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Administrator Profile

Improving Graduation Rates with an Innovative Rewards Program

Sunnyside (Ariz.) Unified School District Superintendent Manuel L. Isquierdo motivates students through technology.

When Manuel L. Isquierdo joined the Sunnyside (Ariz.) Unified School District (SUSD) as superintendent in 2007, school board president Louie Gonzales let him know that there was no time for a honeymoon period. He had to hit the ground running.

Superintendent Manuel L. Isquierdo addressing students of Sunnyside High School at their commencement ceremonies May 24, 2010.

The district’s two high schools collectively had a 64.5 percent graduation rate in 2006, graduating 593 students, with almost 40 percent of freshmen not continuing on to sophomore year. The district—100 miles from the Mexico border, 83 percent low-income families, and a predominantly Hispanic community— had been labeled as a collection of dropout factories in a study from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools. This was a label Isquierdo would not settle for.

Gonzales was confident that Isquierdo’s experience with urban district challenges in Kansas City, Mo., Gallows, Texas, and Stockton, Calif., coupled with his ability to think creatively, made him the right man for the job. “The people here wanted change. They care about this community,” says Isquierdo.

In fall 2007, SUSD administrators went to work on developing a new culture of high expectations. The result was Project Graduation, a multi-tiered approach involving freshmen intervention, credit recovery courses and advisory periods with guidance counselors. Within its first year, SUSD was seeing results. Desert View High School and Sunnyside High School saw their freshmen retention rates increase from 59 percent to 78 percent and 77 percent to 84 percent, respectively.

Laptop Incentive Program

The digital phase kicked off in July 2008. Isquierdo raised $1.2 million to fund the Digital Advantage program from both local and nationwide organizations including Pepsi, Walmart and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Through the program, freshmen receive a free laptop if they meet the four As: academics, attitude, attendance and activity. They must attain a 2.5 grade point average, 95 percent attendance rate, and become involved in school activities.

“You can’t increase the graduation rates if you can’t keep kids in school. This program compels them to take ownership in their schools,” says Gonzales. “They’re receiving technology they used to only read or hear about.”

With over 1,000 presented to freshmen from 2008 to 2010, the Digital Advantage program began with wide success. In 2008-2009, 71 percent of freshmen attended 95 percent of their classes. Graduation rates climbed as well, with 715 students graduating in 2009 and over 800 in 2010. Having already seen dramatic improvements in attendance and graduation rates, Isquierdo is confident the district will meet its goal of achieving a 90 percent graduation rate by 2012.

“We had to entice them, and now we have to lead them and have higher expectations,” says Isquierdo. “Technology is going to do that for us—we are convinced.”

A Historic Event

The 2010 graduation ceremonies for Desert View and Sunnyside High Schools were historic events for the communities, who witnessed both the largest class sizes ever and the largest number of students receiving college scholarships.

With organizations already signing up for four-year monetary commitments, Isquierdo is confident Digital Advantage will continue into the future. “If we hit 1,000 graduated students, we’ll never go back. The odds were against us. We want to dispel the old excuses. Technology has transformed our expectations, and we hope to offer a model for other Latino communities that this is possible.”