Sherman Elementary School students in a dual-language immersion class practice their reading skills. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In last year’s Parent’s Guide to Public Schools, we included a list of schools that were trying innovative approaches to personalized learning, where educators tailor curricula to the needs of particular students (after all, if one is very advanced in reading but slower on math, why not adjust?) and project-based learning, where educators get students to toil on a team effort that teaches a number of subjects at the same time.

This year, we decided to highlight several schools and districts that have changed their stories. Where once parents may have avoided them, now these schools often have long wait lists. Here’s a list of schools that decided to take a different approach and managed to change the way parents see them.

Sherman Heights

In 2008, Sherman Elementary had some of the lowest test scores in the San Diego Unified School District. That year, the school introduced an ambitious dual-language immersion program.

Today, students at the school with more than 60 percent non-native English-speakers are learning English at a faster rate than others in the district.

It is also one of the highest-performing schools in that community. This year, almost 18 percent of all students were reclassified as fluent English-proficient based on assessment scores. Across the district, about 12 to 15 percent of English-learning students reclassify.

Students at the school learn in one language – English or Spanish – during the first half of the day, and the second language in the other. Nearly 100 percent of students at the school come from low-income families.

Nicole Cázeres Enríquez, principal at Sherman Elementary, credits the success of the school to the program and involvement from the Spanish-speaking community.

“I think one of the major things is the mindset,” she said. “Instead of thinking of a language-learner as having a deficit, we use it as a springboard for them to learn the new language.”

She said the school has one of the largest English Language Advisory Committees in the district.

“Any time we offer any sort of parent workshop, they’re highly attended,” she said. “It’s definitely a part of the culture since the school opened. It’s something that’s integral to the student’s education, and Sherman’s taken it very seriously.”

The school received a Gold Ribbon School Award from the California Department of Education for its language immersion program and for improving test scores above the district average in 2016.

Students at Joseph Casillas Elementary School work on their class assignments. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Casillas Elementary Turns to Computers

Several years ago, the Chula Vista Elementary School District set a goal to make sure every student in grades three through six had access to a laptop in the classroom.

They wanted to make sure the devices were part of the traditional curriculum that they augmented to students’ learning. It’s working, said Chris Vickers, the principal at Casillas Elementary School.

“It’s made a big difference,” said Chris Vickers, Casillas Elementary principal. “Technology is innate for our students so they take to it right away. It furthers their education outside of general textbooks.”

Students at Casillas in these grade levels are making strides in English-language arts. The percentage of students performing well on the statewide assessment for English and language arts has improved from 59 percent in 2015-2016 to 77 percent since last year. Reclassification of English-language learners is up by 21 percent.

The school credits the growth to continual tracking of quantitative and qualitative data from assessments throughout the school year.

Vickers said when he arrived at Casillas three years ago, a lot of the computers at the school were outdated, and he felt there were tweaks and changes to be made to facilitate students’ academic and social growth.

“We are now very strategic on what we do day in and day out,” he said. “I want our students to understand they are coming to school not because they have to come, but that they have a say in their growth and understanding.”

The school hosts “red-carpet” award ceremonies each quarter to recognize students for academic achievement alongside members of the community, including teachers and parents.

Vista Innovation ad Design Academy
Students at Vista Innovation and Design Academy show Principal Eric Chagala their latest project. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Vista Innovation and Design Academy

In 2014, Vista Unified School District turned Washington Middle School into VIDA, the Vista Innovation and Design Academy. It’s one of two magnet schools in the district.

“It was time to give a new opportunity in the neighborhood for kids,” said VIDA Principal Eric Chagala.

The school uses what’s known as a design-thinking approach to encourage students to identify problems, get diverse groups together to brainstorm creative solutions and then produce a prototype to resolve the issue. It could be a letter to a politician, a robot or a video.

The incredible transformation of the old Washington Middle to the new VIDA isn’t without some uncomfortable realities. The surrounding neighborhood is almost all Latino, and Washington was one of the most segregated schools in the region. Now, the new curriculum has attracted students from across the district.

But neighborhood students must apply for the lottery to get in, just like students from elsewhere. The number of poor students in the school – as measured by who qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch – has fallen dramatically, and diversity has increased by more than 30 in the Ethnic-Diversity Index, from the Education Data Partnership, since 2014. The more evenly distributed the student body, the higher the number on the index.

Today, about 40 percent of its 750 students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The California Board Association has given VIDA its Golden Bell award – a recognition of outstanding programs – twice in the past five years for use of design-thinking in instruction.

VIDA’s curriculum includes programs like Project Lead The Way, a science, math and technology program offered through core science and design lab classes. It also has a partnership with Qualcomm to teach coding and robotics to students who are interested in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

The board association recognized VIDA and the district for designing programs to close the achievement gap. Reclassification of VIDA English-learners has grown 10 percent in the last four years. Last year, 29 percent of those students reclassified.

Cajon Valley Union School District

Cajon Valley Union School District has seen a surge in enrollment in dual-language immersion schools and magnet schools in general.

It’s been a focus of the administration and Superintendent David Miyashiro, who is keen on making sure each of his schools markets itself competitively.

He has introduced a program called “World of Work” into all 27 schools. The program pairs students with working professionals to help them picture what they may do when they graduate and how school relates. It’s getting attention from around the country as a way to prepare kids for careers and gainful employment.

“It’s the best organized and implemented K-8 career education program we’ve seen,” wrote Getting Smart, an agency that analyzes the latest in education innovations and technologies.

Bostonia Language Academy

In 2014, Cajon Valley transformed Bostonia from an English-only curriculum to a magnet school that would immerse students not only in both English and Spanish but another language: computer science. The school has doubled in enrollment in the last two years.

In 2018, Bostonia was one of the 287 schools recognized as a California Distinguished School.

In 2017, Bostonia had high math scores and medium English and Language Arts results and both were trending up even though a majority of its students were learning English and the vast majority (80 percent) came from families with low enough incomes to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Eje Academies

Thirteen years ago, parents in a predominantly low-income area of El Cajon were upset by the abrupt closure of their school. They got together and formed Eje Academies and a robust dual-language immersion program that has grown to 800 students with the same number on the wait list.

Eje is a charter school, and it starts all kids at 90 percent Spanish immersion, all day, every day. In first grade, that shifts to 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English. It continues until fifth grade, when it is 50 percent each. Its popularity is further proof of how many parents are seeking out dual-language opportunities.

Grades six through eight are scoring high and medium for English and language arts and math, respectively.

All students participate in a music program. They have a student mariachi band, an orchestra and this year, they are organizing a symphony.

Eva Pacheco, the executive director, told us parents are allowed to drop in on any course at any time. But, in addition, school staff sometimes drop in on parents.

“We know all students can learn and it doesn’t matter where they are coming from, what color they are. They can learn,” Pacheco said.

[box title=”San Diego Schools Guide”]This feature is part of our 2019 Parent’s Guide to Public Schools. If you haven’t seen it yet, get your free copy here. It’s available in Spanish, too.[/box]

Kayla Jimenez

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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