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Researchers Size Up San Diego Schools For National Prize

Aired 5/23/13 on KPBS News.

Broad Foundation researchers are in San Diego this week evaluating city schools for a prestigious national award.

— Jenna Workman tells her freshman biology students to act natural; do everything just as they always would. The Kearny High School Digital Media and Design students are about to get important visitors: a team of researchers from the Broad Foundation. This visit will be part of what determines whether San Diego Unified will be chosen from the four finalist districts to receive the foundation’s coveted annual prize.

San Diego city school students have scored higher on state math, English and science tests for the sixth year in a row. District administrators are hoping to keep scores rising in the coming year despite budget cuts.
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Above: San Diego city school students have scored higher on state math, English and science tests for the sixth year in a row. District administrators are hoping to keep scores rising in the coming year despite budget cuts.

When the research team files into the room, 14-year-old Victoria Moreno is excited to explain the class’ chemical reaction lab to one of the visitors. She and her partner are building model molecules.

“I think it’s really great because other people get to see how great we are and how good we’re doing and how much we’re improving and showing everybody we’re worthy of it,” she says.

School districts can’t apply for the Broad Prize. Instead, they’re selected by a foundation committee from the country’s 75 largest urban school districts that have large concentrations of students of color and low-income students. Each year since 2002, four finalist districts have been identified for making the most progress in closing the achievement gap.

The foundation’s policy directory Gregory McGinty says San Diego Unified was selected as a finalist for the first time this year because the district outperformed others in the state on math, reading and science tests.

“And San Diego also narrowed the achievement gap between Hispanic and low-income groups," he says. "And low-income, Hispanic and African-American groups, particularly in high school in San Diego improved more in science than much of the rest of the state.”

The researchers' visit to the Kearny campus is part of a four-day evaluation of the district. They spent the first day interviewing staff at the district's central office. All told, they’ll talk with about 350 staff, teachers, parents and community members about how the district operates. And during six school visits, they’re also asking lots of questions of students.

“Basically we’re asking them what it’s like to be a student in the school district," says Shelley Billig, vice president of RMC Research Corporation, who has worked on district evaluations for the Broad Prize for four years. "So, we ask them about the way that the teacher teaches them, the kinds of thing that they’re learning, what their experience has been in the district, what they would improve if they had the opportunity to.”

Researchers will use all of this information to see how San Diego Unified compares to their definition of a high-performing district.

“We’ve got 72 indicators we look at," Billig says. "They’re research-based best practices. We like to see the extent to which the district aligns its practices to what we know works in terms of closing the achievement gap and increasing all test scores.”

To outgoing city school superintendent Bill Kowba, the district’s selection as a Broad finalist is like an Oscar nomination. He says they couldn’t have planned for the honor but that being selected validates the plans the district made to improve student learning."

“The annual goals and strategic processes are embedded in advancing student achievement and graduating young people who are college and career ready," he says. "Doing so through quality teaching and learning and partnering at every level with staff, students, parents and community members.”

Digital Media and Design School Principal Cheryl Hibbeln enthusiastically shows off those partnerships as she leads researchers through her school’s classrooms. Each grade level at the school has a community client they work with.

One design class researchers visit is working on bingo cards for an upcoming volunteer event for the Surfrider Foundation. Hibbeln says tying classroom learning to the real world can turn the school experience on it's head.

"They're used to turning in an essay. Seeing 'oh, I got a 'C,'" she says. "But now the client will come in a look at their work and say no, this isn't professional enough and they have to make changes."

She says the changes at Kearny reflect the kinds of progress the Broad Prize recognizes. In 2004, the campus was broken up into four small schools. Since then,the Academic Performance index for the Digital Media and Design School has gone from 632 on a scale from 200 to 1000, to 819. That's 19 points above the state's target of 800 and more students are headed to college. Hibbeln attributes those changes are thanks to teachers being able to figure out what works for students in the smaller communities.

“Putting 110 of them with a team of teachers whose responsibility it was to get the job done really allowed us to look at kids as names and say this is what you need and we’re going to give it to you instead of everybody gets the same thing,” she says.

San Diegans will have to wait until September to find out whether San Diego Unified's success stories are enough to win the Broad Prize. As a finalist, the district is already guaranteed $150,000 in scholarships for graduating seniors. The prize-winning district receives $550,000 in scholarships, all of which go to seniors who have shown the most academic improvement.

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