By Mike O’Brien
Successfully operating a high school today is about as difficult as graduating from one, especially for a quasi-committed, hormonally challenged teen. The issues schools must deal with to prepare teens for college and the world beyond are vast.
Like students, teachers and administrators are challenged every step of the way. They seek to facilitate competence amid a diverse, complex society while dealing with less cohesive family structures along with greater exposure to drugs, crime and sex. Nothing less than our future as a society depends upon the schools’ success.
California high schools fell behind in the ’90s, which led to new initiatives, program mandates and monitors. As a result, average test scores in the Sacramento region have increased in the past few years, but continued improvement is a must.
Our feature “Rating the High Schools,” which begins on page 132, summarizes how 55 area high schools are performing as evidenced by various factors, including SAT scores, percentage of students going on to college and, for the public schools, a score that the California Department of Education calls the Academic Performance Index. The API is a set of comparative, somewhat controversial indices that track public school performance. No rating system is perfect: recently it was reported that some SAT tests had been scored incorrectly.
While every school we’ve spotlighted requires unwavering support, two new schools in Sacramento are worth noting, as they undertake innovative programs and curricula. One of them, Sacramento High School, is a former public high school that became a charter school three years ago when St. HOPE Academy took it over. The charter school was born out of parental and community frustration about Sacramento High’s poor performance and an intractable Sacramento City Teachers Association. Charter high schools are able to circumvent some of the school district’s controls and uniquely engage teachers, parents and its community. Sacramento High’s charter status represents hope for a beleaguered system (and families). While the school’s test results have improved, it has a long way to go. (Find more information at sthopepublicschools.org.)
Another exciting new program is a private high school opening this fall in south Sacramento. Cristo Rey High School will be the 10th Catholic school of its kind in the nation, emanating from a simple but powerful idea started in Chicago in 1996. Students not only undertake their studies, but concurrently are required to work weekly in their local business community.
Cristo Rey provides a private, college-preparatory program to young people from low-income families who could not otherwise afford one. The freshman class will open with 100 students, all of whom are sponsored by area businesses that agree to provide employment during the school year. Student employment covers about 70 percent of the $9,000-plus annual tuition, leaving the portion paid by each family at around $2,600 annually. One day each week, students leave the classroom to work in white-collar jobs. They will work extended school days and an extended school year to complete college prep requirements.
Cristo Rey schools open thus far have a 98 percent daily attendance rate, a drop-out rate below 1 percent, and more than 80 percent of graduates pursue post-secondary degrees. (Find more information at cristoreysacramento.org.)