TCS Daily

'F No Es Fabuloso?' Beating the Scholastic Odds

By Joanne Jacobs - December 6, 2005 12:00 AM

U.S. high school seniors don't have the skills to match their ambitions, according to a new U.S. Education Department study. A third of 12th graders surveyed in 2004 expected to complete a bachelor's degree and another third expected a bachelors and a graduate or professional degree. But nearly two-thirds of the college bound hadn't mastered intermediate mathematics; nearly a third had trouble solving simple problems requiring elementary math skills.

Everybody who wants to go to college can find a place at a community college or unselective four-year college. But half of students who start never earn a degree. They're not prepared, they get sick of remedial classes and they give up.

It would be an enormous kindness to tell students what they'll need to succeed while they've still got time to improve.

A book I spent the last several years researching and writing, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the School That Beat the Odds, profiles a charter high school in San Jose that prepares underachieving Mexican-American students to succeed at four-year colleges. Most Downtown College Prep students come from Mexican immigrant families, speak English as a second language, qualify for a free lunch, etc. They've got plenty of excuses for failure. Held to low standards for years, they start ninth grade three to four years behind in reading and math; their work habits are terrible.

DCP puts them in a mix of remedial and college-prep classes and demands they do homework every day and show respect for their teachers, classmates and their own futures.

Honesty is the school policy. No time is spent inflating self-esteem. Instead, students are told that they're way behind but have the ability to improve if they work hard. Any sign of progress is commended, but nobody gets "student of the month" just for being a nice kid.

After awhile, it's obvious that students who do the work do improve.

A girl that I thought wouldn't make it out of ninth grade is now in college studying to become a nurse. Another girl who'd gone through school as a straight D student came alive in 10th grade and made it to the University of California at Santa Cruz. Who knew Gina was smart? Not Gina. She surprised herself.

Lorenzo, who wore the "loaner" shirt every day because he couldn't get it together to wash the uniform shirt, turned out to be a talented artist. No kindly adult told him that his talent made it unnecessary to pass reading, writing and math tests. It took him five years to pass college-prep classes, but he made it. Lorenzo is now an art major at Chico State.

Test scores have climbed steadily: Downtown College Prep now ranks in the top third of high schools statewide on California's Academic Performance Index.

All graduates in the first two classes have gone on to four-year colleges; 97 percent are on track to earn a diploma. Their ambitions are backed by basic skills, strong work habits and the resilience that comes from knowing how to fail, try harder and improve.

In many schools, students shuffle through undemanding classes, getting C's and B's for minimal effort. Educated parents may realize their kids aren't learning the skills they'll need for college or work, but many parents don't have enough education themselves to see through inflated grades. (Lorenzo's mother, attending a class for parents, turned to the school's cofounder to ask, "F no es fabuloso?")

State graduation exams come as an unwelcome reality check: Twenty percent of California's 12th graders haven't passed the graduation exam yet; most have trouble with the math portion. We're talking about a multiple-choice test with four choices for each question: Blind guessing would produce a 25 percent score. It only takes a 55 percent to pass. Most questions require skills that are supposed to be learned in sixth through eighth grade.

Hispanic and black students and low-income students have lower pass rates, prompting "advocates" to call for letting students graduate if they meet "alternative" standards, which tends to mean no objective standard at all.

At Downtown College Prep, more than 95 percent of students pass the graduation exam by the start of 12th grade. The pass rate is higher than at most of the area's conventional high schools.

When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a deal to let some special education students get a diploma without passing the graduation exam, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about a disabled student "in limbo." The boy had missed two years of school due to bipolar disorder and has learning disabilities that make math difficult.

"Like most students, Joseph is weighing his post-high school options," the story says. "But all of his choices -- firefighter, emergency medical technician, nurse, search and rescue worker -- require a diploma. Without one, he said, he may be at the forefront of a dreaded new breed: the fifth-year high school student."

Joseph still hopes to pass the graduation exam. "I'm doing the algebra, geometry -- whatever it takes," he tells the reporter. "I'm studying my ass off."

Good for him. That's exactly what the exam is supposed to do: Motivate students to work harder to learn essential skills. They can learn if they willing to do the work. I've seen it happen.

Education blogger Joanne Jacobs' book, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the School That Beat the Odds (Palgrave Macmillan) comes out in late November.

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