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High Hopes for College Despite Low Test Scores

New America Media, News Report, Carolyn Goossen Posted: Feb 10, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - When Seata Shyon isn't taking care of her siblings, she is working late into the night on homework and college applications, as she plans for her future career as a college student.

She is visibly exhausted. Yet even with the dark circles under her eyes, her face betrays a quiet hope and excitement. Like many of her peers at the June Jordan School for Equity, she is working very hard so that she can be the first person in her family to go to college.

Born in Samoa, Shyon, 18, and her family moved to Hawaii, before relocating to San Francisco, where they lived in public housing. When her father was incarcerated six years ago, her mother took on two jobs, leaving Shyon with the responsibility of caring for five younger siblings, including an infant.

Most days after class, Shyon stays in a teacher's room to use the computer, do homework and get help applying to colleges and scholarships. And with the help of her teachers and a college advisor, Shyon already applied to 12 colleges -- four California state universities, four Universities of California, and four private schools. Her first choice is Smith, the Ivy League women's college that offers generous scholarships.

Shyon is one of 275 students at June Jordan who is bucking the odds, overcoming numerous hurdles on her way to a college education. They have a good shot at it. An alternative public high school in the city's Excelsior neighborhood, June Jordan graduates have twice the rate of acceptance to four-year colleges than the state's average.

Every student has a daily advisory period, and at least twice weekly that 45-minute period is devoted to college preparation, including SAT prep. The school also offers a "step to college" program that allows students like Shyon to enroll in classes at San Francisco State University during their senior year.

"We provide all the necessary resources at school that prepare them for college," said Jessica Huang, a math and science teacher, who is also an advisor. "There are so many hoops you have to jump through, and if you don't have an adult helping you navigate the system, it's really hard."

June Jordan is a bold experiment that is six years old, with the kids that most people think don't have a chance. In a state where fewer than half of low-income students graduate from high school, this school is taking the mantra of "high expectations" to another plane. In an era where accountability through test scores is seen as the pathway to success, June Jordan is focusing on curriculum and an alternative method of assessment that looks at students' ability to write well, think deeply, and present their thoughts in front of adults.

The school was founded by a group of teachers from a few traditional high schools in San Francisco with more than 1,500 students. "We wanted to create a smaller environment where kids and teachers could have relationships," said Matt Alexander, co-founder and co-director of the school. "The small size is an enabling factor to make sure that all students are meeting high standards, and to make sure that all students succeed.

As a district school, all students in San Francisco are eligible to apply. There is no selection process. Students are chosen by lottery, as at other city high schools. In order to keep the class sizes small, however, the school is not able to enroll all students, and demand is much greater than available seats. For the current school year, for example, 361 students applied and just 72 were accepted.

The school is part of a non-profit organization, Small Schools For Equity, which provides extra funding and support to the school. While most people assume that small schools are just about a difference in population size, Alexander says it means a lot more than just that.

"To me, a small school is one that is committed to increasing equity and justice through strong relationships between students and teachers, and teachers and families," he said, "so that we can really challenge and support all kids."

More than half of June Jordan's students are low-income, and it has the highest percentage of African-American students--36 percent-- of any non-continuation high school in the district. The school has the third highest percentage of ninth graders living in housing projects 11 percent -- in the city. In 2007, 94 percent of entering freshmen were not proficient in math, and 86 percent were not proficient in English, according to their eighth grade scores.

Instead of taking these kids who are already behind, and making them focus on improving their test-taking abilities, Alexander and his team of teachers have developed course work that is "really focused on college-like seminars." Instead of multiple-choice tests, the school focuses on portfoliosliterary essays, science lab write-ups. By 10th grade, when they present their portfolios for the first time, students can write a basic literature essay and evidence-based essay.

"There is a long legacy of this in New York [and] Boston," said Peter Ross, a program director at the Stanford School Redesign Network, "but June Jordan is pretty unique on the West Coast. "What distinguishes June Jordan is it is among a small group of schools who are not judging [students] on one test, but looking at a full body of work."

On a recent school day, one English class was reading an essay by the black feminist scholar bell hooks, after engaging in a debate about the meaning of patriarchy.

"Kids also see themselves being taken seriously as intellectuals here," said Alexander. "This is a new thing for them. And this can lead to students wanting to do well academically."

But with the exception of its high college-going rates, the school
looks abysmal on paper. In 2007, its Academic Performance Index (API) score ranked in the lowest 10 percent of schools in the entire state, giving it a "1" score out of 1-10. And the score has remained low over the past three years, and has in fact, worsened. Its 2007 base API was 517, in 2006 it was 605, and in 2005 it was 650.

But API test scores are not the best indicator of student achievement, especially for June Jordan's population, says Alexander.

"In our view, tests are measuring really rote, basic skills. That's what you can measure on a multiple-choice test," said Alexander. "Kids come in with low skills. We have four years to get them ready for college. Kipp and other schools really focus on tests. They test kids every six weeks on multiple-choice tests, laser focus on the tests. For us, if we have a choice on what we can focus on for four years, we want to focus on what will make kids successful in college."

Yet some experts question whether abandoning a focus on standardized tests is the best strategy for public schools.

"If those tests are basic, then the kids should be able to do those, and then stretch them further, so they can do much more than those assessments," said Russlynn Ali, former director of Education Trust West, an Oakland-based policy group, who was recently nominated assistant secretary of the federal Department of Education's civil rights division. "But it's so terribly sad to say that we don't think these tests matter and we'll focus on college going when all these tests really ... are assessments that ask kids to demonstrate their knowledge of the skills they'll need to be successful in college."

Even Shyon, the Jordan senior, has questions about the school's strategy, although she is grateful for the opportunities it offers. She does worry that she may not be prepared for the frequent tests she will be facing as a math major.

"I feel so happy that I've learned how to write analytical essays, but they haven't taught me how to take finals," she said. "I've talked to seniors who say it's hard for them to sit down and study for a test."

Alexander believes students need to do better on standard tests, even though the scores are sometimes an inaccurate way to measure student performance.

"Even though we may think they are bad measures, we know they are important for our students. In terms of STAR test, there isn't direct pressure on us because we have other measures that show successful outcomes and because we have parents who are happy with the outcomes we do have," he said.

The California Department of Education has a similar stance.

"For the most part what we've seen is that there is a correlation between a school's college-going rates and API. But there are exceptions to that of course," said Rick Miller, a deputy superintendent. "It would be really interesting to include in the API college-going rates, or college completion rates, but there are ramifications. How can you hold one school accountable for what another school does or doesn't do?"

Ali also is critical on relying on college entry data as an indicator of a school's success.

"I think college going rates are terribly important," she said. That said, in our experience, college-going data is enormously misleading. They just look at getting into college, not going into college without the need for remediation.
They also don't say anything about college completion rates."

This year, the staff will begin to collect information from their alumni who are now in college about how they are doing. "The kids who I've talked to, it's difficult for them to adapt to college; it's so different from the communities they are from," said Huang.

Next year, Shyon will be able to report on her experiences. In early February, she learned she'd been accepted to Smith.

"This school definitely has prepared me for college. It exposes me to what college feels like, and it helps me manage my time, she said. "And I wouldn't have been able to do the whole application process on my own."

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