The K-12 College Readiness Pipeline in San Jose: Three Principals' Perspectives


Matthew Hewitson is principal of Lincoln High School in the San Jose Unified School District. Mary Martinez is principal of Hoover Middle School in the San Jose Unified School District. Emalie McGinnis is principal of Lowell Elementary School in the San Jose Unified School District.

In San Jose, the principals of an elementary, middle, and high school in the same feeder cluster share data and align their indicators and supports to create K–12 college readiness pipeline.

District central offices provide centralized data and other support systems for schools, but it’s in the schools where these systems are used on the ground to create a college-going culture, track student progress, and put college readiness supports and interventions in place. VUE guest editor Jacob Mishook spoke with the principals of three schools in the San Jose Unified School District that are part of the same feeder cluster. Matthew Hewitson is a second-year principal at Lincoln High School, a visual and performing arts magnet with a student enrollment of around 1,800 – 67 percent Hispanic and 55 percent eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Mary Martinez is a fifth-year principal, most recently at Hoover Middle School, with 1,100 students and a predominantly Hispanic student population. Emalie McGinnis is in her second year as principal of Lowell Elementary School, a small campus with just over 400 students in K–5, with a similar population to Hoover. They spoke about the successes and challenges of making sure their students are on track for college, starting in elementary school and continuing throughout middle school and high school.


Tell us a little about the district.

Emalie McGinnis: Our district is extremely diverse – it’s very long and narrow and covers all ranges of economy, of geography, of life experience. I think that’s one of the beauties of our district, but it’s also probably its biggest challenge – how to serve students with that disparity in their experience of education.

Mary Martinez: I was born and raised in Ohio, and I married a Mexican citizen and moved to Mexico, and that’s why I became bilingual. We went back to California, and I was teaching in several different positions, but my last one was in a district that is predominantly white. I wanted to go into bilingual education and bilingualism to support struggling students in California. That’s why I targeted SJUSD – for the diversity and the multitude of opportunities for educators to dive in and support struggling students, specifically Latino populations.


What kinds of data do you look at to know if your students are successful, and which are especially powerful?

Mary Martinez: We look at attendance, behavior, academics, referrals, assessments, and different interventions that students are in, and the results from that, like GPA – all the things that can affect a student’s performance. We combine a lot of the indicators into grade-level meetings with the teachers. We have a data manager who collects all the data and puts it up on a screen for teachers to look at. We also have one-to-one conferences, the administrator for the classroom and the teacher, four times per year. We look at the latest interim assessment, the number of Ds and Fs they’re assigning to students, and the number of referrals outside class. We have conversations around where we need more support and ways to support the teachers and also find out what they’re doing that’s working really well so we can share that with the rest of the staff.

We have a data system called Infinite Campus for information such as attendance and tardiness. Another system called SWIS – Student Schoolwide Information System – tracks behavioral information. We can get a lot of information on students referred out of classes. We have a climate survey as well, given to students, staff, and parents, that gives us an idea about how students feel about the school environment: The teachers talk to me about college, if I have questions about my homework, I know who to ask – that type of question – and about respect and safety on campus, and then some of the same questions for the teachers.

Emalie McGinnis: What’s been very powerful for us this year is the introduction of Children’s Progress, which is an adaptive computer assessment for kindergarten and first grade students who are not at benchmark around phonemic awareness and reading, and operations and numeracy. Our feeling is that if we shift our intervention down to K, 1, 2, and 3, by the time the high-stakes measures come in, we’ve already supported the students.

The climate survey Mary mentioned is a districtwide survey. There is also a districtwide college readiness survey used by the three sites in the San Jose CRIS network that was adapted by Hoover and Lowell from Lincoln High School’s original version. Both sites ratcheted it down to appropriate levels of understanding for middle and elementary school students and held some of the questions constant across all those levels. We also have a survey that links to the forty-one developmental assets from Project Cornerstone – that’s particularly helpful at addressing questions around climate and issues from the student perspective. Then we have the Student Success Team process – coming together as a team to talk about students and look at all different types of data and take a look at students from a 360-degree view. What I’m really excited about for next year is looking more at our writing performance assessments by grade level and being able to work one on one with teachers who don’t feel comfortable teaching writing, or want to teach students who write to publish.

We’ve always been blessed with a lot of data. I think there’s the opportunity with the [district’s new] key performance measures [linked to college and career readiness] to get some standardization of what the data is so there’s not just one person pulling the data at a site – it gets automated and centralized.

Matthew Hewitson: Our district as a whole is fairly data savvy. We’ve had the benefit of having a technological infrastructure that makes a lot of data plans accessible to administrators and the teachers. We look at the state achievement data on an ongoing basis – that comes to us every summer – and one of the first things we do when the faculty gets back in August is pick that apart and drill down to a deep level.

Over the years as a district we have also been developing a number of our own internal assessments. At first, teachers around the district created them. In some subject areas such as math, the teachers created great benchmark exams, but not in others. Then we outsourced that to education consulting firms, but that didn’t work well. Now we’re back to doing some of our site-based benchmarks, in math particularly. In English we have writing proficiency assessments several times throughout the year. The grading is done by the whole English Department, and they also calibrate with other professionals so we can get valid assessments on our students’ writing abilities.

We look at PSAT data. We use the EAP exam – an early assessment program from our California State University system in English and math for juniors – as a college readiness assessment tool. We look at our AP scores and our students’ success in AP classes (see sidebar), SAT scores, and of course, ongoing course grades.

So there’s a lot of different data points – one of the strengths in our district is the ability to bring all those together. We have a query program, Ease-E, where we can pull from all these banks of information – e-data, kids’ grades, their behavioral interventions, matched with demographic information. That kind of efficient data mining makes our processes a lot easier.

How do school staff work in teams to analyze the data?

Emalie McGinnis: Student Success Teams (SSTs) are a team of teachers, including the classroom teacher, who come together to talk about a student who isn’t doing as well as would be hoped. The first step would be the teacher would sit down with the parent and go through their concerns and come up with an action plan together, and in six weeks we would revisit it. What makes it different for us is that the team is representative: me, my English learner instructional coach, my intervention specialist, someone from our special education team and our dropout prevention team. The data that we look at comes from all those different points. The parents are often the earliest data provider – there’s a lot of background and contextual information they can give on their students. We rely on that system when something is not working for a student, and then we have other mechanisms for looking at the data on a larger scale. But we really believe in our Success Team process. We had an SST for about half of our students this year. Our goal is to know our students by name and need.

Matthew Hewitson: Our faculty and administrators are organized in professional learning communities of from two or three teachers to eight or nine that meet two to three times a month or more, for the most part organized around course-alike groups – for instance, all the tenth grade world history teachers. We look at the data from a broad perspective, comparing the school to other schools around the county and state, and then we drill down by department, course, and individual teacher. Every August these course-alike groups review goals that were set the previous year, report on whether they accomplished their goals, and set new goals for the upcoming year. Those goals go through our curriculum council and eventually through my administrative team. Over the course of six or eight weeks after the goals are refined, they form the basis for our annual school plan. Everything else we do – our budget, spending, and curriculum decisions – has to align with that school plan.

What kind of training is needed for principals to get the most out of the data systems? How easy are they for someone who is not technically savvy?

Emalie McGinnis: For me the thing I always come back to is not that there’s information that we don’t have, but how challenging it can be to put it all together. That probably impedes our progress more than anything else. Because unless you yourself are very diligent and put it all together into a package – how many people are really going to do that? How many principals are trained to have that level of database sophistication?

Investing in turnaround facilitation training is important – not so much focusing on one tool or template for these conversations, because whether I facilitate or use a table or sit in a circle or sit down with a teacher, we want to know what questions we want to answer. For facilitation training to be scaleable, it can’t be the principal leading all of it – it can’t be at a school of a hundred teachers. So how do we build capacity? As a principal, I’m looking at accountability in a positive way, but I’m not trying to run the whole show, because it’s not tenable. You’ll burn out or you’ll just become overwhelmed.

Mary Martinez: I agree with Emalie. We have a data manager on our CRIS team – we go through all that information biweekly. That’s valuable to me in my one-to-one conferences with teachers, and out of that comes the information on how to move forward. But we need really strong leaders in the school that have the respect of the other staff, because we can’t do everything.


You have the data, but how do you connect it to interventions, and how do you know when interventions are effective?

Emalie McGinnis: One thing we haven’t talked about is the measure of reading level – a literacy-based intervention – and then there’s an online math program. The whole thing about the in-school intervention and out-of-school intervention is important – in looking at our data this year, I can’t really say that putting all that money into an out-of-school intervention had as much of an impact as interventions in the school day. We did the morning math intervention, and we did see a positive change in where students ended up, but it pretty much mirrored the positive change we saw for a literacy intervention during the school day. You would think you wouldn’t see a similar level of growth, given that math was supposed to be something where you can fast track student achievement, so it gives one pause.

Mary Martinez: I wouldn’t agree with that. We have an afterschool program that was so successful that we added two. A lot of it was students not understanding, not able to practice at home – they would come in after school and get a math class with one teacher, getting some input on how to do the problems and support. That improved not only their performance, but their confidence in themselves, which carried over to the classroom.

Matthew Hewitson: We’ve tried a couple of pull-out interventions with mixed results. We’ve experimented with slotting intervention classes into our twice-a-week advisory periods to provide targeted re-teaching for groups of students who did not do well on a particular standard on an assessment. Initially we saw a big spike in grades, but we found that for students who weren’t able to graduate from the intervention, over time their grades would sink back to where they were, and the student may have lost engagement and was not showing up.

Where we’ve seen the most success is where the teachers are doing constant, nonstop assessments within their own classrooms. They are the teachers that can adjust on the fly and realize halfway through a lesson, a third of my kids aren’t getting it. We’ve got pockets of teachers who can do that, but we’re not where we need to be yet as a faculty.

Are there any additional supports or information from the district central office around college readiness that would be helpful?

Mary Martinez: What I see as a need for my school is a lot more services – like counseling services – for families who are struggling.

Matthew Hewitson: We’ve gotten very good at working with our annual achievement data and goal setting around it. But we don’t have an effective process for gathering short-term data in real time and being able to turn around and do something with it within just a matter of a week or two.

Attendance and the social/emotional and mental health needs of our students are a huge gray area. Attendance is one area this CRIS grant is focusing on. We have significant numbers of kids that are missing significant numbers of days of school. We can tell how many kids are missing and for how many days, and we can look at other things like their grades, but we don’t have a lot of information about the root causes, whether it’s a transportation issue or a mental health issue, for example.

The CRIS grant has brought that to the forefront. At the same time, Dr. Matthews came in as superintendent, and he identified that early on as a priority. It’s a new key piece of the strategic plan. Within the last couple of years, we’ve seen our district working with community partners to provide our students and families with the services they need so that when they do come to school, they can focus on being students. While that might not sound like it’s directly a college readiness thing, it has a monumental impact on how well the students do in all these other efforts we’re putting together.


Has the language of college readiness reached down to the middle and elementary levels? Do you talk to your counterparts within the cluster about college readiness?

Mary Martinez: One of questions that’s covered in the [college readiness] survey is: I know what I need to do to prepare myself for college. We can see where for the elementary, middle, and high school student, there are different levels of their understanding of that question. It’s really important for us to know where they are with that: I believe I can get to college, I know what I need to do to go to college, I know how much it costs to go to college, those types of questions. There’s some student awareness, but it’s not nearly where we want it to be. It’s important that we start early, with developmentally appropriate measures, to get kids believing that they can go to college, to prepare themselves for college, to give them some sense that this is the expectation they have for themselves.

Emalie McGinnis: We were able to talk to Matt, and he was sharing with us that cost [of college] is probably the biggest roadblock – not understanding the costs, not knowing how to apply for the FAFSA. We were able to bring in a speaker from our department of parent education to talk to our parents about preparing for college, which perhaps on the face of it seems a little strange or a little ahead, but we recognize that we have students who after our school will be at Lincoln.

Matthew Hewitson: There are opportunities for collaboration when the principals of the school district meet twice a month in leadership network meetings. I work most closely with my immediate feeder schools – Hoover and a couple of the other middle schools. We’ve worked much more closely together over the last year than we ever have before and we’ve started to put together some authentic K–12 college readiness strands. It’s still in the developing stages, but elementary is part of this program. We’re collaborating on a K–12 writing strand so that from kindergarten on up through high school the kids are hearing the same kind of terminology and being assessed in the same way. We backward-mapped the EAP writing assessment [the California college system’s placement exam] down to kindergarten.

In a lot of the support systems we have now, like AP labs (see sidebar on page 19), we’ve got, say, an AP U.S. history teacher teaching an eleventh-grader basic five-paragraph essays skills. That’s very expensive for us to pay that teacher – it’s not a sustainable model. So we love the fact that we’re moving to what we call a pre-AP program, kicking up the rigor and the key skill areas going all the way back to kindergarten. But without opportunities like the CRIS grant, those collaboration opportunities are not always there. Being a public high school administrator, there are a lot of days you’re just trying to get through the day without the building burning down and the kids running off, and everyone else has their own goals to get through the day and their own environment on school campuses. Our district to some extent forces us to carve out the time to collaborate, and I’m glad they do, because it might not happen otherwise.


Do you connect with external organizations around college readiness or interventions?

Emalie McGinnis: One partner for us this year is Sacred Heart, a community organization that does community action and mobilization, who worked with our parents this year on traffic safety and concerns. At the same time we were trying to bring in our parents and say, we want to tell you how to help your child at home. Attendance rates for the workshops were low – we weren’t really getting down to the heart of the matter. And then we had this a-ha moment: We might be really good educators, but we’re not community organizers. And we have this group that comes in and is building capacity with our parents. They’re going to work with us next year around the issue of literacy, and hopefully we’ll go from seeing 30 percent of our target parents showing up to these meetings to 60 percent.

Mary Martinez: We have two programs that are geared toward students: Afterschool All-Stars, who come from three to six and help kids with homework and activities, and Breakthrough, which students have to apply to and is all about getting kids ready for college. They go to Breakthrough classes after school for eight weeks and eight hours a day all summer long.

Matthew Hewitson: Right now we have two key partnerships, unfortunately both short term. Gear Up out of San Jose State University provides two full-time counselors and one part-time counselor, for the most part graduate students working on their master’s or PPS [Pupil Personnel Services] credentials. They work with one particular class – they started with these kids when they were in the sixth grade at Hoover, and now at Lincoln they are rising juniors. They meet constantly with these kids, evaluating their progress, identifying where they’re falling down, and working with them for tutoring, or directing them to resources, or just somebody to talk to.

The UC Berkeley Fisher Fellows program provides a couple of counselors, graduate students working on advanced degrees, mostly in child development, who provide a lot of the same kind of services, except not limited to one particular class. The program is particularly geared toward getting more kids into the University of California system.

Between those two groups that’s four more bodies, essentially college counselors, on our campus. And that’s huge. We ourselves employ two full-time college counselors: one focuses more on college applications and readiness, and the other focuses more on at-risk students and graduation and is responsible for our AP equity initiative (see sidebar above). Most of the high schools have one college counselor staffed by the district. One of my predecessors took a teaching position and turned it into a counseling position in the college and career center. Our teachers are supportive – they accept more students into their classes so that we can do that.

We’re already making preparations for life without these two programs by developing a college readiness curriculum embedded in our social studies department, starting in the ninth grade where there’s no state standard for social studies. Our ninth-grade geography teachers are going to hold college counseling workshops and trainings all through the fall. They might not be able to do one-to-one follow-up like the counselors do, but at least they can deliver a lot of the college knowledge and financial information that our students need.

Do you share data with community members and parents and families, and work with them about how their students are doing or what they can do at home?

Matthew Hewitson: We do some limited work in that area. It’s definitely an area of growth for us. We just went through our Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation process, which starts with a six-month self-study in which the parents and community members play a big role.

We’ve got a number of very active parent groups. We work a lot to develop interaction between our teachers and the parents of our English language learners. Five or six years ago those monthly meetings probably had three or four parents. Now we’ve got thirty or forty parents, and there’s a lot of information presented around their student advocacy and how they can keep in close contact with teachers. We also work with other parent groups to make sure our communities are aware of the resources so they can be involved on a regular basis. Our grades are all online now so a parent can log in and check grades and attendance twenty-four hours a day.

We do several community meetings throughout the year where we will look at some of the broad achievement data at the school and welcome the parents to share in our goal setting. The school’s site council, which looks closely at the data, has about six parents, who represent other parent groups. Earlier I mentioned the professional learning communities setting goals that become part of the school plan; one of the very first things that the site council does at the beginning of the year is approve that school plan. There is a regular discussion of what they are looking at – more of the general student data, say, world history classes in general, as opposed to specific teachers. The council reviews the plan and makes sure that the goals will address the instructional needs of the school.

That said, I can’t claim that we have any great success with widespread authentic parent involvement with instructional issues. It is one of our priority goals within our six-year action plan. It’s a huge struggle for us. We don’t have a lot of problem getting them involved in events. We have lots of volunteers. They’re always working with our arts program, at our footballgames, doing fundraisers and stuff like that. But finding ways to keep a broad base of parents consistently involved with the instructional direction of the school, that’s tough. We don’t have any great answers for that.


Has shifting to a greater focus on college readiness changed how you view your job as a principal?

Matthew Hewitson: It really has. Only a little less than half our students graduate with A–G [University of California] eligibility. Two-thirds of those students are doing significant remediation prior to their first day at college, and there are a number of kids that are never even getting out of the remedial classes and get dropped by the university. It doesn’t matter what the state achievement data show if only one-sixth of our kids are ready to hit the ground running in college. That’s a really troubling statistic. For a long time, everything in education in our district and the state has been very content driven – max out these test scores that get published in the newspaper every summer. It’s gotten us away from the goal of getting kids ready for life after high school.

How has an emphasis on college readiness and alignment with standards changed your curriculum?

Matthew Hewitson: The two key alignments that we were looking at in our K–12 writing strand were with the common core standards and the EAP exam. We do a writing assessment in the eleventh grade. The goal is to have students achieve satisfactory scores on that, and for students who fail that exam or score marginally, we are changing our standard senior level English class to a writing-based curriculum, getting kids ready for their first year of college.

Curriculumwise, the shift to common core standards is a huge blessing. It’s a total paradigm shift. We have been content driven for fifteen years, cramming in every last bit of information so students can memorize it and regurgitate it on these tests. The shift is to making sure that students have the skills that are necessary to go with all that content – writing, analysis, critical thinking. Our district curriculum department is well positioned to lead that shift. We’ve already been working on our key instructional initiative and asking our teachers to make pretty big structural changes to the way they conduct their lessons.

A lot of the curriculum resources in place are in the staging process right now – the on-the-ground changes in the classrooms probably won’t come for another eighteen months. But there are a number of shifts – both directly and indirectly connected to college readiness – that I think are going to result in some profound increases in the number of kids who are ready for college success.