High Schools in Mission See More Students Graduate

Michelle Nguyen holds her transcript proudly. Photo by Andra Cernavskis

Michelle Nguyen holds her transcript proudly. Photo by Andra Cernavskis

It didn’t look like Michelle Nguyen, 17, would make it through high school a few years ago. After a successful middle school career, Nguyen ended up at Lowell, the city’s most competitive public high school. It was here that her life began to unravel when problems at home began to creep up. She rarely made it to class in her freshman year, and the 0.0 GPA suggested a future without college.

Nguyen’s fate changed when she transferred to Mission later that year. She will now be a part of a growing number of students who attend high school in the Mission to walk across the stage in her cap and gown in a few weeks.

Graduation rates are on the rise at Mission High School and John O’Connell.

A few weeks ago, the California Department of Education released enrollment data, which includes both graduation and dropout rates, for the 2012-2013 school year. In just one year, the graduation rate at Mission High went from 73.5 percent to 81.6 percent, making it the high school with the largest increase from the previous year and placing them on par with the overall district number for the first time in many years.

“That’s a big deal,” said Eric Guthertz, principal of Mission High.

Guthertz, who is now in his sixth year as principal, has a lot to be proud of these days. “For graduation rates, that’s your bread and butter,” he said. “This is something we’ve been focusing on at Mission.”

He attributes the success to the school’s staff—both in the classroom and out—and its focus on anti-racist teaching, which includes providing more access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses for all students and focusing on students’ post-secondary careers.

Nguyen will be attending UC Santa Cruz in the fall and wants to study computer science. She has enough scholarship money that she won’t need to take out any student loans and is the first in her family to go to college. None of this would have been possible without the school’s wellness center, which provides students in difficult situations with support. They helped her navigate a difficult home life.

“People want you to succeed here,” she said.

Mission High has been able to offer more night and summer classes through the federal School Improvement Grant funding, which runs out this year. It is because of these classes that Nguyen will graduate on time.

“Michelle is one of many. There are lots of kids like her here,” Guthertz said. “Mission has been a school for a while where students who need extra support and care can come.”

John O’Connell, which is considered an alternative high school compared to Mission, also saw improvements in its graduation rates, which went from 67.6 percent for the 2011-2012-school year cohort to 72.7 percent for the equivalent group in 2012-2013.

“I am not surprised at an increase in graduation rates, rather am pleased to see data which is attached to many hard working teachers and staff doing whatever is necessary to help students into college,” said Mark Alvarado, principal at O’Connell.

John O’Connell also benefitted from School Improvement Grant funding, which they used to help raise overall academic achievement.

Despite the School Improvement Grant funding drying up, both schools are in good shape. Mission High has been preparing for this since last year, according to Guthertz, and John O’Connell started to receive new federal funding from the Mission Promise Neighborhood grant this year.

Now, John O’Connell is looking to focus more on its professional-minded programs, which are geared at helping students see the real-world applications to what they are learning in the classroom.

“Instead of just teaching math like algebra and geometry, and it not being related to real life, we are doing that through construction engineering,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado thinks tilting the school to be more in line with this model will help further improve the way O’Connell serves its own student population and the school’s graduation rates.

“To be perfectly fair, we are in transition,” he said. “It’s a little bit rough, but we’re going to turn into the wind here in about another year, and I’m really encouraged and excited about where we are going.”

Both Guthertz and Alvarado were surprised by some of the schools they passed in the rankings. According to both of them, San Francisco’s high school principals are a tight-knit group who enjoy healthy competition with one another.

“I appreciate and respect my SFUSD colleagues tremendously, which makes passing them on the performance list so sweet,” Alvarado said.

According to the San Francisco Unified School District, there are still some strides to be made in closing the achievement gap with certain portions of their population.

While the overall graduation rate for the district is 81.6 percent, the graduation rate for African Americans is 65.5 percent, and for Latinos, it is 68.4 percent.

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