In Partnership with 74

‘They wonder how we do it’: Downey Unified — a school district in LA’s shadow with the same student demographics — is getting 96% of kids across the graduation stage

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | February 6, 2017

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Downey Unified Superintendent John Garcia in a classroom.

Downey Unified School District looks much like others in the Los Angeles area, including LA Unified. It serves thousands of students, the majority of them Latino and low income. But its 96 percent graduation rate and other achievements have won it both recognition and the highest honor — replication.

Downey has been designated as an exemplary school district for 2016-17 by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and it is being studied by other Los Angeles-area school districts and charter school organizations to discover how to attain high achievement for all students, regardless of their demographics.

“People see our demographics and they kind of have one expectation in their minds, but then they see the results with our kids and they wonder how we do it,” Superintendent John A. Garcia Jr. said. He credits the support the schools receive from the community as well as high expectations. “We expect the most and the best from our kids and they respond to it, they give us the most they can.”

Downey Unified went from a 92.7 percent graduation rate in the 2012-13 school year to a record high of 96 percent last year, surpassing the state average of 82.3 percent, the county’s 78.7 percent and LA Unified’s 75 percent. Downey Unified shares similar demographics with LA Unified. Downey has a Latino student population exceeding 88 percent, and 70 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. LA Unified has a 74 percent Latino population with 77 percent receiving free and reduced-priced lunch. However, there’s a big difference in enrollment. LA Unified serves 665,000 students, while Downey serves 22,700.

“A lot of us in the district grew up here and live here,” said Garcia, whose family moved to Downey in 1973. “My parents moved to this community because they wanted a better future for my older sisters and me. They knew Downey was a solid community and has good schools. Those values have not changed. People still move to and live in Downey for the quality of the schools. We really take our vision very seriously and our kids know too this is serious business.”

The city of Downey is a 12-square-mile enclave located 13 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, where more than 70 percent of the population is Latino. Downey’s median annual income is about $60,000 (slightly higher than LA’s) and the average home price is $525,000 (nearly $100,000 below LA’s). Its population of 111,000 is dwarfed by LA’s, which is nearing 4 million. Downey Unified has 13 elementary schools, four middle schools, two high schools, and one continuation and adult school.

Downey Unified and Encinitas Union School District were the only California school districts recognized with the P21 designation. “This is a tribute to our state’s continued efforts to make great strides in preparing our students for the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century careers and college,” California’s superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, said in a news release in September honoring the designation. The official ceremony will take place Feb. 28 in Washington, D.C.

“The 21st Century model is not all about technology, it’s not all about just devices,” Garcia said. “We have to give teachers and the community a voice on what’s happening in the schools as well, to be able to move the schools in the direction within the structure that the board of education is charged with setting on policy for the district as a whole. But the way that looks is different at every school site. Educators have to have a say in saying, ‘OK, we understand what the big picture is in the direction we’re heading, but we’ve got to do it in a way that works for us.'”

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) is a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of the business community, education leaders and policymakers to position 21st-century readiness and skills for all students. Downey Unified was evaluated by P21 based on the impact made for students, schools and the school community, showing evidence of commitment to college, career and life readiness, educational support systems and sustainable design and engaged learning approaches. Students demonstrated mastery of fundamental subjects and 21st-century themes including English, reading or language arts, world languages, arts, mathematics, economics, science and technology.

P21 evaluation team visitation to Sussman Middle School in June.

A P21 evaluation team visits Sussman Middle School in June.

“This P21 designation is a strong validation of us really being a leader in the transition to become a 21st-century district. We’re very fortunate that we have other districts that wanted to come and visit and see what are we doing on a very consistent basis,” Garcia said. He added that the district’s successes came from training teachers and administrators in how to implement more rigorous standards and integrate digital devices in instruction.

For the last three years, Downey Unified has been receiving training in professional development from the San Francisco-based educational consulting firm Focused Schools, which has been providing the district with customized training, executive coaching and technical assistance with the goal of equipping school leaders to attain higher student achievement.

“The most important thing we need from districts or schools to partner with is that the district leaders are interested in having that partnership with us, and that they’re willing to let an outside party help them build capacity to lead,” said Jan Leight, senior executive of Focused Schools. “With Downey Unified we started by coaching the principals.”

Focused Schools has also worked with other LA-area school districts such as Glendale and Monrovia and most recently is coaching some schools in LA’s largest charter school network, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, which is emulating some of the work Downey has done.

After three years, Downey Unified’s leaders will now start passing on the professional development and training they received from Focused Schools to other administrators, principals and teachers. Leight pointed out that school districts as large as LA Unified could also benefit from their services, but because of such a large structure, a district like Downey Unified is more likely to be ready to implement new strategies.

“There has to be some interest and readiness on the part of the leaders. That’s why the model of Downey was so great, because they were ready to accept the help and do the work,” she said.

One the outcomes from the coaching, according to Focused Schools, was an 18 percent increase in the number of AP exams taken in the 2014-15 school year. Despite 146 more exams taken, the passing rate remained at 71 percent. In LA Unified, the passing rate was 42 percent that year for 36,500 students tested.

Garcia is proud of the fact that more AP classes have been offered year after year, noting that over the last five years the board of education has approved 40 new A-G classes for high schools and for some middle schools. The A-G courses are course requirements for admission to University of California and Cal State schools.

“We have almost doubled the number of students in our AP classes over the last five years. We have encouraged more students to take more rigorous courses, and it’s because the quality of instruction they’re getting (that) we’re still getting the same amount of kids that are passing those tests,” Garcia said.

Downey has attracted parents seeking high-quality schools for their children, and those parents are willing to drive there. Cindy Borbon is one of those who considered the sacrifice worth it. Downey Unified considers requests on an individual basis for permission to attend or change to a school other than the one that serves the area of the pupil’s residence. Inter-District permits are contingent upon school and classroom availability, approval of the principal involved and student’s GPA, among other considerations.

“I lived in the LAUSD service area when my daughter began preschool. I didn’t want her to experience the kind of failing and severely overcrowded schools I attended. We commuted to Downey every single day for 10 years,” wrote Borbon in a blog post. The mother admits that 12 years ago she did not know how schools were rated or what the graduation rates were. All she knew was how she felt when she was at the Downey Unified school campuses. “I felt welcomed. There was this sense of unity among parents and teachers. I can’t say it was perfect, but parent voices were heard and this was important to me.”

Downey also is freed of some of the challenges large school districts face, such as budget deficits and difficult negotiations with teachers unions. Garcia said Downey Unified’s budget has remained in the black the last few, and its relationship with the Downey Teachers Association, which is part of the California Teachers Association, has been important for the district to be able to achieve its goals.

“Historically, we have been very fortunate to be able to work collaboratively with the union and the board of education. We refer a lot to ourselves as a family. We’re the Downey Unified family, meaning that we’re all in this together, we’re here for the kids, for what’s best for them,” Garcia said.

Parent engagement is also something the district continually works to maintain through parents academies and other community programs. For example, some elementary campuses offer free tutoring to parents to improve their English-language skills for free, and about 500 parents are enrolled in programs that help them navigate the academic system to move their kids toward college, as well as help them provide social and emotional support for their children.

“Because people have chosen this community in large part because of the schools, we feel an obligation to make sure we give the best of ourselves every day to every one of our kids,” Garcia said.

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