Caruthers Principal Shares GEAR UP Journey



Marla Dominguez, Principal Caruthers Elementary, has been the principal for five years. She shares her GEAR UP story and passion for her profession with us.

Please tell us about the community. 

Caruthers Unified is located in the central San Joaquin Valley, approximately 15 miles south of Fresno. The District covers a large rural area (120 square miles) of approximately 2,500 residents, including the two small unincorporated communities of Caruthers and Raisin City. An additional 4,800 people live in the area surrounding Caruthers. Of our 1,442 students, 1266 or 89 % of them are LI and qualify for free and reduced lunch and 434 or 30 % are designated as EL students. Students in Caruthers benefit from the support they receive in a small community and are given the opportunity to participate in a variety of extracurricular programs involving athletics, community service and the arts.

The Caruthers community has taken huge steps in the support of our district. In the past 5 years the community has passed two school bond measures. Measure C for Caruthers High School and more recently Measure V for Caruthers Elementary. Both bond measures are the first in the history of the school district. CUSD students are also prepared to move on for future study. Over the past five years over 42% of Caruthers High School graduates have been eligible to attend a four year college or university.

Our school is a TK-8 and we do not have a lot of turnover, we currently have 875 students, so for a rural school we are rather large. Our community is a tight knit community that supports each other and we know our students and their families for many years.

Our students are respectful and they work hard…they are appreciative and grateful for what we do here at school, so are their families.

Our students and families sometimes move in and out, so it is not unusual to have a family move in, leave, and then come back.

Our schools create the community…we are unincorporated and there are no parks, police force, the school is the largest entity and we work together. The community supports the school and students and the school supports the community.

What’s your ‘GEAR UP story’?

GEAR UP was FANTASTIC! The grant was so well planned with events that really provided thought provoking and challenging perspectives. Our coaches were instrumental in helping to guide and offer resources to keep our school going in a forward path. GEAR UP took all these different schools and gave us a common ground and a network that was much larger than I have ever had access too. The best is that this made my school a better place for my students and their future.

What changes have you observed at Caruthers since becoming a GEAR UP school?

Our students are talking about life beyond high school. They talk about college and which college that they aspire to go to. They ask questions and are aware that they need to learn things now for their future.

Our families have also supported this movement…they are learning too.

We had a parent on our committee the entire grant cycle and this was extremely helpful. It was great to always have the parent perspective and perception there. It also was a key element in making this a part of the community, not just the school.

Share with us was key factors contributed to demonstrable change.

PIQE was one of the best key factors that came out of GEAR UP. We have had a large group of parents that have been empowered by knowledge and understanding of how schools work, expectations of their students and teachers. I have always said that when parents are asking questions you know what you are doing is making changes. I love that a large portion of our only Spanish speaking families feel a part of the school and have a voice.

The college walls, college weeks, all of these activities that are visual will continue year after year, but the sustainable items that go beyond GEAR UP that will continue to make change will be a College and Career Course that all 7th grade middle school students take, articulating with the Caruthers High School counselor on activities, students and transitions. These things are going to be embedded and will continue.

We now have a middle school counselor because of GEAR UP.

Our 7th and 8th grade students go on college field trips…when they go to high school they will have been on a Junior, State, UC and Private College…this is probably their first time but I hope it is not their last, we are planting the seed early.

Why did you become an educator? 

My story did not start out with dreams of becoming a teacher. I went to college to become a Physical Therapist and worked at a Physical Therapy Office for ten years. While waiting to get into the PT program I decided I would get a teaching credential because one of my friends kept telling me what a great teacher I would be. When I thought about what I did in the field of Physical Therapy, teaching all ages how to rehabilitate themselves from injuries or prevention, I thought…why not! I had a great deal of science background and loved sharing knowledge and it wasn’t until my final student teaching that I TRULY FELL IN LOVE with TEACHING. I have never looked back.

If you had advice to other principals as to how to change a school to support a college going culture, what would it be?

As administrators, we have to make it a priority because our time can be taken up by many issues, but you have to build a group of teachers, counselors and parents who believe in the same mission and make it a priority. I found that setting meeting dates at the beginning of the year and having our action plan with goals already gave us a clear direction and path. This work cannot be done by one person alone, but it must include the support of the administration.

Why is it important to start in middle school in preparing for college?

High school is TOO late. We have to start educating students earlier so they can plan, start thinking, have time to explore, and ask questions and set goals for themselves.

If you could be a principal of a GEAR UP school again, would you? What would you do the same or differently? 

ABSOLUTELY! I would set up and imbed ‘college-going’ activities and events early and then focus on instruction-which is what is going to make students successful in college. I would also explore workshops and trainings for my team on poverty and education, equality, and more of the issues that we didn’t have time to get into which our students are faced with daily and can affect their future.

I would want to set up a foundation so we can continue scholarships, educational trust awards, and invest in our students even earlier than middle school. These are things that I would still like to do even though I do not have GEAR UP, but I struggle like all others to balance and juggle all of the priorities and mandates that are on our plates in the education field. One day I know it will happen!

What else would you like to share about your GEAR UP journey? 

Thank you to all the people involved in GEAR UP, the journey was wonderful, but I know that this ride is not over. I challenge all of us to keep the work of GEAR UP a priority and continue to pave the path for our students to get to college and be successful. Thank you!



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