Last year, a girl in Melody Gonzalez’s class at Las Palmas Middle School, in the San Gabriel Valley, started sobbing in class one day.
Gonzales asked her what was wrong. The girl said her father had just been deported.
“I felt terrible. There was nothing I could say or do. So I just listened,” said Gonzalez, who’s been teaching seven years. “I just tried to be there for her. I think the listening helped — now she knows she can come to me. … Just building that relationship with kids makes a difference. They’re not just any kids, I see them as my kids, and they know they can trust me.”
Such supportive, personal relationships between teachers and students are one reason why Covina-Valley Unified, where Las Palmas is located, has such a high student success rate, especially for Latino students, teachers and administrators said. Latino students, who make up 75 percent of the district’s 12,000-student enrollment, have a 97 percent graduation rate, among the highest percentages of any ethnic group in any district in the state.
They also outperform Latino students statewide on the Smarter Balanced standardized tests, although a gap persists between Covina-Valley’s Latino students and their white and Asian peers statewide. Fifty percent of Covina-Valley’s Latino students met or exceeded standards on the 2017 English language arts tests, compared to 37 percent of Latino students statewide. In math, 32 percent Latino students in Covina-Valley met or exceeded standards, compared to 25 percent of Latino students statewide.
These figures are heartening to educators trying to narrow the achievement gap between Latino students and their white classmates. A recent report by Education Trust-West found that a majority of Latino students in California failed to meet or exceed the state standards in English language arts and math in nearly every county in California, attend more segregated schools and have less access to high-quality preschools than their white peers.
“This has been a priority for us. We believe every kid deserves the best education possible,” said Richard Sheehan, superintendent of Covina-Valley Unified, which is in eastern Los Angeles County. “The hard part is funding, but we’ve learned to be creative and we have a lot of good things happening.”
The district begins promoting college as soon as children enroll in kindergarten. Each elementary school classroom “adopts” a college to learn about, which is especially important for children whose parents did not attend college, Sheehan said. Students also start taking computer coding classes in elementary school, preparing them for potential career paths.
In the high schools, counselors ensure all students are enrolled in the classes they need to graduate and qualify for admission to the University of California or California State University systems. Schools also pair seniors with freshmen to help them acclimate to high school and “continue the college-going culture,” Sheehan said.
College and career fairs are common, and the district has agreements with three local colleges to waive admission fees for Covina-Valley Unified students and to offer scholarships to qualifying students.
But perhaps the biggest asset is the AVID program, (Advancement Via Individual Determination), an elective class at several middle and high schools that’s sponsored by AVID, a San Diego-based nonprofit. The AVID program seeks to lower the achievement gap by training teachers to offer their students guidance in study, organizing their school work, note-taking and time management skills, which the students learn during elective classes, after school or in summer programs. Students in the AVID program also take college field trips and learn about entrance requirements and financial aid.
Although AVID classes are available to all students, the program is designed to boost academic performances among Latino, African-American, low-income white and Asian students, and those who are the first in their families to attend college.
“We don’t teach curriculum. We teach meta-cognitive skills that students can use to succeed at any level of school, college or in a career,” said Dennis Johnston, AVID’s chief research officer.
AVID classes are offered in 6,200 schools in the U.S., Canada, Australia and other countries, including 1,996 in California. In tracking 22,000 of its students who graduated from high school in 2010, 47 percent of its African-American students graduated with a college bachelor’s degree by 2016, compared to 40 percent nationwide. Sixty percent of its Latino students earned a college degree, compared to 54 percent nationally.
At Las Palmas Middle School, the AVID class is among the most popular offerings on campus. Eighth grader Adrien Gonzales said the note-taking skills he learned helped him boost his grades from B’s to straight A’s.
Inspired by the movie “Rudy,” about a working-class student who overcomes adversity to play football at University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Adrien hopes to someday attend Notre Dame, play football and become a space engineer.
“I’d be the first in my family to go to college. I feel very proud,” he said. “I want to do it for my dad. He’s been there for me my whole life. Everything I do in school is for him.”
But he also praised his teachers, whom he said take a personal interest in his success and help him stay on top of schoolwork, even if it’s for another class.
His classmate Kealohilani Santos, also in 8th grade, said the AVID class and her teachers have made her feel like a school leader. The straight-A student now helps with campus clean-up, fundraisers and student events like dances and assemblies. Someday she wants to be a meteorologist or a graphic designer.
“I like helping out. I try my best to be the best leader I can be,” she said. “It makes me feel more welcome, like I belong here.”
The school doesn’t just help students. Throughout the year it reaches out to parents, as well. Potlucks, home visits, college nights, shadow days at local high schools and high school orientation nights are all offered to students’ families.
“It’s very hard to keep your child on track for college if you haven’t been to college yourself,” Principal Nicole Costigan said. “That’s the biggest challenge. Families don’t know enough about the education system so they can be a little hands-off. We work really hard to get them involved.”
Las Palmas Spanish teacher Nancy Lopez serves as a liaison to families whose primary language is Spanish. Among other things, she persuades parents to let their children join after-school clubs, play sports, get involved in student government and otherwise enjoy all the enrichment activities Las Palmas offers.
The key, she said, is building trust between the school, the families and students. It’s extra work, but worth it, she said.
“I was an English learner when I was in middle school, and I had to figure it out on my own. I did it, but I would have loved to have something like this,” she said. “By doing all these leadership activities, the students feel better about themselves and have a better school experience, which will hopefully stay with them through college. … My hope is that this changes their lives and their families’ lives in a positive way, and it’s not just a one-time thing, it’s a trend.”