When church bells rang out before dawn on a Saturday morning last winter, it was a sign that change was afoot in this hard-luck city. An even clearer sign was what the bells helped deliver: hundreds of sleepy teenagers tumbling from their warm beds to take the SAT.
Fewer than 300 students typically turned out for the college-admission test here. But on that December day, the number topped 1,300. Something was definitely up in a city that even its biggest boosters say tends to expect too little of itself.
“In many respects, Stockton has been a no-can-do town when it comes to education and the quality of life,” says Clem Lee, a former teacher who served on the school board and City Council before becoming an assistant to Superintendent Anthony Amato. “So those church bells were something new for us. It was like the community was telling the kids, ‘You can achieve.’ “
The SAT turnabout was one result of an intense push to address the school district’s dropout problem, help more teenagers get through high school, and encourage them to think about postsecondary education. It began when Mr. Amato arrived in July 2008, and rippled into the city’s community halls, kitchens, and churches. The effort has halved the dropout rate, edged up the graduation rate, and lured more students into college-prep classes.
Some of the work started years ago. For Education Week’s 2009 issue of Diplomas Count, a special report on graduation rates, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center analyzed graduation-rate data from 1996 to 2006 and found that Stockton was an “overachiever” district: Its rate improved far more than would be expected for a city of its socioeconomic profile. Seven in 10 of the district’s predominantly Latino students are from low-income families.
SOURCE: California Department of Education, Stockton Uniﬁed School District
When Mr. Amato arrived in this 38,000-student district among almond and cherry groves, an hour’s drive south of Sacramento, he knew that three of its four comprehensive high schools had been labeled “dropout factories.” Mr. Amato, who has led the Hartford, Conn., Kansas City, Mo., and New Orleans districts, studied Stockton’s data to form his plan. Then he let loose a flurry of initiatives: a dropout-recovery blitz, systems of new supports for freshmen and seniors, a campaign to boost SAT and PSAT participation, and a redesign of large high schools into small learning communities.
Focusing on the December SAT, his team asked seniors what kept them from taking the test, and then offered solutions. The school system provided child care and transportation, rescheduled sporting events to free up athletes, and persuaded some local employers to rejigger students’ work schedules. The district shouldered the test fees and hired a company to provide free test preparation. It got the local hockey team to offer free tickets to test-takers. Pastors agreed to ring their churchbells at 6 a.m. on test day to rouse the teenagers.
By the end of the 2008-09 academic year, 74 percent of seniors and 42 percent of juniors had taken the SAT, up from 7 percent and 4 percent, respectively, the previous year. Eighty-four percent of all sophomores took the PSAT.
Having learned that many seniors dropped out because they found out about credit shortages at the last minute, Mr. Amato offered second-chance strategies. Those within striking distance of graduation could “buy back” missed time with supervised study outside of school hours, a practice that some teachers reportedly resented because it seemed an unfair shortcut.
Seniors who could graduate by attending summer school were allowed to walk through the ceremony on a signed promise that they’d finish their work that summer. To cement that promise, Mr. Amato imposed an unusual condition: Unless 80 percent of those teenagers showed up for the summer work, no future students could attend graduation on the pledge to complete work in the summer. Word got out. Peer and family pressure apparently set in. Eighty-four percent of those students completed their required work.
Mr. Amato also started a fast-paced bid to open a high school program that allows students to earn college credit, and an alternative high school, and to create small learning communities in three of the four comprehensive high schools. (One already had them.) All were operating as the 2009-10 school year began July 29.
The blitz to reduce the number of students counted as dropouts started in January, and is still in action. In the past, school-based staff members would call home to find missing students, but could rarely follow up on unanswered phone calls or make sure students actually got back to school. Now, a “war room” is open across the hall from Mr. Amato’s office.
A few district employees work the phones in the cramped room. Using long lists of missing students, they call family members. When they find someone, they send one of their field teams over for a visit. (A stepped-up truancy effort by the local police helps flush out students, too.) The war room personnel also track leads to students enrolled in nearby—or faraway—school districts, and in high-school-equivalency and community-college programs. The vast majority of missing students are located in other schools or programs. But whether they are found elsewhere or are re-enrolled after being nabbed at Kmart, the result is the same: They are removed from the district’s dropout list.
The 2008-09 year began with 3,300 no-shows. A week later, the count was 1,465. Progress was carefully updated in black marker on a big yellow school bus-shaped poster. Some students returned on their own, belatedly. Others had to be found and escorted back. A few were actually in school,
but changed or hyphenated surnames made them look like dropouts. The dropout list dwindled, and the war room was continuing to chisel it down.
“Never in my recollection has Stockton focused so much attention and so much urgency on the success of the kids in the high schools instead of just accepting the status quo,” says school board president and 30-year resident Dan Castillo.
Zenaida Magana, 16, a junior at Edison High School, sees the difference. When excessive absences caused her to be dropped from the school roster last year, a police officer came to her house. When she returned, she got a kindly lecture from her guidance counselor about the importance of her education. In contrast, no one from the school even called when a friend of hers skipped out two years ago.
“I feel like they are looking out for us, and they actually want us to get an education,” Zenaida says.
But not everyone is pleased with the way school reform in Stockton is playing out.
School board member Beverly McCarthy resents that Mr. Amato gets credit for previous administrations’ achievements, such as decades of a rising graduation rate. She sees the dropout-rate reduction as overblown, since improved tracking showed most students were not true dropouts, but just enrolled in other schools. She didn’t look kindly on the district’s SAT campaign, either.
“To push and push was ridiculous,” she says, “and the [church] bells ringing, it was grandstanding.”
Anne McCaughey, the president of the Stockton Teachers Association, a 2,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association, criticizes what she calls the superintendent’s unilateral style. Many teachers are unhappy that small learning communities were announced without their input. And many feel that there have been “too many sweeping changes in too short a time,” Ms. McCaughey says.
Mr. Amato attracted more opposition, too, catalyzed by his introduction last year of the Success for All reading program in elementary schools, even though it was not state-approved for a “needs improvement” district such as Stockton. Shelved after five months, it cost the district $6 million. Though a grand jury later found that Mr. Amato’s bid to use the program was a “justified risk,” the incident helped cement opposition that led to a raucous—but ultimately unsuccessful—campaign to fire him earlier this summer. The local newspaper, the Stockton Record, editorialized that he was “arrogant” and should ease the “frenetic pace” of his reforms to ensure good implementation.
Asked to reflect on his critics’ contentions, Mr. Amatoresponds with a frustrated sigh.
“Too quickly. If it’s your kid, are we still going too quickly?” he asks. “Some things you just have to do, and then people say, ‘Oh, I see,’ and it’s an aha moment. And if arrogant means I’m trying to do something with a proven track record of success, I’ll take that word any day of the week.”
Aware that re-enrolled dropouts could walk away again, Stockton Unified is trying to make school better for them as soon as they get back.
In past years, such students had to submit birth certificates and other documents to the registrar, as if they had never attended before. That process has been streamlined to speed their re-entry. “I don’t want them in paperwork hell when they get back,” says Mark Hagemann, the assistant superintendent for secondary schools.
Office personnel have also been trained to be more welcoming. Last year, one returning dropout was greeted by a school employee who said, “You again? Why are you even bothering to come back?” Mr. Amato says versions of this happened far too often. “They need to be telling these kids, ‘We’re so glad you’re back!” he says.
Instead of resuming their old course schedules, newly re-enrolled students now meet immediately with their counselors. They map out a customized course schedule.
“We sit down and talk about what happened in the past, slow down, take time to get to know them, and let them know we are the person they can come to for help,” says Barbara Greenwood, a guidance counselor at Edison High School.
Broader efforts aimed at all seniors and freshmen also should better support returning dropouts, district pesonnel say, and reduce leaks in the high school pipeline. Those include requiring every senior to develop a plan detailing the courses and credits needed for graduation, and biweekly checks of the grades and attendance of freshmen and seniors, with extra classes or tutoring when needed.
Curriculum changes are part of the picture as well. Seeing huge freshman failure rates in algebra and earth science, the district changed its course lineup and brought in programs to help students in those areas. The district introduced a new high school math curriculum, and is training teachers in better delivery of instruction across all subject areas, with particular attention to effective strategies for English-language learners, says Linda C. Luna, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
“This district has focused on K-8 for the last few years,” she says. “We need to bring the focus back to high school, and we’re doing that.”
During a recent professional-development session, teachers were gathered to write courses. At Cesar Chavez High School, they were designing courses in the career pathways that would also qualify as meeting requirements for admission to California colleges and universities.
Will Nelson, Chavez’s principal, laments the dynamics that have undermined good high school outcomes. But he thinks Stockton is turning the corner.
“Teachers, parents, and administrators would just say, ‘This is the best our kids can do,’ “ he says. “But I think now that we’re doing things that could really make a difference.”
Coverage of pathways to college and careers is underwritten in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as Attitude Adjustment