Earlier this week, Sanger Unified School District (Sanger, Calif.) had the opportunity to host Michael K. Yudin, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), and what a great day it was! I met Michael several years ago when I was invited to share the Sanger story while I was in Washington, D.C., to celebrate being recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School. After a two-hour conversation with a large group of Department staff, the conversation continued with Michael and a small group of others for another two hours.
That day’s conversation was centered on our efforts to transition into a Professional Learning Community district and the outcomes of that effort. The staff were very interested in the journey we were on and in particular the outcomes. Michael, in particular, was truly impressed by the broad-reaching significant improvements and outcomes made by all students, including students with disabilities, in academic achievement, graduation rates, and scores on accountability testing. Michael told me he had to visit Sanger to observe directly a district making dramatic and meaningful improvements in student outcomes.
Sanger Unified is a rural district in the heart of the Central Valley of California that shares the demographics of the region. We are a high poverty, high minority, high English Language Learner, low-parent education district as are most others in our area of California. In 2004, we were one of the first in California to be identified as a Program Improvement (PI) District due to our failure to meet the learning needs of large segments of our student population, and in particular our English Language Learners, children of poverty, and special needs students.
We began the Professional Learning Community (PLC) journey in the fall of 2005 and exited PI as a district in 2006. Our work in collaborative teams focused on answering the four key questions of a PLC. “What do we want our students to learn? How do we know they have learned it? How do we respond when learning has not occurred? And, how do we respond when learning has already occurred?” These questions generated the framework that drove our achievement gains. That work continues and so do the gains in student achievement.
In particular, the work around answering question three of a PLC, “how do we respond when learning did not occur,” prompted Michael Yudin’s recent visit. Answering that question has led to robust systems of support for individual student learning needs being developed at all sites and at all levels in the district. These systems provide a balanced approach to intervention that supports both the academic (Response to Intervention (RtI)) and behavioral (Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems (PBIS)) needs of our students, and areas of investment by OSERS. The foundational piece of this work is that both RtI and PBIS are not Special Education initiatives but rather General Education obligations. Interventions are not what someone else does for those kids, but what we all do together to support the learning of all our kids.
On Tuesday, Michael and I visited three of our elementary sites, Lincoln, Madison and Reagan, and our middle school, Washington Academic Middle School (WAMS). This gave Michael the opportunity to see our student support initiatives in action. At Lincoln, what we saw was a learning environment with high expectations for the children and deep belief in the children and their ability to learn. The program provides direct support to the students and has developed rubrics to monitor student progress.
Madison and Reagan elementary schools allowed us the opportunity to visit classrooms during RtI. We were able to witness the data driven responses to the learning needs in the small group intensive and strategic interventions for some kids and the opportunity for many others to go deeper by providing enrichment in the benchmark classrooms. All of these supports are fluid in their nature and are driven by constant regular progress monitoring and data based placement decisions. Data drives the program and that fact was evident throughout.
The Reagan Data Wall was a great example of one staff’s response to monitoring student progress. Each student has a color-coded card that is placed on the wall according to the student’s intervention placement. The cards are color coded in terms of initial placement, intensive, strategic, or benchmark, and regularly moved on the wall to reflect current placement. The evidence of student movement within the system is clearly displayed visually by the cards that are constantly updated to include current data. Staff pointed out with pride that at one particular grade level the benchmark band had to be extended on the wall because the original band did not have the capacity to include all of the kids who have moved up bands to that level during the year.
At all three sites the PBIS supports were clearly evident, not just in the banners and posters, but in the behavior of the students themselves. Creating sets of clear expectations around behavior and then providing supports to meet those expectations has a dramatic impact on school climate, quality of the learning environment, and learning outcomes.
At Washington Academic Middle School we again saw a balanced system of supports for the learning needs of every student. The journey at our Middle School to develop and provide the needed learning supports for our students began several years ago in response to a site request that we adopt a district policy that we would not send students on to High School who had a failing grade in core subject areas.
The staff quickly realized that if they were going to reverse the trend of sending to the high school groups of students who had more than 30% failing grades in core academic subjects, they were going to have to do something different to support student learning. The response of that staff to develop those necessary supports and create a place where a student actually has to work harder to fail than to be successful has been incredible. From noontime homework labs, to academic seminar periods, to after school rectification classes and holiday break intersessions, the system of increasingly intense supports to the learning needs of the students has done the job. As they have built the supports on the academic side of the pyramid, they have also built in a system of behavioral supports and the overall impact on student achievement and school climate is why WAMS is today, a National Middle School to Watch!
Has the work we have done in Sanger in the last eight years made a difference? The answer is yes! In the period of time between 2004 and 2012 Sanger has seen dramatic gains in student achievement in all sub groups. In 2004, we ranked in the bottom ten percent in California in terms of student achievement, recently EdTrust West reported that Sanger has the third highest overall achievement gains in California for Districts with high minority, high EL, high poverty student populations.
In 2004 no subgroup exceeded the state average in AYP and today all do. Looking only at our students with disabilities (SWD), in 2004 we had only nine percent proficient of advanced in English Language Arts (ELA) and 13 percent in math. In 2012, those levels were 43 percent in ELA and 48 percent in math with the State average being 36 percent in ELA and 37 percent in math. Similar gains have been made in our dropout and graduation rates and the latest data shows a district-wide dropout rate of 3.1 percent and a cohort graduation rate of 94.6 percent. Similar results again are shown in our students with disabilities subgroup where our current dropout rate is 3.6 percent (compared to a countywide average of 23.9 percent and statewide of 17.2 percent) and our cohort graduation rate for the SWD students is 76.4 percent (compared to countywide average of 48.8 percent and Statewide of 60.8 percent). Our RtI program has also resulted in a 50 percent decrease of referrals to special education.
Maybe the most moving conversations that took place with Michael were those at lunch in an informal setting with a group of 30 or so parents, students and staff from various locations in the district. Again and again the parents expressed their appreciation for the levels of support that the district provides for their children in meeting their individual learning needs. One mom shared with pride the learning journey of her daughter who has struggled along the way. The daughter has been provided with various interventions and supports and the outcomes of these efforts have been clearly communicated to both the student and parent.
Another parent shared that she has four children, each of them unique in their nature, makeup and needs. She said that each of her children has been supported by staff according to their individual needs and not once has she heard the question raised, “why aren’t you more like…” comparing one child in the family and their accomplishments with the accomplishments of a sibling. This, she said, is rare and is exactly why we made the choice to bring our children to Sanger; this is a place where every child is supported to be the best that he or she can be.
I couldn’t have said it better myself, “Every Child, Every Day, Whatever It Takes!”
Marcus Johnson is the Superintendent of the Sanger Unified School District in Sanger, CA.