Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Calif. School Taps Community to Engage Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 02, 2014 8 min read
Jennifer Sanchez prepares a needle with a Flu vaccine at the San Ysidro Health Center on Thursday, February 6, 2014 in San Ysidro, CA. The program focuses on ways schools can get students involved in their community as a way to make learning more relevant. San Ysidro High School, which serves a high-poverty exurb (maybe 20 minutes from downtown) of San Diego,has turned its high poverty, overwhelmingly Mexican immigrant community from a barrier to a boost for its students.
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For students living in poverty, high school graduation and a college diploma are often pitched as a ticket out of neighborhoods without resources. Yet empowering students to find the strengths within their communities and work to improve them also can be a powerful motivator.

After-school programs like YouthBuild have long blended public service with work skills for students, but experts say the efforts to teach students through community-engagement initiatives here at San Ysidro High School are more holistic and more localized. From learning Mexican-American music and literature to exploring—and addressing—local social and health problems, San Ysidro works to relate students’ academic studies to practical ways they can build up their community.

“There are sometimes assumptions made that our kids who are harder to serve can’t do [community or service learning], and the exact opposite is the case,” said Martin J. Blank, a community school researcher and the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership. “Making meaning of their lives is particularly important for low-income students. If you treat them like they have nothing, you won’t get very much. You have to leverage what they do have.”

At first glance, students in this border district of southern San Diego have less to leverage than to overcome.

It is home to the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Interstate 5 from Tijuana—the busiest land border crossing in the world and, according to the investigative group CaliforniaWatch, the one the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement uses most often to deport Mexican nationals. The crossing puts the neighborhood squarely in the path of some of the largest drug- and human-trafficking paths in the country.

The border creates a constantly shifting, high-need school population: In the 2,400-student San Ysidro High School, 4,500 students transfer in and out every year, according to Principal Hector Espinoza. Many will re-enroll several times during the same year.

More than four out of five students live in poverty, on a median family income of less than $28,000 a year—the lowest in San Diego’s Sweetwater school district. Nearly three out of four students are still learning English, and half are the children of parents who did not complete high school.

Rather than dwell on such deficits, Mr. Espinoza and teachers at San Ysidro have committed to building on the community’s strengths and turning its challenges into learning opportunities to engage its students.

Cultural Connections

One wall of the school’s library is covered in pledge cards that each student signs in 9th grade, promising to attend school every day, graduate from high school, and achieve three other goals of the student’s own choosing. Each freshman turns in a pledge and discusses it with the principal, one on one, in the first two weeks of school. The cards remain posted throughout a student’s years in the school and are attached to each student’s diploma at graduation.

Jennifer Sanchez administers a Flu shot at the San Ysidro Health Center on Thursday, February 6, 2014 in San Ysidro, CA.

It seems to be working: For the past three years, San Ysidro 10th graders have outperformed the state average on mathematics for the California high school exit examination, and 40 percent take at least one Advanced Placement course. As of 2012, the most recent year of data, the school had a four-year graduation rate of 87 percent, 10 percentage points higher than the state average and 8 percentage points higher than the average for San Diego County. More than nine out of 10 students are Hispanic, with a smattering of Asian, black, and white students.

“I’ve been to other schools, and the students who come from higher-income [families], they tend not to care as much about higher education as we do,” said Katia Fernandez, an 11th grader at San Ysidro. “Most of our parents and families didn’t have a good childhood, and we’re very motivated to do more than they did.”

As often as possible, the school ties its curriculum to its community culture, Mr. Espinoza said. The language department, for example, offers Spanish for native and non-native speakers, as well as American Sign Language for deaf and hearing students. “At the high school level, we’re philosophically motivated to do it,” Mr. Espinoza said. “We really want to immerse them.”

During one morning here in November, the school’s concert orchestra practiced along with a student mariachi band that performs at local festivals. In the next classroom over, a physical education class practiced exaggerated horse-like prancing and cowboy swaggers associated with the caballitos dance of Mexico’s northern Baja peninsula—part of the school’s 200-student ballet folklórico program.

Many students also come from very close-knit and extended families, and staff members have learned to build on those connections rather than trying to fight them.

Belia Ford, a student-program facilitator and attendance monitor, recalled cornering one girl who was starting to skip school regularly, only to find that she had become the primary caregiver for her younger brothers and sisters while her mother was in the hospital. The school identified volunteers to help her family with child care and allow the girl to do schoolwork at home.

“I could send her to court or something, but what good would that do?” Ms. Ford said. “It’s a good thing that she’s the kind of kid who cares about her family, and we need to find ways to help her and support her.”

Similarly, students who become pregnant—about eight to 12 a year—continue to attend school full time, with half their days in regular courses and half spent in parenting classes, as well as participating in a child-care cooperative with other teenage parents at the school. The program has reduced the number of students who drop out of school because they become parents—one of the top reasons young Latinas leave school.

Healthy Start

One of San Ysidro’s flagship programs evolved out of efforts to involve students in addressing health and social problems in the community: the medical pathway.

The lead instructor for the program and a former nurse, Sheila Krotz, said it developed out of conversations with a mobile health clinic that provides checkups on campus. Local doctors and parents complained about the lack of bilingual health workers in the mostly Spanish-speaking region and the paucity of health care in general. The nearest hospital is a 30-minute drive away, and many families do not have reliable transportation.

“This is a poor community; they need well-educated health-care professionals, so that’s the goal here,” Ms. Krotz said.

Throughout the year, students volunteer at both the local health clinic and a campus-based “teen clinic,” where students can come for confidential advice on health issues.

Each summer, students take an interim course in which they identify pressing community health issues with local doctors and plan potential solutions to tackle during the next school year. In 2012-13, when 1,000 new cases of HIV were diagnosed among local 14- to 21-year-olds, the students organized health fairs and lectures at local schools and community centers to promote AIDS testing and prevention. This year, after students found that dental problems were one of the top five causes of absenteeism among elementary students in the district, they went through a short course to conduct short dental assessments for students in the lower schools.

The medical pathway now draws 450 students a year for an intensive four-year science strand, including medical biology, biotechnology, medical chemistry, and honors anatomy, as well as phlebotomy and other medical-assistant training electives. In 2013-14, the University of California, San Diego, adopted the program and now offers dual credit for several courses.

“In high-poverty areas, it’s very unusual for students to have four years of science, and I really wanted them to be competitive,” Ms. Krotz said. “Though it’s a college-prep program, we have a lot of poverty, and we need to be realistic that a lot of our students will not be able to go directly to college; they need to be able to work first. These [students] get a certificate and a lot of work experience, too.”

In the six years since the medical pathway has been offered, none of the participating students has dropped out of school, and Ms. Krotz said students who go on to college directly after graduation have so far been twice as likely to complete their first year, 30 percent versus 16 percent of peers throughout the district.

Jennifer Sanchez, who graduated from San Ysidro in 2012 and now attends San Diego State University, said completing medical-assistant training while still in high school gave her a leg up in college, both in knowledge and in cost-savings. But just as important, she said, “I think the program really helped me see that this is something I really wanted to do, because I got so many experiences,” from talking to fellow teenagers about pregnancy and disease prevention in the teen clinic to shadowing doctors at a local hospital.

“I see a lot of people come in. Sometimes, they don’t even know they qualify for health care, and I see patients walk out very grateful because they get help that they didn’t even know they could get,” Ms. Sanchez said. After graduation, she returned to work at the San Ysidro Health Clinic and plans to become a health-care worker in the community after college.

“I think people have begun to realize that school learning is about more than school,” said Mr. Blank, the community school researcher. For example, “investigating crappy food at bodegas and why there isn’t fresh food in some neighborhoods is legitimately connected to parts of the [Common Core State Standards], and it makes the common core come alive for many kids.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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