“I walked into a buzz saw,” says Marcus Johnson of his 2003 appointment as superintendent of the Sanger (Calif.) Unified School District. Located in the state’s rural Central Valley, the 11,000-student district was challenged with high poverty, low parent-education levels, and half of students coming from families where English was a second language. The district saw six superintendents in eight years and had a rocky relationship with teachers.
Johnson started at Sanger in 1999 after 23 years as a math and science teacher, and later, principal and superintendent of the American Union Elementary School District in Fresno, Calif. First appointed one of three assistant superintendents before being promoted to superintendent, Johnson, the 2011 AASA National Superintendent of the Year, saw a major challenge of his role would be to work on mending the longstanding rift between teachers and administrators. In the fall of 2004, the district was placed in “Program Improvement” under No Child Left Behind for failing to make adequate yearly progress. Says Johnson, “We had to ask the question: How have adults in the district failed the kids we serve?”
In the spring of 2005, Johnson heard the DuFours speak at a conference in Southern California and realized the PLC at Work model offered the structure his district needed. When school opened the following fall, Johnson told staff they would be implementing the model. “I didn’t want to spend the year studying it or thinking about it,” he says.
Johnson spent time building relationships with parents, teachers and union leaders, and also forged partnerships with several California-based nonprofits that funded robust professional development training for district administrators and lead teachers. “We really lacked data,” says Johnson, “so we spent a lot of time building systems and structures that allow us to monitor learning.” One approach the district implemented was John Hollingsworth and Silvia Ybarra’s data-based Explicit Direct Instruction, which details a system of sequential instructional steps, including determining objectives, activating prior knowledge, developing concepts, and implementing both guided and independent practice. “The main thing we’ve come to understand is the importance of a total dedication to continuous learning,” says Johnson.
In meeting the needs of individual students, Johnson also made sure to support families. Every school has a rigorous low-cost, after-school program that runs five days a week until 6 p.m. Programs take the place of day care for working parents, and each has a lead teacher who monitors student progress and coordinates with the PLCs that kids belong to. A resource center was established for families without transportation to receive medical, dental and counseling services. “If a family’s in distress, we have a hard time educating the child,” says Johnson.
In the last few years, SUSD has made impressive gains. API scores leapt from 599 in 2002 to 805 today, making SUSD one of three districts in the county to exceed 800. The district has also garnered 17 State Distinguished School awards in the last five years, and three schools have been National Blue Ribbon Schools. It also ranks in the top five districts in overall student achievement gains in the last five years out of 185 districts in surrounding counties.