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How an LA high school raised its test scores, despite an international ‘incident’

Mike Szymanski | October 13, 2016

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Sylmar students Briana Borunda and Alma Carrera.

When Principal James Lee learned that his students at Sylmar Charter High School had among the biggest jumps in state test scores in the local school district, he was thrilled but surprised, because they managed to pull it off despite a well-publicized lunchtime brawl that erupted on campus right in the middle of testing.

He credits the teachers who created their own data analysis to discover which type of questions students struggled with and then focused on those skills, as well as a new collaborative spirit that pulled the team together as they applied for and won affiliated charter status — the only LA Unified school to do so in the past two years.

How Sylmar’s test scores stack up: See the 10 most-improved LAUSD district high schools.

“I’m delighted we are showing up as most improved, it’s just that we had a bit of an incident that was going on right in the middle of the testing last year,” Lee said. “Apparently all of the preparation and special planning we did to prepare for the testing ended up working out well, despite the incident.”

The “incident” became international news when a schoolyard brawl was caught by a cell phone camera and the YouTube video went viral. It was incorrectly characterized as a racial incident, set against a backdrop of demonstrations throughout the country and presidential rhetoric perceived as racist.

“The dispute was between athletes and non-athletes,” Lee explained, with one group predominantly African-American and the other mostly Latino. Six students were suspended, but they all were allowed to attend graduation ceremonies.


Sylmar Charter High Principal James Lee.

“I got a lot of criticism for allowing them to culminate, but for four years they were good kids,” said Lee, although the decision was ultimately made by the district. “Three were very academically strong.”

As TV crews staked out the campus for days and celebrities jumped in to talk about the incident, the school was taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests scheduled by the state. They were on the third day of testing, it was near the end of the year, and the principal couldn’t change or stop the tests if he tried.

“We did prepare a lot, and that seemed to pay off,” Lee said.

The students’ English scores rose 13 percentage points from 45 percent of the students meeting standards to 58 percent. The math scores rose 15 percentage points, to 27 percent meeting or exceeding standards. Districtwide, English scores rose to 39 percent and math to 29 percent.

“Ironically, students were SBAC testing in the midst of our highly publicized lunch altercation, town hall meeting and student walk-out,” Lee said. “Students demonstrated much focus and resiliency.”

Also, 80 percent of students enrolled in the Math Science Magnet on Sylmar’s campus met or exceeded standards in English, and 57 percent did so in math. That compares to 80 percent in English and 59 percent in math earned by Granada Hills Charter, a rival school.

The only schools in Local District Northeast that did better are Triumph PUC Charter, Arleta High and two of the Chavez Humanitas schools, district numbers show. There are 17 traditional and charter high schools in the local district. The Sylmar Magnet exceeded the scores of some local competition: Triumph, Arleta and Chavez, according to Debbie Steinert, Sylmar’s magnet school coordinator.

Sylmar’s test scores are among the highest increases of any schools that have 80 percent or more families eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Reclassification of English learners was also one of the highest, at 20 percent, compared to the district average of 11 percent.

“All of this can be credited to the hard work of teachers who worked much more collaboratively last year in the spirit of our charter petition, and having the right mindset on lifting up students regardless of socioeconomic status, a turn away from the student deficit mindset,” Lee said.

Math teacher Tony Nunez is one face behind the success stories. He identified the types of questions his students were having trouble with and focused on them, particularly the new Common Core standards that give questions in word problem formats and ask students to figure out how math applies to real-world situations.


Math teacher Tony Nunez.

“Those are the kinds of questions I like because it shows students how math applies to the world around them, but they are tougher questions,” said Nunez, who is a business technology teacher and has a degree in economics. “It’s not just filling in the bubble with multiple choices, they have to create graphs, fill in the blank or require multiple responses and do it on the computer.”

With their own data analysis, the teachers targeted the problems students had the most trouble with.

“There is happiness that we moved up, but it’s still only 27 percent meeting (math) standards and that shows that nearly three-fourths of the students don’t, and that means we have a lot of work left to do,” Nunez said.

The high school’s 15 math teachers did some unprecedented collaboration by sharing sample questions, going over problems and identifying common issues. An assistant principal who was also a math coach stepped in to help. The teachers and principal adopted strategies posed by educator Michael Fullan, used the CPM Educational Program and took advantage of some autonomies even before they officially became an affiliated charter school over the summer.

“We had been working on becoming a charter for years, so the mindset was already there,” the principal said. “Although we haven’t seen much flexibility in the funding yet, we do have some autonomy in the curriculum.”

Nunez said, “The principle benefits of being an affiliated charter gave us flexibility and autonomy for using the CPM book and not following the interim assessment plan. We decided as a group what the right direction is and what are the main benefits for success for the kids.”

The teachers also worked to get students used to taking the tests on computers, rather than with a pencil.


Briana Borunda and Alma Carrera earned top scores.

“The teachers really prepared me for the tests,” said 17-year-old Alma Carrera, a member of the Glee Club and softball team. “We did practice tests a few times, and it helped me with the concepts when we took the tests.”

Alma and her friend, Briana Borunda, also 17 and a senior, live near the school and were both witnesses to the lunchtime brawl.

“It was a strange time, I feel like the whole thing was over-exaggerated,” said Briana, who is also involved in many extracurricular activities and on the volleyball team. “People kept talking about it, but the teachers emphasized how important the tests were and calmed us down. I was worried about the math test.”

Both Briana and Alma were in the highest-achieving percentiles on the tests. Briana received a perfect score on her English test.

Both girls hope to attend UCLA, and few family members have been to college. According to Sylmar’s magnet school internal statistics, only 10 percent of their parents graduated from college and 37 percent of the parents aren’t high school graduates.

“I feel more self-motivated, but it also came from my teachers,” said Briana, who is leaning toward a career in criminology.

Alma, who aspires to be a pediatrician, added, “I feel pretty proud of myself and the skills I have, and I think it’s great that we did as good as Granada Hills.”

Sylmar Spartans see Granada Hills Charter Highlanders as competition in many ways. They battle for students, and even though this is the first year Sylmar has added “charter” to its name, the school population dipped to about 2,000 students.

“I think the lunchtime incident last year scared some of the new students away,” Lee said. “That is a shame.”

Nunez started teaching at Sylmar seven years ago when the student population was nearly 3,000. He recalled how the school faced major issues after losing grants and major funding. Then Lee was transferred to the school, and they started working in smaller learning communities.

“It was a high-stress time with a lot of changes,” Nunez said. “But now we are working together with a lot of collaboration and looking at data to see how we can improve. Ideally, we want to get 100 percent to be meeting standards. That’s a goal, I don’t know how realistic it is with limited resources, but it is a goal we are striving toward.”


English teacher Ires Moxley at Sylmar Charter High.

Ires Moxley noted how her 16 fellow English teachers have a greater sense of collaboration in the three years she has taught at the school. Their regular meetings and sharing best practices helped with the improved test scores.

“I was very excited and very happy when the scores came out,” Moxley said. “We laid the foundation for the students, and I’m elated that it paid off.”

They are teaching students how to write using the Toulmin Method, and that helped in the essay part of the exams.

“We increased the opportunities to write and that helped with the testing,” Moxley said. “As soon as they come in to class we encourage academic discussions and if they can speak academically you can write it.”

Teachers incorporate writing with science, math, history, language and other classes. “With our emphasis on writing, it helps develop reading and listening and creates the building blocks so they can learn on their own,” Moxley said.

When the brawl happened, Moxley treated her students like a strict mom. She wanted to know if any of the students were distracted or bothered by the incident, but she talked it out with them and shut the door to the disturbances outside and got them focused.

“The kids just wanted normalcy, and the SBAC got them focused again,” Moxley said. “They were truly resilient and knew that this was important to them and their future. And we’re all on board with that.”


Principal Lee has a daily meeting with a school team to discuss issues.

Every morning, the principal holds a meeting with his team of assistant principals at 8:30 in his office to discuss issues around the campus. The administrators are involved with three different committees involving teachers, students and parents that are working on the marketing and promotion of the school and its programs.

“I never thought I would be involved in the marketing of the school, but that is something we are learning to do now,” Lee said. Their school is now open to enrollment throughout the district, but they want to make the school attractive to their feeder schools too, and not lose too many students to independent charters or private schools.

Sylmar’s first-ever promotional event is taking place this Saturday, Oct. 15, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. billed as a Town Hall and Resource Fair. It will offer a chance to connect with the local Neighborhood Councils and Neighborhood Watch groups, and the school will be all out to promote its programs.

Next year, Lee’s teachers plan to increase their test scores again.

Would another lunchtime “incident” help?

“Oh no, no please, not that again!” Lee smirked. “It would be nice to know what our test scores would do without something like that going on in the middle of the testing.”

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