School districts across the nation are increasingly using data to drive strategies for addressing inequities and closing the achievement gap. Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar is pioneering the use of data in SCUSD to identify strategies for increasing the diversity of students that apply to the district’s specialty programs.
“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” Aguilar said. “Our task is to create a system where every student has an equal opportunity to graduate with the greatest number of postsecondary choices from the widest array of options. Today, unfortunately, that guiding principle has not yet come to light for every student.”
Aguilar is a first-year superintendent at SCUSD, which is one of the oldest K-12 districts in the western United States. In total, 81 percent of the district’s students are minorities. Recognizing that students entering a specialty program are better positioned to achieve the district’s guiding principle, Aguilar is using data to analyze why the population of students in these rigorous specialty programs does not reflect the diversity of the district.
According to Aguilar’s analysis, diversifying the district’s specialty programs is a pipeline issue. Students who do not achieve grade level readiness in the years prior to entering high school are not only ineligible for the programs, they are also less likely to have undergone the preparation necessary to be successful in the programs.
Aguilar’s review of the data revealed that there is a disproportionate representation in the pipeline of eligible applicants. For example, White eighth-grade students accepted into the specialty program lottery were overrepresented by more than double their enrollment numbers. African American and Hispanic students were underrepresented in the specialty program lottery by more than half of their enrollment numbers. This lack of diversity in the pipeline creates a challenge for diversifying the enrollment in each program.
For example, in the case of the Humanities and International Studies Program (HISP) at C.K. McClatchy High School, only 17 percent of students in the program are Hispanic and less than 2 percent are African American. By contrast, district enrollment data shows Hispanics make up 40 percent of the district’s total enrollment and African Americans make up more than 14 percent. HISP prides itself on “providing a unique global perspective to learning and understanding and preparing students for success at any college or university.”
However, the program has recently been criticized for its lack of diversity.
“I was disturbed by what I saw in the data,” Aguilar recently told Sacramento Bee writer Marcos Breton. “The data shows a low number of eighth-grade students who are demonstrating the academic achievement levels we want.”
Among the changes Aguilar plans to implement to address this issue is a centralization of the specialty program application process. Whereas the selection process in the past was handled by one evaluator at the school site, the selection process in the future will be managed by the district office. The goal will be to introduce more objectivity into the selection process. For example, the new process will ensure that evaluations of student application essays are conducted by multiple readers, rather than one reader, so that there will be a system of checks and balances in place.
Aguilar also determined that the district needs to take on more responsibility for educating students about the availability of specialty programs. Simply sharing information about the programs is not enough. So instead of bringing the information to the students, the district is ramping up efforts to bring the students to the information.
A one-day event called Choose Your Futures is now giving students access to all of the district’s specialty programs in a single location so they can learn more about these options, meet the teachers and coordinators of each program, and ask questions to determine which programs are most attractive and interesting to them.
Under Aguilar’s leadership, Sacramento City USD is also ramping up efforts to provide additional assistance to students in grades K-8 if they are not achieving grade levels in reading, writing and math. The district is working to expand its summer learning programs to target off track students and automatically enroll them in a summer academic program if they are not meeting grade level requirements. Parents who do not want to have their student(s) enrolled in the summer program would have to sign a waiver form to opt-out and provide an explanation.
“When a system is inequitable you have to interrupt it,” said Aguilar. “We have to make sure we serve as many students as possible,”
Learn more about the work of Sacramento City Unified School District by visiting www.scusd.edu.