April 14, 2006

Smaller schools, bigger success

San Diego High Educational Complex featured on Oprah Winfrey Show

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

Five years ago, Carolina Gonzalez moved from Tijuana to San Diego speaking very little English.

Now, in her senior year in high school, she was on the Oprah Winfrey Show, telling America about her educational experience in the United States.

González was one of a group of about 10 students from the San Diego High Educational Complex who were selected to be interviewed by Oprah, when she along with Bill and Melinda Gates visited campus on February 15.

Oprah was in San Diego to learn more about the small schools at the San Diego High for her “Special Report: Schools in Crisis,” which aired on Wednesday, April 12.

A confident Carolina Gonzalez being interviewed shortly before the Oprah Winfrey Show was aired on campus.

Gonzalez was thrilled to see herself on national television and on the Oprah Winfrey Show

“It was really exciting,” said Gonzalez, who’s a senior at Communication Investigations in a Multicultural Armosphere (CIMA), one of the six small schools that are part of the San Diego High Educational Complex.

The students who appeared on the show were recommended by their principals. Gonzalez said that when the interview took place, she didn’t know she was going to be interviewed by Oprah.

“When I found out it was her, I was afraid, I was nervous. But then I noticed she was just a normal person, talking like a teacher would to a group of students,” said 18-year-old Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is a good example of the benefits of transforming large high schools into smaller ones, where students receive more attention from teachers.

To address the dropout and college readiness crisis, San Diego City Schools recently transformed three large comprehensive high schools (San Diego, Kearny, and Crawford) into 14 small, career-themed campuses with approximately 500 students each.

San Diego City Schools received an $11.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to implement the redesign program in 2003.

Before the change, Gonzalez said she had never talked to her principal before and she was just another student in a school with a 3,000 student population.

Today, she sees the change, since it took place in her junior year.

“Now the principal addresses me by my name!” she said. “Now teachers take the time to meet students individually.”

Attending CIMA, a small school with 470 students, helped her make up her mind about college.

“Before, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” she said. “Now I’ve been accepted and plan to attend Cal State San Marcos, where I will major in Business.”

CIMA is a school where students who are learning English receive special attention. Classes are taught by bilingual teachers who can explain in Spanish material that students can’t understand in English.

CIMA’s principal, Cesar Alcantar, said that about 95 percent of the 470 CIMA students are Latinos and about 70 percent are recent immigrants, with less than three years in the U.S.

He said that the small school concept is working, and CIMA is a good example of that.

In 2004, the first year of CIMA, five graduating seniors enrolled in a four-year university, he said. This year, the second since CIMA was founded, 13 students have been accepted by a four-year university, including Gonzalez.

“In the new school, all the students know all the teachers and all the teachers know all the students,” Alcantar said.

González agreed.

“Teachers gave me a lot of attention. I improved my English so much, that today I feel I can succeed in college,” she said.

The principal added that he now has more contact with parents and every month he has a “Pan dulce y café con el director” event where he meets and talks to CIMA’s parents, most of which are Latinos.

After seeing one of his students on Oprah, Alcantar said that it was proof that the work being done at CIMA is working.

“It’s a recognition that we’re on the right path,” he said.

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