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District Dialogue

A superintendent's advanced aspirations

Rural California district leader works to propel students into future beyond high school
Superintendent Yolanda Valdez rallied community support in raising the graduation rate in her Central California district from 76 percent to 92 percent.
Superintendent Yolanda Valdez rallied community support in raising the graduation rate in her Central California district from 76 percent to 92 percent.

Superintendent Yolanda Valdez takes messaging seriously.

Not emoji-filled texts or IMs, but messages that convey a goal for 4,000-plus students at Cutler-Orosi Joint USD in rural California: That they will attend college.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a vocational school or an Ivy League university, she says.

Valdez’s district is in the heart of California’s agricultural region, where top crops include grapes, raisins, pears, plums, citrus fruits, corn, cotton and alfalfa. And it’s the leading area in the world for dairy and milk production. Most of her students are children of migrant workers.

Valdez graduated from high school at Cutler-Orosi, which is about 30 miles southeast of Fresno. Her parents did not encourage higher education because they were new immigrants working in the fields. But her friends did, and that made her think big.

“I was fortunate to hang out with a good peer group who were middle class kids,” Valdez says. “In their homes they were given messages about college. And one of the realizations I had was: Raise your kids with no other option but to go to college.”

But a wave of crime and violence struck the community about eight years ago. After four gang members were killed in 2008, Tulare County passed a law to try to eradicate the hold that gangs had on youths.

Gangs still lurk today, but the schools and surrounding residents have come together to make the community a safer place where students can dream of better lives beyond high school. Managing Editor Angela Pascopella spoke with Valdez about that transformation in her district.

Six years ago, you came to the district, when the graduation rate was 76 percent. It’s now 92 percent. What happened?

It’s been a real community effort. You had a school board that wanted transformation. You had a community that was tired of that type of outcome. You had a teaching force that bought into and believed in their ability to make a difference.

We’ve implemented the federal Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in our schools. We’ve added counselors. We’ve added psychologists.

Our board asked that our district begin reporting data disaggregated by males and females. We found a glaring disparity in male achievement. So we researched exemplary programs addressing high-risk males. We found a local program on which we modeled our Men’s Alliance Program. It begins at our middle school and then moves into the high school. These groups provide high-risk male students with a belonging. They work on self-esteem and self-worth activities and lessons. They do community service throughout the year. And students learn discipline and respect through the coursework. As a result, students are passing their courses and staying in school.

Cutler-Orosi Joint USD

  • Superintendent Yolanda Valdez
  • Students:4,134
  • Demographics: 95% Hispanic, 3% Filipino, 1.5% white, .5% other
  • Graduation rate: 92%
  • Per child expenditure: $12,468
  • Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 97%
  • Annual budget: $56 million

The Latino commission also has an organization called, Nuevo Comienzo, which means new beginning. It hosts meetings at Orosi High School that focus on parenting young ladies and men. It’s a comprehensive six-month program where kids meet once a week and learn how to cope with their challenges. It’s also teaching them self-esteem and how to reach for success.

This sounds like a lot of different non-profits coming together with the school community. Yes?

It’s been a real concerted effort. Have you heard of the Simon Sinek book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. [Sinek uses what he calls “The Golden Circle” to provide a framework upon which organizations can be built and people can be inspired.] And from that, we asked ourselves what is our "why"?

So we described our why—which is to prepare students for college and career and to be community-ready.

And what does that look like?

We came up with six graduate outcomes. It started with our school board and administrators, outlining our vision and mission. Our mission is educating minds and inspiring futures.

All students will be college and career ready and be prepared to compete in a global economy. In part, we want them to be scholars and master core academic content and be prepared for post-secondary career options. We want them to be critical thinkers and collaborative problem-solvers.

We started with sending our kids to compete in all kinds of competitions.

Last summer, our students at Orosi High School Academy of Engineering and Green Technology developed one of the top six apps in the Lenovo Scholar Network National Mobile App Contest.

And four Orosi High School students were the first in the county to compete at the National Speech and Debate competition last June in Salt Lake City.

This is part of the transformation we’ve been creating. Just because we’re a disadvantaged community and we’re a small district, we need students to understand they can compete against others—and we need them to understand what and who they are facing in the real world.

What does "being prepared" look like in a Cutler-Osori classroom?

Our district has nurtured a college-going culture. Thursdays are College Thursdays, and all students learn about different colleges that day of the week.

In first grade, kids learn what different careers look like over a nine-week period. They learn about dentists, for example, and what the working conditions are for a dentist. Teachers could invite local dentists to speak to the kids. And students are writing about what they’re learning, watching videos about it, reading about it.

The end product is a career day. Kids write an informational piece on different professions that they learned about and why they want to be or pursue a particular profession.

And in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, students take an inventory test to learn what their strengths are. Someone might be really good with numbers, and they can explore the different professions around that. They might want to pursue accounting, for example.

In sixth grade, students also write about which jobs appeal to them best, and why they would be good for that job. In seventh grade, they learn about the different types of colleges—community college, vocational schools and universities—and what they do.

And in eighth grade, students take that skills test again to learn what they are strong in. What college might you attend? This is the type of learning that happens throughout the grade levels.

How else do you promote the message to students about achieving more?

Every morning during student announcements, there is always a message about the future. One of the schools closes the announcements with this: “After high school comes college.”

Every school highlights a college, such as Stanford University, and teachers inform students what it offers. Throughout the district, every Thursday, kids wear their college shirts.

A few years ago after Sunday mass, where many of our parents go, I was standing outside and a parent came to me and said, “You guys are brainwashing my children.’ I thought ‘Oh my God.'”

Yikes.

It didn’t sound good initially, right?

She said, “My fourth-grader knows exactly what she’s going to do and what college to attend." It was the best compliment I could have received.

If you tell them over and over, and message them over and over, before you know it they believe it.