Turnaround Spotlight: Sanger Unified School District

In 2004, Sanger Unified School District (Sanger) was designated one of the lowest-performing districts in California. Serving a rural, predominantly Latino community 15 miles outside Fresno, Sanger has steadily improved, outperforming average state gains every year since 2005. In 2011, Sanger was recognized as one of the most improved high-poverty districts for low-income students by Education Trust-West and Superintendent Marcus Johnson was named Superintendent of the Year by American Association of School Administrator (AASA). In 2012, the district posted a 94 percent graduation rate for Latinos and a 97 percent graduation rate district-wide.

Sanger credits this successful turnaround to focusing on supporting teachers to improve instruction, creating a culture of collaboration, and using clear accountability measures to improve performance.

In practice, this means the district sets “essential” standards for all grade levels. Using a set of principles about learning instead of a pre-specified curriculum, teachers focus on diagnosing and responding to student learning needs. Student data gathered from periodic assessments helps determine instruction and lesson planning, so the curriculum can be adjusted as needed. Sanger uses a system of interventions for all students during classes and has additional time specifically allocated for instructional interventions each day.

Key to Sanger’s success is team collaboration, which schools facilitate through weekly Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings. The PLC meetings are a designated time for teachers to plan as a team, collaborate, and support each other. In addition, the district developed a data system for teachers to enter and access assessment data, facilitating evidence-based collaborations.

Accountability is woven throughout the district culture. The district aggregates data from continuous assessments and feedback to inform its decisions. District leaders are clear on what is required and expected of each school, but allow flexibility over how schools accomplish their requirements. In addition, the district created clearer guidelines for assessing progress. In this manner, Sanger has coupled high pressure with increased support.

This accountability culture is also apparent in the increased use of student data to inform teaching practices and the use of monthly principal walk-throughs to provide feedback and continuous support to teachers. Principals are not the only ones who walk through the classrooms. Superintendent Johnson visits every classroom in his district twice a year. Johnson describes the regular classroom visits as a way to show teachers that “I am here to support you,” reinforcing the idea that the focus is on feedback and support as opposed to evaluation. Johnson also disseminates yearly themes, such as “Together we can,” reflecting the collaborative foundation of his turnaround strategy.

Learn more about successful turnarounds in Innovate Public Schools’ report, “Struggling Schools, Promising Solutions.”

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