II. Towards Meaningful Learning and Graduation

SDUSD has been recognized nationally for its student achievement, graduation rates, and top-rated schools. For example, SDUSD recently showed the highest growth rate among 25 big city school districts across the nation for fourth- and eighth-grade English and Mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). However, district, community and board members have never settled for these accolades, recognizing that despite progress, student learning remains uneven across the district.

SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten, a former elementary teacher and principal in the district, inherited a number of challenges. Prior to her arrival, the district had experienced a churn of superintendents from 2004–2013, hindering the ability of district leadership to offer the University of California/California State University “A-G” college readiness courses in an equitable way throughout the district. The district’s Vision 2020 plan now embraces that access goal of rigorous course offerings. Vision 2020 outlined a broad set of goals around broadening measures of student achievement, improving student learning and engagement, and drawing closer community connections. The five pillars of Vision 2020 include:

  1. Closing the Achievement Gap with High Expectations for All
  2. Access to a Broad and Challenging Curriculum
  3. Quality Leadership, Teaching and Learning
  4. Positive School Environment, Climate and Culture

In Marten’s words, “major ideological, structural, instructional and cultural changes were not operationalized” until her hiring in 2013. Marten’s first year in the post of superintendent coincided with the first year of LCFF implementation, in 2013. The superintendent was hired because, from her perspective, “[the board] picked a principal who had been implementing their Vision 2020 already on the ground.”

Step 1: Defining the Scope of the Challenge

As a first major step to implementing Vision 2020 and LCFF, Marten and her team began an arduous process the summer before the 2014 school year, combing through graduating seniors’ transcripts. Approximately six thousand students graduate from the district each year and had their transcript individually reviewed as part of this district-wide “equity audit.” Another former SDUSD principal, Cheryl Hibbeln (now Executive Director for the Office of School Innovation & Integrated Youth Services) explained the value of the mass scale data dives.

This student data dive allowed us to be strategic, considering that we only had two years to implement a plan that would both bandage the parts of our system that were perceived barriers for students and develop the system changes that would eventually remove a need for bandages.

Doing this audit would give SDUSD a clearer sense of just how much work was needed to address opportunity and achievement gaps for students throughout the district. Marten created the Office of Secondary Schools to lead equity audits, starting with SDUSD’s 22 high schools. Five district staff reviewed senior transcripts aligned with the A-G, UC course path requirements in History, English, Mathematics, Sciences, Language and Visual Performing (see Appendix D), to identify patterns in course access and completion.

District leadership discovered one prominent challenge through the equity audit process. Many Latinx and African American students were being tracked for non-college-ready courses, even in high-performing high schools. This was especially apparent in mathematics at the secondary level. Research has shown that Black and Latino students frequently remain stuck in such low-level courses (which are often taught by the least experienced teachers), and are effectively denied access to college prep courses. Hibbeln explains further.

On paper before “A-G” there were a lot of successful schools, but college and career options for students were limited to the master schedule developed by each school. If you looked at our graduation rate and attendance rates, they were really good. There was this class floating around, called Unifying Algebra. Unifying Algebra—students could take instead of intermediate algebra. But if you took it, you couldn’t get into four-year college. Ten years before I got here, I eliminated that class from my school [as a principal]. I get to SDUSD and I’m doing equity audits. I’m seeing Unifying Algebra all over certain schools. I started looking at which schools are using Unifying Algebra and who’s in them. Most of the highest performing schools in the district were using Unifying. I ran the lists; they were primarily Latinx and African American kids in the class.

Step 2: Determining a Focus

The need for detracking or pivoting away from course placement patterns that hinder the success of students of color through low-level coursework is a challenge not new to urban school settings. A focus on detracking in SDUSD was long overdue. While No Child Left Behind had focused the district’s attention on proficiency and graduation rates, it did not ensure that students had meaningful access to learning opportunities (Tierney & Garcia, 2008). With college readiness now a key indicator on the state’s accountability dashboard, major changes would be required to ensure access throughout the district. Jason Babineau, principal of Hoover High in SDUSD, identified the fundamental challenge for the district.

It’s not about increasing graduation rates; it’s about increasing meaningful graduation rates. Then we need to be sure that our students that are first-generation college students are prepared to succeed in college.

Detracking allowed the district to focus on creating powerful learning experiences for students who have not been historically served well by the district. This has required a restructuring of staffing, time and resources across the district. Supt. Marten describes the necessity for both a “systemic” (whole district) and “systematic” (or organized) approach to emphasize several implementation strategies:

  1. Reimagining how SDUSD can support school sites
  2. Fostering stronger collaboration across the district
  3. Empowering principals and teacher leaders to lead site-level detracking
  4. Pursuing strategies to improve student access through technical fixes (e.g., master scheduling, reclassification processes)