The schools in the Sequoia Union High School District with graduating seniors were extraordinary in the 2008-09 school year in their success at preparing average students for college-level work, according to a recent nationwide analysis of high schools by Newsweek magazine.
For the second consecutive year, Summit Preparatory Charter High School and Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high schools were among the 6 percent -- about 1,600 schools -- that made Newsweek's 2010 list of "America's Best High Schools."
Summit Prep was ranked 76th in the nation and is one of the top 10 public high schools listed for California. M-A's rank was 528 and Woodside's was 1,100. The two other comprehensive schools in the district, Sequoia and Carlmont, also made the list.
The rankings represent a combination of factors, Newsweek Contributing Editor Jay Mathews said in explaining the process on the magazine's website. A key rating is the "equity and excellence" category: the percentage of graduating seniors who passed at least one college-level test, such as an advanced-placement (AP) test.
A student's willingness to take a college-level test, even if he or she does not pass, is "the best predictor of college graduation" and "(is) important because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations," Mr. Mathews said.
In Summit Prep's 2009 class of about 100 seniors, 75 percent passed at least one AP test. At M-A and Woodside, with about 350 seniors each, the numbers were 52 percent and 29 percent, respectively.
Asked to comment, Summit Prep Executive Director Todd Dickson noted that "it is only one data point (and) does not necessarily guarantee a great school," but the equity-and-excellence number "gives a very good indication of the percent of students at a high school that are 'prepared' for college."
Woodside High Principal David Reilly told The Almanac that the survey is narrowly focused, that it hardly paints a full picture of a school's qualities, and that charters and traditional schools are "apples and oranges." But, he added, it is "outstanding (that) all of the high schools in the district, charter or traditional, are in the top 1,600. That's fantastic."
Outgoing Superintendent Patrick Gemma, asked about the importance of AP classes, said, "I think that if kids want to take an AP class, they should be able to take an AP class." And are all kids informed on how an AP test foreshadows college work? "It's easy to know what somebody knows," he said. "It's difficult to know what they don't know."
Other factors included in the ranking: the number of students qualified for federally subsidized lunches (Woodside led the district in this category), and the "challenge index," the number of college-level tests administered school-wide compared to the number of graduating seniors.
Elite schools, those with higher-than-average SAT or ACT college-admission-test scores, are excluded from the list, The formula "does not work with schools that have no, or almost no, average students," Mr. Mathews of Newsweek said.
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Summit has a reputation of getting virtually every senior accepted to a four-year college. At Woodside, that figure may be 50 percent, Principal Reilly said in an interview, with 46 percent headed to community colleges.
If Newsweek is right about AP tests foreshadowing college work, and just 29 percent of Woodside's 2008-09 senior class passed at least one AP test, are students being shortchanged? Do they grasp the importance of these tests if they aren't required to take them as they are at Summit?
Student situations tend to determine the approach, Mr. Reilly said. Those with two educated, savvy parents at home probably don't need help. The parents know "exactly what they want for their kids," Mr. Reilly said. "It's like it's in their DNA."
Help is needed for promising students with parents who are not savvy at all. These students can get individual attention by joining academic assistance programs such as AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and MESA (Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement).
These two categories -- AVID/MESA students and students with home advantages -- are 35 percent of a typical Woodside freshman class, Mr. Reilly said.
With exceptions for very limited special-education students, "every freshman who comes in we're preparing for college" through programs throughout the school year, Mr. Reilly said. "You get as many resources and (as much) assistance as you ask for." For foster kids or students with both parents in jail, it's tougher. They may have a different path, he said.
Of Woodside High's roughly 1,800 families, he said that maybe 100, 5 percent, are active in groups such as the school foundation, the parent-teacher association and booster clubs.
At Summit, "virtually 100 percent of parents are in touch with us at some level of engagement in every year," said Diane Tavenner, chief executive of Summit Prep's corporate parent. The district has structural problems in not encouraging parental participation, she added. "Please find me parents who don't care about their children. There are very few of them."
But getting into Summit is determined by lottery -- there are more applicants than seats -- which presupposes parental engagement and research on alternative schools, Mr. Reilly pointed out.
"That's another red herring," Ms. Tavenner said. Students have applied on their own and Summit has long requested that the Sequoia district include packets on charter schools in information-night handouts at middle-schools.
"We'd be happy to have ours included and given to every family in the district," Ms. Tavenner said. "They have declined to do that."
Some parents, Mr. Reilly said, want their sons in community college initially to give them time to mature and develop a solid foundation before attending a four-year school.
Some parents shun ideas about college. Mr. Reilly recalled a "very timid" sophomore who showed great promise, but whose father planned for her to help raise his children and get married, not go to college.
Mr. Reilly said he convinced the father to relent, and the girl passed AP English and took three more AP classes. Years later, he met her by accident at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's so appropriate for me to be bumping into you," she said in Mr. Reilly's recollection, "because I would never, ever, ever have been here if it hadn't been for you."
And there is community college, which is no reason for despair, Mr. Reilly said, recalling a "brilliant, brilliant" 26-year-old he met recently who started at Foothill Community College, graduated from UC Berkeley, and went to Stanford University for a master's degree.
"What wrong with community college if it's a pathway to something greater?" Mr. Reilly asked. "If you don't go to a four-year college, there's this image that you're going to be living in a van down by the river."
And this fixation on four-year colleges, Mr. Reilly asked, what does it do to self-esteem? Is all the anxiety worth it? To worried families, he said he gives his "'many paths to the same destination' speech."
Summit prepares kids for four-year college so they have that as a choice, Ms. Tavenner has said.
The Almanac requested comment on the example of the brilliant 26-year-old. "If you look at statistics and data, that's an absolute aberration. You can't use that as an indicator that your whole system works for everyone all the time," she said. "He's using anecdotes to mask the larger problem."
Asked to respond, Mr. Reilly said: "Maybe Foothill to Cal to Stanford is unique, but is Foothill to San Francisco State to San Jose State to achieve a master's degree an aberration? I don't think so."
Charters and traditional schools "use different models," he said. "We don't have to be contentious."
Tests as yardsticks
AP tests are limited indicators, Mr. Reilly said. A student may pass a test, but what does it prove? He knows of kids, he said, who pass the AP physics exam but "couldn't write their way out of a paper bag."
Is competitive heat from charter schools too hot? "I'm not anti-competitive," he said. "I'm just a little befuddled as to what is a true measure of a successful high school. You can't just look at AP scores. The message that I'd like to convey to folks is try not to pass judgment on a school with one single indicator."
Ms. Tavenner said that Mr. Reilly is captive to a system not organized to get all students ready for college. An anecdote such as the young woman with the reluctant father, while heartwarming, depends on individuals like Mr. Reilly for it to unfold as it did.
Summit Prep, and sister school Everest Public High School, are consciously designed not to rely on individuals for successful outcomes, she said.
As for AP tests, all Summit and Everest students are prepared for them from the beginning and are not shocked by their rigor. "They have this very strong foundation that just continues to grow," she said, "By the time of the test, they're very familiar. It's not overwhelming or scary. It's what they do."
Woodside's lower Newsweek ranking, Mr. Reilly said, also reflects the school's requirement that all students who take an AP class also take the relevant test. "We do that, knowing that we're going to take a hit in the success rate," he said.
At Summit, staff steer students to tests they are likely to pass, though all take AP English as juniors, Executive Director Todd Dickson said. A mandate to test in all AP classes would be onerous because seniors take four or five of them.