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ORANGE COUNTY VOICES

Schools Harness Power of High Expectations

Santa Ana Unified increases graduation requirements to equip students with the skills they'll need.

December 10, 2000|AL MIJARES | Al Mijares is superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District

"Children will rise to the level of their expectations" was a common refrain after the movie "Stand and Deliver." This box-office hit chronicles poor, inner-city Latino kids who came from math-impoverished homes yet managed to pass the rigorous Advanced Placement calculus test through sheer guts and will.

Notwithstanding the power of this movie, it did not originate the concept of high expectations. The idea of expecting more has accounted for greatness throughout our history.

For example, Thomas Jefferson used it to write the Declaration of Independence amid a strong tug toward nationalism and centralized government. Lincoln embraced it by believing that the country could remain united while extolling the dignity of every American. Cesar Chavez believed in it when he dared to give poor immigrant laborers a voice that would be respected by their wealthy employers. Excellent teachers use it in the belief that poor, underperforming students with a language barrier can become tomorrow's leaders in education, medicine, law, business, government and entertainment.

That is why we are using the miraculous power of high expectations in the Santa Ana Unified School District to set standards for our roughly 59,000 students far above mediocrity.

In 1997, when we unveiled our plan to raise student achievement far above the average, we were criticized for setting our expectations too high. My common retort was that that's exactly where they need to be in order to lift our students out of the lowest levels of academic achievement.

Thus, we adopted Project ATM (Above the Mean), Setting Expectations Too High, and we ordered all of our schools to account for every minute of instruction and directed our staff to tie every school activity to language arts and mathematics. These are the subjects that typically define literacy.

In effect, we asked all of our teachers regardless of subject matter to be literacy teachers. Literacy became the sieve for all of our work and expenditures. We were very clear about this. The school day is considered sacred learning time for assuring that our students are literate.

In addition to our emphasis on language arts and mathematics, defined as the student's ability to read, write and solve problems, we systematically have raised our standards for student achievement.

We have increased the graduation requirements for the high school diploma, not merely to be the highest in the county but to make a motivational and concrete statement that is aimed at equipping our students with the skills needed to compete at the university level. Their entrance to the University of California is determined not by their socioeconomic or ethnic status but by the caliber of classes taken, grade-point average and SAT scores.

Consequently, we have increased our three-year math requirement at the high school level to include a minimum of algebra and geometry. We have added a year of science to mandate topics including earth science, biology, chemistry and physics; a year of required fine arts; and two years of the same foreign language. We have also made technology and high school planning a requirement throughout the four years of education.

These elevated standards also will help to ensure that our students are able to pass the high school exit exam required by the state in 2004. According to the law, students unable to pass this test will be denied a diploma.

We are also cognizant of the importance of assisting schools beginning in the lower grades by preparing students to complete these high school standards. Therefore, we mandated algebra in the intermediate school and have added math time to the curriculum.

Furthermore, we are on a quest to install after-school structured tutoring at all district schools in order to extend the instructional day. We are also expanding summer school and intersession offerings as a means of augmenting the school year, and we have required parent education and involvement at all of our schools.

The school is the focal point of community life in our district and has become for most the only means of fulfilling one's hopes, dreams and aspirations.

Our schools cannot afford to be anemic institutions failing to prepare our students for tomorrow. Our students do not have the means to recover from mediocre standards.

If they do not get it from us, most will not get it anywhere else. Consequently, they will be relegated to the bottom rung of the ladder, fulfilling society's unskilled-labor needs.

As important and noble as entry-level jobs may be, they are increasingly perpetuating a two-class system by people locked into them. High expectations in education have become the only means of balancing the scales in an otherwise lopsided existence for many Latino children.

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