Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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The Preuss School
La Jolla, Calif.


School Profile: Selected Variables
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1999, local district
Grades and Enrollment 6–12 and 772
Student Ethnicity 13% African-American
23% Asian American
58% Hispanic
6% white
Special Education 2%
Free and Reduced-price Lunch 100%
Graduation Rate 100%
Annual Cost per Student $7,551

Source: School records data from 2005–06

After Proposition 209 eliminated affirmative action at the University of California system beginning with the 1996–97 school year, Provost Cecil Lytle and other faculty felt strongly that the university itself should take action to ensure that the university system continued to serve students from low-income families of color. Keenly aware that high schools were not preparing the majority of low-income minority youths to enter and thrive in college, they proposed to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) chancellor that a school be created on the campus to do just that. The first attempt was rejected by faculty who did not think it was the university's responsibility and by critics who were concerned about the financial implications. But the chancellor and others, along with Lytle, were relentless, with Lytle even laying his job on the line. Finally, he and his new committee prevailed, and in 1999 the faculty senate agreed to launch a charter school consisting of grades 6–12 on the UCSD campus. The planning team recruited Doris Alvarez, an experienced principal from San Diego Unified School District, eager for a chance to work at a school where she could try innovative ideas like academies, strands, and detracking, which had been difficult to implement in her former inner-city school.

The school opened at a temporary facility on the UCSD campus, with 150 students learning in bungalows. The second year the school grew to 400 students and the university raised $14 million from private donations in just five months to build a new permanent school building on the UCSD campus. Peter Preuss, a university regent, donated $6 million to launch the school, now viewed as another department at the university, board members explain. Its mission is "to improve educational practices and provide an intensive college preparatory school for low-income student populations, which are historically underrepresented on the campuses of the University of California. If these goals are realized, the school will matriculate students who are competitively eligible to enter the University of California or other selective institutions of higher education."

School Operations and Educational Program

The Preuss School serves 772 students in grades 6–12, all qualifying for the free or reduced-price lunch program and Title I services. In fact, such qualifications are requisite for applying to the school lottery, along with having parents who did not graduate from a four-year college or university. One senior explains she likes the school's required uniforms because "it covers up that we are all poor." The intensive learning program results in both a longer school day and longer year, and has a block schedule with 100-minute periods. A Saturday enrichment program is available for students and parents alike. Classes are not tracked and all students take eight yearlong AP and honors-level courses, and complete the California subject requirements, known as A-G coursework. For electives, students also take fine arts, including choir performance, drama, orchestra, and art. In order to graduate, seniors are required to complete a research paper and present an exhibition about it, and engage in community service learning and a twelve-week internship.

Teachers and other staff hold high expectations for students and the school fosters an excitement about learning both inside and outside the classroom. The shared aim is that graduates will develop lifelong intellectual curiosity and dedication to continued learning. All students participate in an advisory program by grade level. Staying together in the same advisory group from sixth grade through senior year gives them continuity and support for their entire schooling experience at Preuss. During an advisory period, students have 30 minutes of "kick back and read time" and "kick back and calculate time" at least twice a week, and also receive tutorials for academic help using the school's I-CLEAR model (Inquiry, Collaboration, Linking, Evidence, Application, and Research).

Students are bused to the UCSD campus from towns near the border, such as San Ysidro and National City, as well as poorer communities in Southeast San Diego. Some students travel over an hour to the school, taking two buses or public transportation to the school bus to get to the Preuss campus. "We are from every part of San Diego," one student explains. "Even though we take the bus for an hour, we use the time to talk and sleep." While an explicit citizenship code covers behavior, effort, attendance, and discipline, the dean of students points out how older students act as keepers of the positive school climate. Even on the bus home, by their own example they prevent rowdy behavior among the younger students.

Teaching and learning at Preuss are data driven. The principal explains how staff closely examine student assessment data to make teaching decisions and to meet student academic needs. For example, the math department has carefully examined student assessment data and made some program changes as a result. One group of students entered the school below the 50th percentile in math, so staff added a math elective for enrichment, MathQuest in seventh grade, providing time for teachers to teach math concepts in a different way. As a result, they found that student test scores went up. They also noticed that sixth- and seventh-graders were doing well in math, but there was a drop in algebra scores in the eighth grade. So they pulled in another teacher, lowering the class size to fifteen students for algebra and started examining teaching techniques for improving their algebra instruction. They also added two tutors to assist, so now in the eighth-grade algebra class, there are two tutors and one teacher for 15 students, which means each adult can sit with five students at each of the three tables to work closely with them on math concepts.

Family Involvement and Partnerships

The school works to involve parents in creating a community of high expectations for students. Parents have representatives on the school's Advisory Council and one on the charter school board. "We honor parents by educating them about college, financial aid, teenage development, time management, and other relevant topics," explains Principal Doris Alvarez. The school orients families by hosting a "meet the principal" reception before the school year starts. Required to donate 15 volunteer hours each year, some parents attend sports events, others help out in Spanish classes or the library, some make and use phone trees for calling other parents to invite families to school events. There are parent meetings once a month on Saturdays. The school organizes parent workshops on college financial aid, and the monthly newsletter offers information about scholarships for which students can apply. During the Saturday enrichment program, parent meetings and events are held. For example, at a Preuss cultural day feast, a potluck was held to celebrate community and diversity.

Preuss is in many partnerships and collaborations with UCSD. The university provides interns and typically over 100 students volunteer as tutors each quarter at Preuss. It also pays the salary of the development director, who raises school funds and donates a nurse three days a week. The university serves as a tremendous resource for the school. For example, when Preuss students were in a school bus accident, UCSD provided counseling interns from their Ph.D. program to support students.

For the school's community mentor program, the volunteer coordinator at Preuss recruits UCSD staff and community members. Mentors meet once a week during lunch or advisory period with their student. The expectation is that it will be a long-term ongoing relationship for seven years. Preuss has 120 mentors who are "bending backwards for our kids," says Principal Alvarez.

Seniors can take advanced math classes at UCSD if they pass UCSD's placement test. Currently seven seniors are taking math tuition free at UCSD and Preuss pays for their books. Last year five to six students enrolled in courses at UCSD. Preuss monitors this activity carefully to make sure the students are mature enough to do well and to sustain their independence and motivation taking a college course. Seniors participate in 12-week internships at UCSD in various departments throughout the university. Students also have been summer interns at the cancer center, working at the university hospital.

Business partnerships with companies that have included Jack in the Box and Amylin Pharmaceuticals have provided $30,000 to sponsor trainings about diabetes and nutrition. Called the Student Well-Being Advocacy Program, or SWAP, the goal is to raise awareness with students and families about the risks of obesity and diabetes.

Governing for Accountability

The administrative team at Preuss consists of the principal, dean of students, business manager, facilities coordinator, head counselor, and guidance counselor. The university vice-chancellor appoints the school's board, whose 17 members include the assistant vice chancellor, community representatives, educators, and UCSD faculty. They closely watch students' performance and monitor fiscal operations. Board members explain that the conditions of being a charter school allow Preuss to avoid having to deal with the seniority system in the San Diego Unified School District where those with the most seniority have first choice for open positions. Its charter status gives Preuss full control over hiring, enabling it to hire the teachers it needs.

Staff at Preuss consider themselves teacher-researchers. Teams of teachers have engaged in lesson study, initially by department, focusing on an area of interest in math, writing, and assessment. Teachers plan a lesson together, observe it being taught, then reconvene to critique and improve the lesson to be taught again by another colleague. This process, engaging teachers in peer observation, analysis of lessons, and teaching revised lessons, has proved a powerful tool for teachers to work together to improve instruction.

This year Preuss received 800 applications for 110 sixth-grade slots. The school has been so successful an exemplar that other schools are looking to expand the Preuss model. Gompers Middle School in San Diego reconstituted as a charter school and approached Preuss administrators to learn from their experience. Those in other University of California programs at Berkeley and Irvine have approached the Preuss board about initiating charter school partnerships for their campuses.

Of the 55 seniors in the class of 2004, 90 percent were accepted to four-year colleges and 10 percent to two-year colleges, guaranteed a spot at UCSD if they did well at the community colleges. Sixty-seven percent of the 2004 class attend four-year colleges and 33 percent attend two-year colleges. In the class of 2005, out of 75 seniors, 91 percent were accepted to four-year colleges and 9 percent to two-year colleges. Approximately 84 percent went on to attend four-year college and 16 percent to two-year college. Preuss graduates in 2007 will be the first to have started the school in the sixth grade. San Diego Unified School District under the authority of the UCSD chancellor has renewed Preuss School's charter for seven years, more than the five typically allotted, due to strong test results.

Parents applaud Preuss's culture of high academic performance in an environment that encourages risk-taking, the art of questioning, and logical and critical thinking. Many found low standards and expectations in the San Diego public schools and poor communication from teachers to students and parents. At Preuss, teachers will call home and contact parents and they appreciate this. Parents point out that the principal knows every student and that students are busy. They are grateful that their children are bused out of unsafe, crime-prone environments to attend school on the UCSD campus. "Everyone sacrifices to do well here," says a parent whose child wakes up at 5:15 a.m. and does not return home until 7 p.m. One parent with four students at the school explained, "The dream team all-star teachers make it worth it." Another parent whose daughter is now in her second year of college explains that the Preuss work ethic "carried over," which is why she is doing well. "It's like winning the lottery. I feel in my heart she will make it and be a role model for her two sisters."

The Preuss School: Evidence of Closing the Achievement Gap

Preuss 10th-graders outperformed San Diego Unified School District high school students on the state English language arts and math tests, with 100 percent scoring proficient in English language arts and 99 percent scoring proficient in math.

No high school in the San Diego Unified School District serves as high a percentage of economically disadvantaged students as Preuss.

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009