Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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Part 2: Profiles of Charter Schools Highlighted in Part I
Gateway High School
San Francisco, Calif.


School Profile: Selected Variables
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1998, local district
Grades and Enrollment 9–12 and 440
Student Ethnicity 20% African-American
21% Asian American
23% Hispanic
32% white
Special Education 25%
Free and Reduced-price Lunch 33%
Graduation Rate 95%
Annual Cost per Student $8,255

Source: School records data from 2005–06

A visitor to Gateway High School sees its credo bannered at the entrance, in the students' own words: "Step up. Do right. Dream big." The school's founding goal was to serve students who have all kinds of learning styles and prepare them for college. But over time, says Gateway's principal, the school's vision has expanded to embrace the idea that "difference helps us all be better," reflecting the recent shift in the racial and ethnic composition of the student body to more closely represent the city's diversity.

The Gateway community is united around a commitment to providing a high quality college preparatory education to a diverse group of students in a safe, supportive learning environment. That commitment is grounded in a belief that all students learn differently and that a well-trained faculty can help all kinds of learners achieve success.

Gateway High School was founded in 1998 by six moms and a dad who sat around a kitchen table discussing and planning a school where their children, each with learning challenges, could be successful. They wanted to create a school where such students would not slip through the cracks. Together they worked tirelessly to conceive of a different kind of learning environment that would enable their children to master college preparatory material.

After interviewing several candidates, the team hired Peter Thorp as the founding principal. The former headmaster of Cate School, an independent boarding school in Carpinteria, Southern California, fell in love with Gateway immediately and committed to making the founding families' dream a reality. The intent was to create a school inspired by the work of Mel Levine, the internationally known researcher in neurodevelopment and child learning. But when the planning team consulted with Levine, he expressed skepticism, asserting that the Gateway vision could not be implemented in a public school. Undeterred, the team moved forward with chartering, and a year later when Levine was invited back to be honored for his Schools Attuned work, he found himself pleasantly surprised, saying, "I never thought you could do this."

School Operations and Educational Program

Gateway offers its students, chosen by lottery, an award-winning, individualized college preparatory education. Its course of study aligns to the state curriculum frameworks and content standards, and the curriculum exceeds the requirements for eligibility for the University of California system. To graduate from Gateway, students must meet certain credit and course requirements and pass the California High School Exit Exam. The course requirements are: humanities—four years; mathematics—three years; sciences—three years; languages other than English—three years; arts—two years; psychology—one year; college preparation—two semesters; physical education—two years; Project Week*—one per year; and community service—25 hours per year. In addition to required academic courses, students are offered honors and AP work in every subject area, performing and visual arts opportunities, sports and clubs, community service, and access to cutting-edge technology.

The hallmark of Gateway's innovative instructional program is achieving academic excellence through personalized, student-centered learning, where success is measured one student at a time. The program combines rigorous academics with an approach that supports individual talents and strengths. The Gateway approach is to differentiate instruction and provide comprehensive academic, social, and behavioral supports to ensure each student's success. Class sizes are small, typically about one teacher for every 22 students. During freshman year each student creates a personal learning plan outlining his or her learning style, goals, and plans for high school and beyond.

Gateway's core features are differentiated instruction, project-based learning, caring relationships between adults and students, assurance that individual talents and needs are identified and supported, self-discovery, and the fostering of intellectual curiosity.

Cultivating trusting relations between teachers and students is intentionally built into the structure of the school. Each student is assigned an adviser, a teacher-mentor who meets with advisees twice weekly in a mixed-grade group of 12–15 students over the course of their high school years, advising them about academic, social, and developmental issues. These groups are organized into four smaller learning communities, or "houses," within the school, to facilitate community-building throughout the school; house mentors serve as conduits for communication to link the houses. Additionally, the mentors meet regularly with the Care Team, consisting of the vice principal, the Learning Center director, college counselor, and mental health counselor. Each week the school holds an all-school assembly as an additional forum to make announcements, to address schoolwide issues, for guest presenters and for students to perform, and to build connectedness to the schoolwide community. Advisers also have one-to-one time with each of their students once a month, minimally.

The climate at Gateway is safe, orderly, mission-driven and geared for every student to succeed. There is a full-time mental health counselor, college counselor, Learning Center director, and tutoring coordinator; there are two learning specialists, two resource service providers, and two paraprofessionals who provide in-class support; and there are many part-time tutors, special education specialists and advisers. Students report always having a teacher or other adults to go to, noting that at other schools they only received individual attention when they were somehow in trouble.

Gateway aims to have at least 25 percent of its student body be students with a diagnosed disability. Currently 18 percent of students require special education and another 7 percent are learning disabled, most with diagnoses such as dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or Asperger Syndrome. Thirty-three percent of the entire student body qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and Title I services, which are designated for students from low-income families. Over the past three years, Gateway has seen the racial and ethnic composition of its student body diversify, the result of its strong reputation attracting a larger pool of prospective students and deliberate recruitment to underserved neighborhoods.

Assessment is well integrated into the Gateway instructional program. "I assess every minute of everyday," explains a math teacher, "and I think others do as well." Teachers constantly check for understanding and adjust instruction accordingly. Assessments can take many forms to correspond to the differentiated instructional practices and include artistic components, oral presentations, standard pencil-and-paper exams, writing assignments, short-term and long-term projects, portfolios, and daily work. Some assessments are customized for individual students, and some students require or prefer alternate kinds of environments for test-taking, such as that of the Learning Center. One teacher describes how his very high-performing science students were acing his tests, so he additionally required them to meet with him one-to-one to probe the content more deeply and to challenge the students' thinking and understanding.

Family Involvement and Partnerships

Gateway recently moved to a new permanent facility in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco, sharing the building with a charter middle school. According to the principal, Sharon Olken, "Building partnerships and connections in our new community is an important objective for us as we integrate into our new neighborhood." In addition, the principal hopes over time to make stronger links with local universities for teacher professional development support, as well as with the charter middle school that shares its new building.

Parents' involvement and belief in the school's mission are integral to Gateway's success. The school has an active Gateway Parent Association that interfaces with the board and the school's leadership team, helping guide the direction of the school. Parents participate in monthly steering committee meetings, are members of the board and the strategic planning committee, and are invited to attend schoolwide and grade-level meetings.

Parents help in several critical ways, including recruiting students, tutoring in the after-school program, providing outreach to underserved student populations, chaperoning field trips and sports events, planning and attending celebrations and school events, fundraising, and participating in community work days. The move to a new facility required more than 3,500 hours of sweat equity from students and families to complete improvements at the site. Parents and students have 24-7 access to PowerSchool, an online system that facilitates communication between home and school about student progress, concerns, and assignments and keeps track of how and when families were contacted.

Governing for Accountability

A board and a site-based leadership team govern Gateway. The board is a group of volunteers who guide the school—financially, legally, programmatically—and help the school at the direction of the leadership team, teachers, parents, and students. The leadership team consists of the principal and vice principal; subject area department heads in mathematics, science, Spanish, and humanities; the college counselor; and the director of the Learning Center. "Strong governance is key to running a charter school," says a founding board member. And because of chartering, the board and leadership team can define the school based on a clear mission and vision, hire teachers and administrators consistent with the mission, be nimble programmatically in accomplishing the mission, and control the budget to align with the mission. "What makes the board run so well," comments a longtime member, is that board members "spend a lot of time at school and we hold to the mission."

For its part, the school's leadership team ensures the quality of the instructional program and supports teachers in improving instruction.

The school's authorizer is San Francisco Unified School District. The principal speaks highly of the district, and considers those at the district to have "good relations" with Gateway's staff. She reports that the district "does a good job at oversight." The district also houses a charter schools office, which serves as a communication link and liaison between Gateway and the district. Reauthorization of the charter will take place in 2009.

Gateway's overall graduation rate is 95 percent and it has an average daily student attendance rate of 96 percent. The school also boasts a college application rate of 100 percent. Last year's students accepted admissions to 67 different colleges and universities. For the class of 2005, 95 percent of students are attending college, 4 percent are working in jobs and 1 percent are in the military. Gateway students report a high level of satisfaction with their school. Some students credit the school for "saving" them. "At my old school," reflects one student, "I was screaming for attention." Gateway students report that they are consistently well supported by the teachers, that the curriculum is interesting, and that they experience a sense of community. Before coming to Gateway, one student remembers, "I had teachers tell me I was stupid, dumb, wouldn't amount to anything. Here it is okay to have learning differences. I'm comfortable being me because they don't let you fall, but if you do they pick you up."

In 2003 Gateway was selected as a California Distinguished School by the state board of education, and a year later it was ranked as one of the nation's top 56 schools by the Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence Foundation. In 2005, an independent evaluation rated it as one of its district's 13 schools considered "models of success for achieving diversity and raising academic achievement for African-American and Latino students."

Gateway: Evidence of Closing the Achievement Gap

In 2005, Gateway students scored 93 percent on English language arts and 85 percent on high school math proficiency, compared to San Francisco Unified School District's (SFUSD) respective scores of 66 percent and 72 percent.

SFUSD as a district did not make 2005 Academic Yearly Progress (AYP) due to subgroups of students (African-American and students with disabilities) not achieving proficiency targets in reading and math. In contrast, all Gateway students achieved 2005 AYP proficiency targets, even though 25 percent of them qualify for special education as compared to just 10 percent of the district's student population.

SFUSD's survey of the class of 2005 indicated that 76.6 percent of 2,756 seniors in the district planned to enter college or universities in the fall. In comparison, 95 percent of Gateway's 2005 graduates are attending college.

*Students select a week-long project to complete between winter exams and the start of the second semester.

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009