 3) Enlist the strong backing of every school principal; and 4) Secure daily involvement of parents and guardians.
Manzo sought out partnerships to intensify support for those schools with the greatest needs. Recognizing his and the school board's vision, as well as the clear and compelling capability emerging in the district, the Applied Materials Foundation answered his call.
The foundation shares Manzo's objective that every student graduate with the knowledge to succeed in life. It joined with best-in-class organizations in the Alum Rock community to support the school district's rigorous turnaround campaign, directly funding nonprofits, including People Acting in Communities Together, City Year, Teach for America, the New Teachers Center, and Partners in School Innovation. It convened groups to support the district's effort and worked with education leadership experts.
Thanks to these organizations and the hard work of teachers, administrators, parents and of course students, the picture today is inspirational. API reading results show 50 percent more students reading at grade level than three years ago.
At Cesar Chavez Elementary, a school consistently in program improvement for most of the last decade and listed in the bottom 5th percentile of schools in the state, Principal Rene Sanchez and his teachers helped engineer a dramatic turnaround. They cleared program improvement status with an improbable 127-point API increase over the past two years.
Despite these amazing results, work is far from over. The district requires an unwavering commitment of public and private resources that is all the more crucial given economic uncertainty and state budget challenges. There is impressive capacity developing at the district level in Alum Rock -- capacity that needs to be nourished in order to sustain these dramatic results. Letting up now would undermine the progress and short-circuit opportunities for our students.
The Applied Materials Foundation celebrates the district's successes and congratulates the leadership at Alum Rock, especially the school board and superintendent. Their vision and steadfast commitment to education have enabled students to make great strides. This dedication is why the district has become a model for achievement. We strongly support this district-led reform effort and invite our Silicon Valley colleagues to do the same. Success like this is not only possible but attainable with consistent support, renewed determination and strong leadership.
MARK WALKER is executive director of the Applied Materials Foundation and managing director of Global Community Affairs for Applied Materials, Inc. He wrote this for this newspaper.