In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.
University High School in Fresno, California, is a grade 9–12 college-prep public charter school. The school focuses on liberal arts and music and is located on the campus of California State University, Fresno. The high school has about 500 students, and all of them graduate having earned as much as two years of college credits. The school draws students who want a college-prep education from 35 zip codes in 9 cities.
In school year (SY) 2012–2013, the school earned the seventh best score in the State on the California Academic Performance Index. Ninety-seven percent of students scored proficient or advanced in reading on the State test.
Q. What strategies do you use to promote high performance among students?
James Bushman, principal: It starts with our belief that kids can do rigorous work. We are a college prep school, requiring students to take four years of English, with Advanced Placement (AP) both junior and senior years; three to four years of a foreign language, including two years of Latin; four years of science, including college courses in biology and environmental science; and four years of math, including Algebra II freshman year and AP Calculus and Statistics in junior or senior years. We also require students to take music all four years. And all of our students graduate having taken at least one year of college courses.
We also have a required elective session at the end of each semester. These elective sessions vary from seven to ten days but all students sign up for one or two intensive classes during this period. These classes provide students a unique experience separate from the academic work they take during the regular semester.
Because all students are required to take Algebra II freshman year, everyone must have passed Algebra I with a grade of B or better to be admitted. But Algebra I preparation varies a lot depending on what school our students attended previously, so we are looking at ways to make learning more personalized and student centered.
Jim Torrance, teacher: Another thing we do to promote high performance is our 48 Books initiative, which has contributed to our success in English language arts. We require continuous reading outside of class every year of high school, so we buy a book a month and give a copy to every student for all four years. All of these books are integrated into the English language arts classroom. It becomes a shared library, and we choose books that help them become better adults.
It’s amazing what students can do when they have support and everybody is having the same experience. In my English class, everybody turns in every paper. We aren’t forcing students to be in class.
Bushman: We have an obligation to make sure no child is left behind.
One strategy we use is to focus on character education. Character really does matter. Students treat each other better and are more motivated than in a traditional high school. Five years ago, we wrote a code of character with three pillars: being understanding, being honorable and being studious. It was a joint effort with students and the faculty.
We do a lot to promote the code of character, even before students come to the school. On orientation day, we discuss it and teachers talk about it in the first week. We do surveys and teachers model behavior. You can push hard, but students need a lot of nurturing, and teachers have to respect the students. We have a teaching staff that cares and creates an environment of acceptance and tolerance.
Q. What other strategies do you use?
Bushman: For the past five years, we also have had students fill out feedback forms for each class they take, which has made our teachers much more responsive. Students will say things to teachers such as “no more pop quizzes, just be clear about expectations.” And teachers are responding to this feedback—the students don’t say the same things about teachers that they did five years ago. In fact, we used to do the survey at the end of the year, but now we do it in December, so we can incorporate the feedback from students into classrooms right away.
One of things we are proudest of is the environment we created at our school. Parents love it, and students drive an hour each way every day to get there because they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Teachers say it is the best place to work because they have the autonomy to teach what they want and students love to learn.
You can learn more about University High School’s efforts and success at the here.