Monday, June 18, 2007 | When they graduate later this month, the 78 seniors at University of California, San Diego’s Preuss School will have accomplished a remarkable feat. Every one of them will be going on to college — the first in their family to do so.

But, then again, the Preuss School was built to show that remarkable feats can indeed be accomplished. The school itself is an experiment, dreamt up by academics who wanted to test a hypothesis: Can a group of underprivileged kids, with demographics that would predispose them for poor achievement, succeed if put in the most rigorous of academic settings?

From the Petri Dish to the School Yard

  • The Issue: UCSD’s Preuss School will see all of its graduating seniors going on college, part of the school’s string of successes that has made it a national model.
  • What It Means: Despite its success, Preuss School leaders are facing some challenges in bringing the charter school’s model to a traditional, neighborhood school.
  • The Bigger Picture: Preuss is more than just a school; it’s a philosophy, a set of values and assumptions about what public schools should teach. Some of them are controversial.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the students’ success, Preuss has provided only part of the answer. As with anything academic, the real world has turned out to be quite a bit more complex than an experiment set up behind university walls. As the school’s leaders attempt to export the Preuss model to traditional neighborhood schools, starting with one urban southeast San Diego campus, with the hope of showing that rigorous academic instruction can work for all underprivileged kids, they’re running into unexpected challenges.

To Preuss parents like Mahjabeen Usman, the more than 700 students who attend the charter middle and high schools are not simply test subjects. They are kids living up to their potential.

Each one comes from a low-income family — all Preuss kids qualify for free or reduced lunches — and many are first-generation English speakers.

“It’s a real melting pot,” said Usman, the Preuss PTA president and mother of two children at the school. Her older daughter is a Preuss alumna who is finishing her second year at UCSD.

“I think the most important thing is that the kids get to realize their dreams,” Usman said. “That’s what we’re all working for.”

Winners vs. Losers

The Preuss School opened in 1999 as the brainchild of former UCSD Chancellor Robert Dynes, who now heads the University of California system. The idea was a simple one: take a bunch of low-income kids; bus them out to the university campus; give them high-quality teachers and a college-prep curriculum; extend the school day into the evening and the school year into the first few weeks of summer; then mix it all together and see what happens.

Every student, the designers envisioned, would be required to take college-level Advanced Placement classes, and every student would have to apply to several colleges before they could receive their high school diploma.

There is “a deep-seated belief that exists in American society that’s held by educators, just plain folks, just everyday people, that intelligence is stratified. That some people naturally have more intelligence than others, and therefore, you want to organize instruction that’s stratified, so that the really bright and talented people get the really challenging and rigorous curriculum, while the kids that have less intelligence get a less rigorous curriculum,” said Bud Mehan, a UCSD sociologist and head of the university’s education research program who sits on the Preuss board.

“When we set up the Preuss School, we operated on a different literature. We looked to that scientific research that all students, all children have the basic cognitive intelligence to be challenged, at least through the college-prep years,” he said.

To great extent, the gamble has paid off. Nearly every one of the students that has graduated from Preuss has gone on to college, many with scholarships that allow them to afford it. Academically, the school has ranked among the top in the state, and last month, Newsweek magazine named it among the top 10 in the country, based on the number of A.P. tests its students have completed.

Yet one question that has nagged Preuss skeptics is how much of that success can be attributed to the school itself, and how much credit belongs to the students. In other words, how representative are the Preuss kids of the average low-income San Diego student? The answer, UCSD’s own research shows, is not very.

The Preuss School is not designed for every student, but for those with “high potential but under-developed skills,” Mehan and school Director Doris Alvarez wrote in a recent academic paper. Though those who attend it are chosen through a random lottery, the school weeds out the high-potential kids through an 18-page application, which includes essays and letters of recommendation from previous teachers. To apply, students also need to meet minimal standardized test score cutoffs.

School leaders admit that students who complete the whole application are probably pretty motivated to begin with, and their parents, who must pledge to volunteer 15 hours at the school each are year, are also probably fairly involved. Most students who apply to Preuss are probably like Marco Murillo, the newly elected UCSD student body president and member of Preuss’ first graduating class.

“I think a lot of the students that attend Preuss from middle and high schools, a lot of them are high achievers,” Murillo said. “Everything at Preuss that was given to me and my classmates was to get us in the mindset of being able to attend a four-year college and being able to succeed in it.”

But Preuss leaders say they don’t consciously try to pick out the cream of the crop.

“I really resent the term ‘creaming.’ It’s racist,” said Cecil Lytle, the chairman of the school’s board of directors and a former UCSD provost. “La Jolla High has been creaming for 100 years.”

However, studies do suggest that Preuss students are unusual. Two papers commissioned by Mehan’s research center, for example, looked at the students who won the lottery to be enrolled at the school compared to those who lost. Because the lottery was random, and each student had an equal chance of getting in, the result should have created two statistically identical groups; if it were a medical experiment, one group received the Preuss treatment, and the other got the placebo.

By the time they graduate high school, the papers suggest, both groups tend to leave with high standardized test scores and grades, meaning that the Preuss school was probably not the main contributor to their academic success. (Both groups also tend to have grades and scores much higher than that of the average San Diego high school student.)

Several differences did emerge though. The Preuss students tend to finish school having completed more of the state’s college-prep courses, known as the “a-g” sequence, which are required to for admission to a UC or California State University campus. And almost every Preuss graduate now attends a four-year college, compared to between 67 percent and 79 percent for the lottery losers. Both are above the average for the regular San Diego high school student.

To Alvarez, the school’s director, it’s proof that Preuss adds value to the students’ education. But it also suggests that the students who apply to Preuss in the first place are fairly unusual to begin with, a phenomenon that has been noted at other successful charter schools.

The Gompers Experiment

“In hindsight, we did it the right way. We built a model, and perfected it,” Lytle said of the Preuss School. “The real question is whether the Petri dish works in the real world.”

That’s where the Gompers Charter Middle School comes in. If Preuss is “the little charter school that could,” as UCSD described it in a recent press release, Gompers is the mid-size charter school that’s trying.

About three years ago, parents with children enrolled at both Gompers and Preuss wanted to know why all of their children couldn’t have the same high quality education. That question eventually grew into a bitter school board battle about the future of Gompers, a troubled middle school in southeast San Diego that had long been marred by violence and low achievement. At the end, the parents won, and Gompers opened in 2005 as a charter school, under the direction of the same people who had run Preuss.

Though Gompers adopted much of the Preuss model — its teachers are not unionized, the students wear uniforms, the school day is longer, the school year ends later and all students must take a rigorous course load — the school has faced unique challenges not found on a prestigious university campus.

One, in particular, has been violence. If fights break out in prisons across the state, for example, they are often followed by fights on the school campus involving the siblings of the inmates, Lytle said.

“When the riots were happening in the prisons — mostly black-on-brown crime — you saw it playing out in math class. … [Preuss] is a much more controlled environment. You don’t have fights outside the window or parents showing up at the office with baseball bats,” Lytle said. “This is something that we didn’t anticipate. We’re a bunch of idealists — we’re La Jollans.”

There is another big difference, too. Unlike Preuss, Gompers is a community school, which means there is no lottery, no 18-page application and no letters of recommendation. Every child that applies is accepted. (Though parents must still volunteer for 15 hours a year.)

If Preuss was the Petri dish, Gompers is the real world, and if it works, Gompers will prove that every student can succeed in school by being challenged in the classroom, regardless of their natural ability. So far, the results have been mixed.

“One of the most noticeable changes for the students, staff and the community is the school culture. It’s not a culture of chaos, it’s a culture of learning,” said Gompers Director Vince Riveroll. “You can create what Preuss has done in the neighborhood, and that’s what’s so encouraging about this effort.”

However, though test scores have risen, Gompers has hardly matched the performance of the UCSD charter. Its leaders acknowledge it could take up to four years, until the first generation of Gompers students has cycled through, for the school to reach its academic potential. For now, they’re waiting for the state test scores to be released in August.

“There is pride now back at the school,” Riveroll said, “and I think when you have that foundation, then the formal scores will follow in time.”

A Difference in Philosophy

Not everyone at UCSD has been a Preuss School booster. When it was first proposed, the university’s faculty Academic Senate fought bitterly against the idea of running a charter school, and some skeptics still remain.

School officials say that going charter has transformed the Gompers Charter Middle School, though violence remains a challenge. Photo: Susan Grant

“One of the concerns that I have with both Preuss and Gompers is the degree to which those students and those institutions are teaching ethnic, cultural and social consciousness,” said Patrick Velasquez, the director of the university’s tutoring program. “I don’t think achievement is an end in itself. I think it should be a means toward producing socially conscious leadership at those (underrepresented) communities.”

Velasquez added, “I’m very troubled by the fact that at Gompers, the young boys are forced to wear white shirts and ties, as if it was some sort of Eurocentric approach.”

There is more to the Preuss School model than simply the idea that all kids should take hard classes. Preuss is a philosophy, a set of values and assumptions about what public schools should be like and what they should teach. Some of them are controversial.

For example, its leaders believe that schools should focus on academics and should not allow kids to skip college-prep courses in order to acquire more practical vocational skills. It’s a belief that separates them from some of California’s most powerful policymakers, including Gov. Arnold Swarzenegger.

“I think there is a misunderstanding, a deep-seated belief about whether or not all kids are capable of doing demanding and rigorous instruction. People misinterpret that as sometimes to say that we think that everyone should go to college,” Mehan said. “That’s not the point. We’re not recommending that every kid go to college. We’re saying that every kid should be prepared to go to college.”

To see how the Preuss philosophy differs from the policy assumptions that guide San Diego’s other public schools, you need not look further than Lincoln High School just down the street from Gompers. Lincoln is San Diego Unified School District’s newest traditional public school, which will open next year just several blocks away from Gompers and it’s the school many Gompers kids will attend after they finish the ninth grade.

Like Preuss, Lincoln will offer the full sequence of college-prep classes, but, unlike Preuss, they won’t be a prerequisite for graduation.

“Now, you may not want to take all of the requirements that UCSD has for admittance, but that’s on you, and that’s a choice that you make,” said Mel Collins, Lincoln’s executive principal. “We’re going to provide it. It’s going to be there. We’re going to create a culture. But then you have to step forward and assume the responsibility.”

Preuss has a different view of free will. “I always worry about how choice comes about in situations like that,” Mehan said. “One of the ways in which we get tracking is that students are convinced that they’re not going to college, and they take lower level courses.”

The term tracking refers to the different academic paths available to students. Some may start down the college-bound track. But others may take remedial or lower-level courses and pursue job skills. One of the central tenets of Preuss is that there should be one track for all students — the track with the most challenging classes — regardless of students’ plans after graduation. It’s an idea that has not been embraced by San Diego Unified.

“Tracking is not something that is practiced in our schools, but there are students who do choose to be involved in various career-related programs,” said H.J. Green, the director of the district’s Office of Secondary School Innovation. “In a bigger comprehensive school, there are other options, other choices for students.”

And Green wonders how the Preuss model can be adapted to students with special needs, particularly special-education students with learning disabilities.

“The idea to get them as high as you can is a valid idea, but we also have to educate all of our kids,” Green said.

Regardless of what happens at Preuss and Gompers, it will be these philosophical issues, and how they are resolved, that will likely determine the future of the Preuss model.

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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