UC Berkeley Early Academic Outreach Program advisor Myrtha Oritz, center, talks with De Anza High students Seydi Miranda, left and Kenia Rojo in the school's college and career center on May 21, 2019. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

When Jazhun Brown first transferred to De Anza High as a junior, poor grades made him an unlikely candidate to graduate on time. His GPA was low and he had failed biology. That changed after school counselors, college advisers and teachers helped him see he could reach his goal of becoming a police officer by retaking courses and working hard to successfully complete others.

He graduated last month and will enroll this fall at Sacramento State University

“My grades were not always good and I was getting off track,” said Brown, 18, looking back on his rocky start at De Anza, in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, with a sophomore year GPA of 2.0. “Last year (first semester of senior year) was the first time I ever got a 4.0 GPA. That really came from this school pushing me — having counselors on my side — pushing me and helping me do better. This year, I was like, ‘I’m going to do it!’”

De Anza’s efforts to keep students on track to graduate and go to college, some of which started six years ago, reflect a push across California for schools to increase the number of students graduating from high school. And, like many of the schools statewide seeing higher graduation rates, De Anza is using a variety of tools, such as tutoring, career-themed courses, online credit recovery options and academic counseling.

The result has been a steady improvement in graduation rates to 89 percent in 2017-18, higher than the state average of 83 percent. That’s a reversal of 2012-13, when the school’s graduation rate of 77 percent lagged the 80 percent state average.

In another measure of a school’s success, De Anza’s percentage of students meeting requirements to attend the 10-campus University of California or the 23-campus California State University was 51 percent in 2017-18, slightly higher than the state average of 50 percent. That means that in addition to what the district requires for graduation, students completed additional courses in foreign language and a recommended additional year of math and science.

When students first come to high school, they don’t always have a clear vision of their future, said Principal Summer Sigler. But after being exposed to career-themed classes that interest them and talking to teachers and counselors who care about them, they start to develop long-term goals.

“That’s why it’s important that we have so many programs and people,” she said, so students realize that “nobody’s giving up on where you’re going.”

The De Anza campus is nestled amid green hills and suburban neighborhoods on the eastern side of Richmond in the East Bay. The school draws students from Richmond, Pinole and unincorporated El Sobrante in Contra Costa County.

Three quarters of the approximately 1,370 students who attend the school are low-income, one in five are English learners and 14 percent are students with disabilities. About 4 percent are homeless and nearly 1 percent are foster youth.

Recently, the state and federal governments have begun placing a greater emphasis on high school graduation rates and college readiness as additional indicators of school success. For 2017-18, the school received a green rating for College and Career readiness on the California School Dashboard, showing significant improvement from the previous year for low-income, African-American and Asian students.

Sigler attributes the school’s improvements to a robust college and career center and strong collaboration between teachers and students in small career-themed academies — in law, information technology and health — that allowed them to work together over four years.

Sigler also credited partnerships with outside organizations that provide mental health services, college and career counseling support for struggling students. Students also benefit from after-school tutoring and are able to make up credits or improve their grades through summer school and credit recovery programs.

Last year, more than 900 district high school students enrolled in summer programs to obtain needed credits or improve their course grades.

Some of these strategies are part of districtwide or statewide initiatives, including the district’s strong commitment to academies that help students focus on careers, along with summer school and online credit recovery programs. The college and career center has grown through partnerships with some organizations that assist students in other district schools, as well as some federally funded programs (see box).

But other strategies are more home-grown.

School outreach workers meet with parents of struggling students and share resources to improve their efforts to intervene individually with students. And teachers provide after-school tutoring for anyone who needs it.

Teachers, administrators and advisers from community organizations look at data during students’ freshman and sophomore years to identify those who are struggling to complete college prep courses. The school’s team of three Community Outreach Workers and a Dropout Prevention Specialist also work with students and families.

The close-knit academies help to strengthen relationships between teachers and students, said Luz Nunez, who teaches history and social science in the law academy. Teachers discuss academic plans for all students and share ideas for reaching struggling students, then take on the responsibility of working with selected students by offering one-on-one help.

De Anza High student Jazhun Brown works on an assignment in teacher Luz Nunez’s social studies class on May 21. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

Brown said Nunez is his favorite teacher because she cares about him and she helped him develop academic skills.

“She was giving me that push, saying, ‘I’m going to help you, but you’ve got to do it,’” Brown said.

Brown took classes more seriously after Nunez insisted that he complete unfinished classwork during lunch. He said Nunez helped him refine his note-taking and research skills, including underlining important passages and reviewing them to be sure he understood them in the context of the topic he was studying.

After Nunez read his essay on housing segregation, Brown recalls her saying, “Yep, you’ve got it!”

Most students get off-track for graduation when they fail algebra, Sigler said.

“Math teachers allow kids to retake tests if they come to tutoring,” Sigler said.

Fatham Ng, lead teacher in the health academy, said she helped a student figure out her Algebra II problems in an online credit-recovery course.

“I struggled right along beside her,” Ng said. “Those relationships are the most important facet of education. If our students don’t believe we’re there for them and we truly believe in them, anything we try to accomplish is going to be blemished.”

Because the school has only three district-paid counselors for 1,400 students, the additional services provided by outside organizations are key to the school’s ability to keep students on track, Sigler said.

Heaven Jordan, 17, said she might not have graduated if she hadn’t sought tutoring and participated in the College is Real program, which she said helped her improve her grades and apply to colleges.

The school switched to a seven-period class day six years ago to give students more course options and brought in a full-time UC Berkeley Early Academic Outreach Program adviser, who helps students apply for summer internships, college and financial aid.

Myrtha Ortiz, the Berkeley program adviser, said about 200 students participate in one-on-one workshops every semester to help them prepare for college and apply for summer internships and financial aid. In addition, the program hosts large school events with guest speakers. The program also offers college credit summer classes in African-American studies, ethnic studies or Earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley.

The outside programs, which tend to be targeted toward low-income students who may be the first in their families to go to college, are also open to students who do well in school, but need help applying to colleges or seeking financial aid.

De Anza High students Kenia Rojo, left and Seydi Miranda celebrate their graduation on June 4. (Photo courtesy of West Contra Costa Unified/Robert Jordan)

The UC Berkeley program gave students Kenia Rojo and Seydi Miranda the assistance they needed to be accepted at four-year universities, which they may not have otherwise applied to.

“When I first got here, I was kind of lost,” said Rojo, a 17-year-old from El Sobrante, who came to the school from Mexico in the middle of her freshman year. Although she was fluent in English, Rojo said she didn’t initially seek advice from the school’s college and career center because she was shy.

But after meeting with Ortiz, Rojo completed her college applications and was admitted to UC Merced. An internship through Richmond Public Health Solutions that she obtained because she was in the school’s health academy sparked her interest in majoring in sociology and becoming a social worker, said Rojo, who graduated June 4. She has also already earned college credits, which Sigler said helps motivate students to complete college.

Miranda, a 19-year-old who came to the school from Guatemala in her freshman year, said she had difficulty understanding English and what high school was all about when she arrived.

“I never thought I was even going to make it to high school,” said Miranda, who graduated and plans to become a radiology technician. She credits “Ms. Myrtha” for giving her the courage to apply to a University of California school. “I was kind of scared. She made me apply and I got accepted to UC Merced.”

De Anza High students Jazhun Brown, left and Heaven Jordan celebrate their graduation in June. (Photo courtesy of West Contra Costa Unified/Robert Jordan)

Brown said the supportive atmosphere at De Anza helped him achieve his goals.

“They showed me that teachers really do care here and they do want to see you succeed,” he said. “It’s tough love. But it’s OK. It’s totally working.”

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.