The odds are against Euclid Elementary.

It has the third poorest student body in all of San Diego Unified. The vast majority of its students are still learning English, going home to chat in Spanish, Vietnamese or Khmer. It isn’t a celebrated magnet or a charter school. Its building in eastern City Heights is plain and functional.

Add all that up and you might expect Euclid to be another sad story in public schooling. But it isn’t. Euclid racks up some of the highest test scores in the state for schools with high numbers of English learners and poor students, rivaling schools in middle class areas. Teachers rarely leave and suspensions are rare. Children giddily rattle off vocabulary words to Principal Vickie Jacobson on the playground.

“If Vickie can do it,” said Rupi Boyd, who oversees Jacobson and other principals, “there’s not a single school out there that cannot achieve.”

Euclid isn’t a miracle. It still falls behind far wealthier schools where kids walk in already ahead.

But it’s clearly doing something right — and it’s hard to pinpoint what at a glance. It doesn’t have special programs or unusual freedoms. It hasn’t been overhauled with new staff. And that defies the conventional wisdom about what school reform looks like and how it should be done.

School districts across California and the country are being forced to remake their worst schools through turnarounds: dramatic changes such as firing teachers and principals or seceding from school districts to become charters. The idea is that aggressive reforms can change the fortunes of perennially failing schools, like Euclid once seemed to be.

President Obama is promoting the plan nationwide, which echoes an earlier, less pointed push under No Child Left Behind to restructure failing schools.

Yet Euclid gradually pulled up its scores without those radical steps. It reversed the tide with a long list of seemingly small changes: It carved out uninterrupted blocks of teaching time. It gave teachers time to work together, diagnosing what kids needed. And it zeroed in on vocabulary for English learners. Small changes, stable staffing and a sense of trust — not a shakeup — helped it blossom over the past five years.

“I’ve really tried to keep things consistent here,” Jacobson said. “We don’t want to change dramatically.”

It seems so simple, perhaps deceptively so. Other schools have tried similar steps. Other schools give teachers time to meet. But everything fell into place at Euclid. Untangling what makes it different is complicated, but part of the secret is the slippery stuff of school culture. Teachers rave about trusting each other and their principal, and because of it, they freely share what works and what doesn’t.

The story has a familiar ring for Joseph Johnson, who directs the National Center for Urban School Transformation. “We see these small things that may seem like minutiae,” said Johnson, whose center is based in San Diego. “But it all adds up to these big differences in what teaching and learning look like.”

They used to look very different at Euclid.

Scores had dipped at the City Heights school five years ago and California was eyeing it for improvement because it had gotten money through a state program. State monitors pushed Euclid to set aside common, continuous blocks of time for English and math.

Teachers lost some freedom to decide when and what they’d teach; not everyone was pleased. But the change fit into a bigger push from Jacobson and the state monitors to get teachers on the same page, teaching the same thing at the same time. Teachers decided to keep it even after the state stopped eyeballing their scores. Bounce from one fourth grade classroom to another at Euclid on the same day and you’ll see both sets of kids penning biographies of Marie Curie and Martin Luther King Jr.

“If one person is off in left field,” asked second grade teacher Starla Ortiz, “how can we discuss what was successful and what wasn’t?”

Conforming allowed teachers to work together: They could talk about their strategies on similar lessons instead of talking past each other. Teachers from each grade gather to look at regular, shared tests throughout the year, meeting for a whole day every six weeks and for shorter sessions more often. They analyze what kids understand and what they don’t. They learn from coworkers whose kids ace the tests.

And they decide together how to re-teach the things students missed, then give students a quick, common quiz to make sure it worked. The philosophy is that two heads — or many more — are better than one. It also prevents gaps in learning, because everyone knows what is being taught and when. It might sound simple, but many schools lack organization — or trust — and fail to coordinate.

For example, everyone at the school talks about “robust vocabulary” — sophisticated terms like “charitable” or “benevolent” to replace “tired words” like “nice.” Jacobson laughs about being asked at recess, “Ms. Jacobson, are you horrified by wasps?” or “Did you know that the slaves endured many hardships?” Euclid staff decided to emphasize vocabulary because poorer children, especially English learners, are typically exposed to far fewer words at home.

Jacobson also moved teachers in the same grades to closer classrooms to make collaborating easier. That doesn’t mean that all classes are exactly the same: One teacher instructed her fourth graders to cobble simple phrases into “luscious, complex sentences” while another grouped her students in pairs to read over essays. But because both are teaching the same writing skills, it’s easy to compare results.

Being open and sharing problems has helped Euclid zero in on solutions. Teachers realized that their kids were tripping over the word “which” on tests because they had only been exposed to “what” or “that.” So they started teaching “which,” a simple step they might have otherwise overlooked. Ortiz saw that another teacher had knockout homework assignments, so she copied them. Data about how kids are doing, including scores for each grade level, are publicly posted. It all hinges on trust.

Johnson said that trust is one of the key ingredients in surprisingly successful schools: Teachers focus on getting kids to master their classes, not just finish them. They work together and share problems and successes. They back each other up — but they don’t let each other slack off. While reformers often talk about school accountability, Johnson said, they often fail to understand how school culture can be a powerful form of social accountability. Teachers don’t want to let fellow teachers down.

That pressure is even more potent when they all have the same students, which now happens at Euclid. Teaching the same things at the same time also freed teachers to send children from class to class. Euclid teachers call it “deploying.” Teachers temporarily divide up the students in their grade based on their abilities. Each teacher coaches a group with similar skills, allowing them to focus on their needs.

“You don’t close your door. It’s not like that anymore,” said Carol Manivone, a fourth grade teacher. “Now they’re all our kids.”

And that altered how teachers teach. Euclid educators are constantly checking whether kids get it. When Ellen Leuthard poses questions to her second graders about grammar, they hold up whiteboard slates, allowing her to instantly see who understood and who didn’t. Euclid may not look very different from the outside, but it actually changed what happens inside classrooms. Many schools don’t.

“Most reforms don’t go deep enough and they don’t last long enough,” said Paul Koehler, who directs the policy center for WestEd, an education research group. “They don’t change the climate and culture of a school.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter:

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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