Mission High School Principal Eric Guthertz discusses the challenges of having a large student body of second language learners. Photo by Marilyn Chase

Mission High School was propelled into the spotlight this week when it was featured in a national magazine article addressing the narrow and incomplete academic picture painted by standardized test scores.

Mission’s principal, Eric Guthertz, took the opportunity to reframe the national debate over how best to measure progress made by schools that, like Mission, embrace youth of all ethnicities, languages and economic strata.

Guthertz sat down with reporters from Mission Local at the school just as students were returning to classes from the summer break. Seated in the cafeteria under vibrant murals, he talked about his vision and the school’s featured role in the investigative magazine Mother Jones this week.

“There’s been a lot of reaction,” Guthertz said. “I’m interested to see how it plays out.”

Mother Jones reporter Kristina Rizga was embedded in the school for 18 months. The result: a lengthy feature article on the struggle of second-language learners — focused on the story of Maria, an undocumented Salvadoran student — who are overcoming language barriers to graduate from high school and go on to college.

Maria’s struggle to overcome her fears and linguistic isolation and rise to a place of self-confident achievement unfolded against a backdrop of sweeping diversity. Mission’s student body is 16 percent African American, 38 percent Latino, 20 percent Chinese and 8.4 percent Caucasian.

Sixty-five percent of the school’s students are economically disadvantaged and 45 percent are second-language learners. Of those, 20 percent have lived in the United States for two or fewer years.

Despite his initial concern about stereotyping of students, Guthertz called the Mother Jones article a “strong piece.” He noted that for Maria and students like her, success requires being “seen, supported, recognized, loved and pushed.”

The story recounted how the metrics of multiple-choice tests — tests which often left Maria frustrated — were used to determine her achievements, rather than her work portfolios, critical thinking skills and coaching by her teachers.

Now the story of Maria and Mission High is getting some attention beyond California and the Bay Area. Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education cited in the Mother Jones article, has posted online about the story, calling it “the wisest in-depth journalism that I have seen on education in recent memory.” San Francisco’s KQED interviewed Guthertz on its “Forum” program after the story ran.

The attention comes a few years after Mission was cited for low scores, but the school has since made gains in academic standing.

Guthertz said that when Rizga first approached him, he was reluctant, as were many other schools the reporter contacted.

“If you wonder why you haven’t read many accounts of how these questions are playing out in real life, there’s a reason: It’s easier for a journalist to embed with the Army or the Marines than to go behind the scenes at a public school,” Rizga wrote in the article. “It took months to find one that would let me play fly on the wall.”

“Waiting for Superman,” a film documenting the failures of the American public school system that garnered a lot of attention when it aired last year, put charter schools on a pedestal, Guthertz said, and made it seem as though the only solution for a low-performing public school is to fire all of the faculty.

That’s exactly what happened at Mission High School 14 years ago, but not only did it hurt morale, it “didn’t work,” Guthertz said.

A veteran of 25 years in education who has served as Mission High’s principal for five years, Guthertz wanted to show another story, which is why he opened his school’s doors to Rizga.

Rizga’s time inside Mission High’s colorful halls shattered her preconceived notions of what an underperforming school looks like. “Some of the assumptions that are out there are assumptions that I had two years before I came to Mission High School,” Rizga said on “Forum.”

The article, and the discourse it has provoked, come at a time of sharp and divisive national debate over how to evaluate inner-city schools struggling to raise their students’ scores on standardized tests. Heated polemics rage over how best to assess underperforming schools, with no clear answer in sight.

The controversial No Child Left Behind, a standards-based educational reform initiative enacted in 2001, is overdue for revision and reauthorization by Congress. National policy makers are debating the best ways to reform public education to provide more flexibility for schools like Mission in meeting federal requirements. In California, these discussions are taking place against the backdrop of debate around Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed tax increase on the ballot this November, which is designed to benefit schools, as well as the recent release of the state’s high school exit exam.

Central to the debate is how to adequately support low-scoring multicultural schools with strong immigrant populations. Guthertz said — and Rizga reported — that San Francisco’s Mission District has historically been a port of entry and place of residence for immigrants from all corners of the world. Many in the neighborhood’s dynamic population enter the U.S. educational system through the gateway of Mission High School.

The expectation that these students will earn “proficient” scores on a standardized test created for native English speakers is simply unrealistic, Guthertz said, adding that the problems that face Maria and other students struggling to gain English proficiency are not factored into standardized testing.

That’s not to say that this principal is opposed to standardized testing to gauge a school’s performance. But policy makers should use a more comprehensive range of data, he said, including giving more weight to academic improvement, enrollment, family and student evaluations and graduation rates.

For the 2010-11 academic year, Guthertz noted, 82 percent of Mission High’s students graduated and about 88 percent of the 193-person graduating class was accepted into a two-year or four-year college.

Incorporating all of those factors into a school’s overall academic performance is “a bit of a dream,” Guthertz said, but it would paint a more accurate picture of how his school is actually performing.

“There’s a lot of areas to improve [at Mission High],” he said, “but I’m a huge cheerleader for this school.”

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  1. Why do Principal Gutherz’ kids attend Lick-Wilmerding private school? Isn’t Mission High or public school good enough?

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    1. OK I’ll take your question on face value and not assume its ‘loaded’…

      1. His wife teaches at Lick.
      2. He’s avowed the public schools are broken and he’s working to fix them but that doesnt mean they are fixed and ready for his kids.
      3. Mission HS is about Eric’s focus on making a better life path for his students. By sending his own kids to Mission he’d be a hypocrite – instead of creating a better life path it could conceivably set them backs (i have no idea; just guessing they might be bright based on Eric and having two parents as educators).
      4. Children are different learners. Lick may be a fit because a kid is hyper-talented in the industrial arts (a Lick strength) for example.
      5. By some measures, Lick is the most economically and culturally diverse private high school west of the mississsippi. It is full of kids who come from lower income and immigrant families who successfully achieved academically and avoided going to Mission HS where their learning may be slowed or impeded.
      6. My father was in the armed services. He didnt force me down that path though it was part of his life belief system. Just because Eric has selfishly dedicated his life to improving education for kids who have challenges, doesnt mean that he’s going to force that on his kids who dont have the same background or challenges.
      7. Public schools in SF are not assigned based on where you reside. Small point but your question would have been more accurate if it simply asked why his kids arent in public schools. Mission doesnt factor into it.

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