Documenting Impact: Affirming and Supporting the Work of the District

“The mind shift is the hardest thing to change in adults. The kids, you raise the bar, they’re going to jump for it.”

Chris Funk, Former District Superintendent

Across the history of schooling, youth (especially marginalized youth) have been characterized as beings that, if “uneducated,” will not only become useless, but harmful members of the community, unavoidably contracting habits of idleness, mischief, and wickedness (Kaestle & Foner, 1983). These histories, alongside the theories that informed them, were all institutionalized and continue to be a large part of contemporary schooling, which includes adults’ beliefs about the role of children and youth. These beliefs are not only paradoxical to the principles behind the importance of youth empowerment, but also a huge impediment to the success of this work. 

In the case of ESUHSD, as has been illustrated in multiple cases across the country (Noguera et al., 2006),  efforts to empower youth have had to grapple with commonly held assumptions about what youth would want, and whether this would be different to what adults believed should happen. 

“One of our fears in all of this was that if you lift up student voice, somehow it’s going to be anti- what you’re about as a district: anti-adult, anti-educator. What we’ve learned from this is that it’s completely not true… you can lift up student voice, and our students will grab on to the mission, and vision, and where we want to go. ‘We’re in! We want that too.’” 

Glenn Vander Zee, District Superintendent

Once again contesting a pervasive assumption about what youth will value, students consistently prioritized their educational futures and that of their peers. Moreover, in another direct challenge to the presumptions of those who hold deficit notions of students, student leaders continued to prioritize and push for the importance of equity, repeatedly centering and prioritizing the success and the educational experiences of those currently marginalized by schools and the broader society. 

Across our conversations with students, it was evident that the opportunity to engage in dialogue and collaboration with their peers from other schools had shed ample light on the large inequities across the district. Interactions like these, alongside spaces that allow for students to interrogate their contexts and engage in meaningful conversations, help to build spaces for them to become allies to a district’s work towards equity and educational justice. Similarly, and contrary to what many expected, student leaders echoed the district’s priorities and intentions, often carrying messages of solidarity, endorsing the broader vision and mission of The District and recognizing the complex nature of the work. 

“The students didn’t say, ‘You guys are way off in terms of what you want for us, or what you think we want.’ Instead, students spoke as allies, repeatedly sharing that change ‘is a tough job and they [the district] needed help with that.’” 

Glenn Vander Zee, District Superintendent

“I didn’t really notice how hard it was until I actually started trying to explore how teachers try.”

Randy, Student

Students constantly recognized the efforts of adults who worked hard and held students as their priority; at the same time, students brought a great degree of mutual accountability, constantly shifting the conversation back to how policies and practices would impact students, and they reminded the adults of the “why” of educational policies and practices. In effect, students and teachers became co-conspirators in the mutual quest to establish equity and educational justice within The District (Love, 2019).

Lastly, once again departing from what adults expected students would prioritize (special programs), students continuously shifted the conversation back to what was happening in the classrooms. 

“They told us, the answer is in Tier 1: it’s in our classrooms, it’s in our actions with the adults on our first touch with them”.

Jenner Perez, District MTSS Coordinator

Honoring Lessons Learned and Best Practices

There are multiple examples of concrete policies and practices that have been both led by and supported by students, which have also worked to support existing district priorities and practices. A-G Graduate with Me! and the Relationship-Centered Schools Initiative are two such examples of successful implementation that demonstrate positive results, bared out both in our interviews with students and district administrators and quantitatively through recent data. 

The A-G Graduate with Me! is a student-led initiative, concurrently accordant to district goals and passed in 2010, ensuring that all students have access to “high quality courses and have a chance to work towards four-year university eligibility” (Californians for Justice, 2020). Since the district’s adoption of universal A-G requirements for high school completion, A-G completion rates among all district graduates have increased from 47% in 2016-17 to 53% in 2019-20 (EdData). There has been a similar increase among students from historically underserved ethnic/racial groups. Concurrent with these increases in ESUHSD, state-wide rates remained stable (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Percent Graduates Meeting UC/CSU Requirements (California Department of Education, 2020)

Note. Historically underserved students include students identifying as African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Filipino, Hispanic/Latinx, Pacific Islander, or Two or More Races. Students excluded from this group include those identifying as Asian and White.

Relationship-Centered Schools Initiative

Developed by student leaders and organizers at Californians for Justice, with the goal of “break[ing] down the cycles of racial bias and inequity in our schools by supporting educators and students to build relationships that embrace and empower all students” (Californians for Justice, 2020). 
Principal Vito Chiala (right) joins a community gathering to launch Relationship-Centered Schools campaign in San Jose (2015). Image credit: CFJ

Relationship-Centered Schools center caring relationships with educators to ensure students experience belonging, are believed in, and are supported to succeed in high school and beyond —college, career, and community life. Consequently, organizers and student leaders developed a set of recommendations that prioritize the creation of district-wide policies, to “value student voice, invest in staff, and create spaces for relationship building”
(Californians for Justice, 2020).

These recommendations have directly informed and complemented the district goals for the Local Control Accountability Plan (Goal 4) which states: “The District will establish and sustain healthy school cultures through relationship-centered practices to keep students engaged in their learning environment”.

In addition, this goal specifies funding to:

  • Create Student Leadership and Advisory groups to create a school culture of belonging and relationship centered programs
  • Support programmatic efforts targeting needs identified by the Panorama Survey (see page 30) to develop a school wide culture that encourages success 

The importance of this win cannot be understated, as the new structures delineated above were implemented to support the emotional and academic development of youth throughout the district, as well as offering a venue for student civic and community engagement. The Relationship Centered-School model further established a foundation for youth to bring new perspectives to guide school and district policies and practices, which over time validated and affirmed student experiences and perspectives, and later helped facilitate the adoption of subsequent CFJ initiatives, such as the elimination of school police in 2020 in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.  

While this initiative is a district-wide commitment, there are currently four early adopter high schools: Independence, Foothill, James Lick, and Evergreen Valley. At each of these, students are working with admin and teachers through design teams to identify ways they can create a culture of positive relationships on campus. 

Examples of changes include master schedule changes, professional development, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and site-based committees, school policies, hiring, etc. 

When students sat down with a principal and heard his rationale for why he did what he did, Rosa de Leon shared, “[It] really provided student leaders with a different perspective about what a principal does from campus, who they are, and humanizes them [principals and school leaders] more in that role.”