Winner 2016 CSBA Golden Bell Award
In Pomona, California, a city long plagued by gang violence, the murder rate is rising again. At the same time, the state’s prisons are releasing inmates who were arrested during crackdowns in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet the city’s 25,000-student district, Pomona USD, has raised its graduation rate to 88 percent, which is above the state average. Last year, expulsions at the district fell to zero. In recent years, Pomona USD has also increased attendance, the number of minorities taking and passing AP classes and enrollments in four-year colleges.
The turnaround began when Pomona formed partnerships with several community organizations and nearby colleges to provide students with services—such as mentoring and mental health care—that couldn’t be provided effectively by the district alone, Deputy Superintendent Stephanie Baker says.
“All of these partners came together and we said, ‘No one entity can make this happen,’ ” Baker says. “Schools can’t do it alone, churches can’t do it alone, Boys and Girls Clubs can’t do it alone.”
Considering that 70 percent of Pomona’s students are now or were initially designated English language learners, and 81 percent receive free and reduced-price lunch, work had to be done inside and outside the classroom to raise achievement, Baker says.
Several years ago, the district developed a wide-ranging Youth and Family Master Plan, which starts with an early childhood program that offers full-day preschool. With the help of nearby Western University and other organizations, the district provides health, dental and vision care to preschoolers.
District leaders also expanded after-school programs to keep students in enriching—and safer—school environments for longer periods. Classes are taught by fully credentialed teachers and local colleges help develop the curriculum.
For instance, the Claremont Colleges provide computer coding instruction, Cal Poly Pomona offers theater production, and Western University introduces high school and middle school students to health careers. Sixth-graders can begin following a health career pathway that will ensure they take the proper math and science courses in middle and high school so they can get into college.
Turning a district around also requires changing educators’ mindsets on the abilities of at-risk and minority students, Baker says. Pomona has the California Teachers Association union conduct PD sessions on racial bias. The training is more effective because it comes from teachers’ union leaders, rather than from the district, Baker says.
“You have to have those difficult conversations around what we believe about race and culture, and illiteracy and language and bias,” she says. “If you don’t do that, you can make changes but they won’t be sustainable.”