(WORDINBLACK.COM) – Sacramento Charter High School students, 57 percent of them Black, are prepared for college from day one. It’s a message drilled into them by teachers, counselors, coaches and administrators, along with daily data assessments, quizzes and worksheets, so it’s hard to come off the rails.

Despite the challenges presented by COVID, 98 percent of seniors graduated in spring 2020, two more finished over the summer and 92 percent were accepted at four-year colleges and universities, said Lisa Yarbrough, assistant to Dean of Culture and Instruction Christina Williams-James. Nearly 75 percent received Cal Grant scholarships.

Many chose to attend historically Black colleges, and many others go to the full range of UC campuses and California State Universities.

Sac High has become “the highest performing high school for Black students in California” among schools with predominantly Black students, according to a new report, “Serving Black Students With Excellence,” by the 840-member California Charter Schools Association. The school also ranked among the top five schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District for Black student performance in 2019, the CCSA said.

Serving Black Students with Excellence: Sacramento Charter High School

Founded in 1856 in Sacramento’s historically Black Oak Park neighborhood, Sac High morphed into a charter school in 2003. More than three-quarters of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and “many lack the support and resources at home they need and deserve,” said CCSA researchers Ana Tintocalis and Ellie Lawler, but all are referred to as “scholars” who submit a daily “digital exit ticket,” or self-assessment that allows teachers, who hold daily office hours, to immediately identify areas of improvement and each student’s specific needs.

“Black students are labelled as one of the lowest performing subgroups, but there are Black students who are excelling statewide, and Sac High’s college-going rates for Black students are 20 percent higher than the statewide average,” said Lawler, CCSA’s Associate Director of Research. “The school expects excellence, and if students keep getting that message they fulfill that prophecy. A lot of schools aren’t using student data as effectively as Sac High,” Lawler added.

A blend of extra-curricular activities, including jobs and internships, combined with an emphasis on social, emotional and critical thinking skills to create tomorrow’s leaders all come into play Lawler said. “There’s not one magic bullet. But the message is clear: ‘there’s no wasting time here, we’re here to get the job done’.”

Sac High’s philosophy — starting at St. Hope’s elementary and middle schools — revolves around the “Five Pillars of Instruction,” said Dean of Culture and Instruction Christina Williams-James:

• High expectations;
• Choice and commitment to the program;
• More time in school;
• Focus on results; and
• The power to lead

“We share a common belief every scholar can be successful – our school day starts at 7:30 to roughly 3:35 each day. The more time they’re in school the more likely they are to execute these concepts,” Williams-James said. “It’s seen in the curriculum we create, they’re all made by our teachers and aligned to state standards.”

Aside from daily data assessments, “we have weekly after-school meetings where scholars and teachers really sit down and talk about their grades, the choices you’re going to make tomorrow to maintain or bring up your grades,” she said. “We do not leave any student out, it’s a guarantee that every scholar is going to be accountable for their choices and what’s working and what’s not.”

The weekly advisory class includes 15 minutes focusing on grades, a 10-minute mini-lesson and then a check-in with every scholar in groups of 19 students. “Students identify missing assignments on their own,” Williams-James said.

The college counselor works with every student from 9th through 12th grade to create their own “action plan,” and each student visits a college every year, either live or virtually. “We are 100 percent focused on each student submitting their applications on time.”

To ensure they never lose focus, every single student takes a 3-5 question quiz daily on what they learned that day. “We turn in grades for every class every day, it’s hard work, but immediate feedback helps teachers prepare lesson plans,” she said.

The “Power To Lead” pillar gets students out into the community to ensure they leave with a desire to serve their community and go to a four-year university. “We have a great partnership with our local community in Oak Park and some of our scholars are employed at some of these businesses,” Williams-James said. “It doesn’t hurt to get paid. I see my student Mariah working at Fixins Soul Kitchen.”

While “COVID has thrown out so many curveballs,” Sac High has made key adjustments since March 2020 when all schools were forced to shut down under a stay-at-home order two day before Spring quarter.

Teachers filmed their lessons, crafted new assignments geared to remote learning, but “we quickly realized that was not working; turn-in rate and participation was low, they were not opening their work,” Williams-James said. “Our students and parents needed more structure. We also noticed there was a huge decrease in social and emotional well-being, students weren’t talking with their peers during distance learning.”

So Sac High, like other schools, went to a hybrid model “the moment we were able to open school based on Sac County Health Dept. guidelines,” Ms. Williams-James said. “We gave parents the choice, and having students on campus remedied some of the emotional challenges. We have an ice-breaker at the beginning of class, and we’ve seen an increase in families participating.”

She really enjoys the 9th grade dance class, where the family joins in with the scholar to complete a dance routine and turn it in.

“When a scholar is in distress, emotionally and socially exhausted, we partner with various counseling organizations,” she said. And if teachers are struggling, the school works closely with them to hear their concerns, provide them with 23 professional development days a year and give them the support they need, Ms. Williams-James said.

For more on “Serving Black Students With Excellence,” go to https://f.hubspotusercontent30.net/hubfs/3049635/Black+Student+Excellence+report_CCSA_2021.pdf .

By Stephen Magagnini, OBSERVER Correspondent

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.