Mountain View Voice

News - May 24, 2013

At-risk high school students making gains

by Nick Veronin

Earlier this month, U.S. News and World Report published a story ranking both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools among the top 2 percent out of 21,000 schools from around the country.

Earning a spot so high on the list is certainly a testament to many things, such as the quality of teachers, the strength of the community and the number of bright young men and women in local schools — the ones who earn the high scores on standardized tests, helping their schools climb in the rankings.

However, the high marks aren't solely the result of the highest achieving pupils at MVHS and LAHS, and it would be a mistake to think so, district administrators said

In fact, schools listed in the U.S. News story, and in a similar article which recently ran in Newsweek, were also ranked on how well they did in educating disadvantaged students — and that is something the local high schools have been excelling at lately, according to Superintendent Barry Groves and Brigitte Sarraf, associate superintendent of educational services.

"We do well with all our students," Groves said. "Because we're doing so well with (at-risk) students is one of the reasons we're ranked so well."

"It would be so easy for us to ignore that segment of our population," Sarraf said, referring to at-risk pupils. "The performance of our high-performing students is so high that it could mask the performance of our low performing students. But that isn't the right thing to do. We are a community that is made up of a wide variety of students."

At-risk students are those teens who enter ninth grade behind the curve, Sarraf explained. These are boys and girls who come to MVHS or LAHS with a grade-point average (GPA) of below 2.0, scoring below basic or far below basic on the California Standards Test and with failing or D grades in the core subject areas of math, English and social studies.

In a May 13 presentation to the high school board, Sarraf told trustees that the district has really hit its stride when it comes to helping such students pull up their grades.

'Tremendous consistency

Teachers and administrators have worked hard at closing the achievement gap for decades, but it hasn't been until recently that they've seen sustained success, Sarraf said in an interview with the Voice. Over the last six years, district schools have had "tremendous consistency" in the area, she said. "We haven't wavered. No obstacle has been great enough to throw us off course."

During the last several years, at-risk students have been consistently improving their GPAs, doing better on standardized tests and moving from remedial to advanced courses. Fewer of these students are dropping out or transferring to Alta Vista — the district's continuation high school.

Sarraf, who has worked as an educator for 43 years, said she believes the sustained improvement is coming as a result of the district combining all the best practices of the past several decades into one unified playbook.

By identifying at-risk students early on in their freshman year, connecting them with counselors and having them double-up on problem subjects — for example, by getting them to take two math, English or social studies classes instead of just one — Sarraf said she is "seeing moderate increases in all of our academic indicators by which we measure our at-risk students' success."

About 20 percent of incoming freshman at MVHS and LAHS fall somewhere within the at-risk classification. The trick to helping these students improve, Sarraf said, is devising specific plans to help each and every child. "We have found that the only way you can make a difference with a particular kid is to really get to know that kid," she said. "We cannot expect that they catch up without a serious and specifically focused intervention."

In the same way that special education students are attached to an individualized education plan for the duration of their public education, counselors and teachers work with each at-risk student to figure out how to best help them on their academic journey.

Counselors work to gain the trust of their students and push them "really hard," Sarraf said — encouraging and reminding them to pay attention in class, turn their homework in on time and not be afraid to ask for help when they feel swamped.

All at-risk students are encouraged to believe that college is a realistic option for them, though counselors do keep in mind that college may not be the path that all students want to take, Sarraf said.

"We, as an institution, have the obligation of creating that choice," Sarraf said, noting that even many blue collar positions prefer to hire those with at least some level of college experience. "A student should not (give up on) college because we haven't done our job."

Sarraf said that new educational technology is likely playing a role in her district's success with its at-risk population.

According to Steve Hope, associate superintendent of personnel and technology with the district, technology helps all students at MVHS and LAHS. But, Hope said, certain technologies, can be especially helpful for at-risk students.

For example, he said, applications that allow students to learn at their own pace on a laptop or tablet computer, allow kids who don't understand something to go back on their own and do a lesson over, without having to raise their hand and ask for help in front of the entire class.

Such technologies are also geared so that teachers can see immediately who in their class isn't understanding a concept, so that even if that student doesn't want to let the teacher know he or she is struggling, the teacher will be able to make a note of the issue and check in later.

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