Climate for Academic Success: Sparks Middle School


We are pleased to share a recent success of one of our star schools, Sparks Middle School in Industry, CA was identified as “Beating the Odds” by a new report from WestEd.

A growing body of research suggests that school climate may be an important variable in explaining why some schools are more successful than others. This report, written by WestEd’s Adam VoightGregory Austin, and Thomas Hanson, contributes to this research by exploring the climate of a handful of secondary schools with extraordinary success compared to that of other schools, including those that consistently underperform.

School success is often defined in absolute terms, such as average standardized test scores. But such criteria are known to be strongly correlated with the socioeconomic characteristics of a school’s student body. And the fact that a largely affluent student body is linked to school success offers little useful direction for those trying to improve achievement in struggling schools with low-income student populations.

To address this limitation, the present study’s design and methodology take student characteristics into account. Specifically, a successful school is defined as one whose test scores are better than would be predicted based on its student characteristics. Using this definition, A Climate for Academic Success investigates how two factors—school climate and school personnel resources—differed among three groups of California secondary schools.

In the report, 40 schools are identified as “Beating the Odds“, derived by using data from over 1,700 California public middle and high schools, these 40 schools were identified that consistently performed better than predicted on standardized tests of math and English language arts achievement. These schools were labeled “beating-the-odds” (BTO) schools.

Of the 40 schools, Sparks Middle School of Hacienda la Puente Unified was the only California GEAR UP school on the list. California GEAR UP schools utilize professional development resources, partner services, and discretionary funds to create a college-going culture over a six year period. Sparks has been a California GEAR UP school since 2011 and has implemented a full compliment of GEAR UP resources to address school climate and culture to ensure ALL students have access to high quality academics and preparation. California GEAR UP schools believe it is never to early to prepare students for their future and it takes a school community of committed adults to achieve great performance.

A previous study using this definition of success found that personnel resources—such as the education, experience, and roles of staff—did not help distinguish successful from unsuccessful schools. The current study looks at the relationship between school climate and success, as measured by the California Healthy Kids Survey. The measure includes such dimensions of the school environment as safety, academic supports, social relationships, and school connectedness. A positive school climate has been associated with higher academic achievement and healthy behavioral outcomes for students.

In addition to the Report Summary, a Full Report is also available on the WestEd Website.


Funded for its third six-year cycle on October 1, 2011, the program goal of California GEAR UP is to: Develop and sustain the organizational capacity of middle schools to prepare ALL students for high school and higher education through a statewide network of support for adults — counselors, faculty, school leaders and families — who influence middle school students. All program services are geared towards sustainability, such that school change can be successful beyond the life of the grant cycle.

Torlakson Announces New Family Engagement Framework


SACRAMENTO—Sharing the vision of California GEAR UP in the vital importance of parent involvement in the success of students, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today released a new, free publication, Family Engagement Framework, a Tool for California School Districts, to help school districts engage families in their children’s education.

“Parents are every child’s first teachers,” Torlakson said. “The good news is you don’t need an advanced degree to help your child succeed at school. It’s the little things that make a big difference—reading at home, talking with your child about school, and setting high expectations. Our Family Engagement Framework provides practical ways to help schools support parents to stay involved and help their children learn.”

The Family Engagement Framework is the culmination of nearly a decade of collaboration between the California Department of Education (CDE), an informal Title I advisory group to the CDE called Family Area Network, and the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, California GEAR UP strategic partner and evaluator.  Funding for the project was provided through a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The development of the Framework is authorized under Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act and CaliforniaEducation Code Section 11503.

The Framework describes 18 principles that are essential for family and community involvement with the school district. These principles are grouped into five action areas to:

(1) help school districts build the skills and confidence of parents,(2) demonstrate leadership, (3) use resources, (4) monitor progress, and (5) ensure access and equity for everyone. Specific actions to engage families and the community are described for each principle, ranging from basic to progressive to innovative. The Framework is outlined in a way to help school districts evaluate their progress and plan for improvements.

“This new resource from the department will be a valuable addition to our family engagement initiatives and we will share this tool with GEAR UP schools across the State.  In collaboration with our partners, we provide statewide services to families because we know that “Families Make the Difference”.
-Shelley Davis
Director, CA GEAR UP

The California Comprehensive Center did a thorough review of literature showing a strong link between parental involvement activities and student achievement. The research is summarized in the Framework, coupled with specific examples of what schools, communities, and parents can do to help students succeed. The publication also contains a list of articles that school administrators and teachers can read to create effective, research-based practices in family engagement. For example, the Framework can guide districts in planning and coordinating family engagement programs more effectively and includes examples of communications to families that may be copied or adapted for use in newsletters, e-mails, and other outreach efforts.

Copies of the Framework will be distributed to all school districts in California and will also be posted on the California Comprehensive Center Web site at


Study: Dropouts Decreased Through Middle School Transition

Middle and high schools can reduce the dropout rate by working together to plan the transition to high school, holding activities to familiarize students with the campus, and helping them feel connected to their new schools, according to a new report issued by the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd (WestEd is a California GEAR UP Partner and external evaluator).

“The transition from middle school to high school can be challenging for students,” California State Superintendent of Education Tom Torlakson said. “The good news is that some simple steps to make students welcome, can give them the confidence they need to stay on track and stay in school.”

The report, Making the Move: Transition Strategies at California Schools with High Graduation Rates, is designed to identify best practices among high schools and feeder middle schools.

The California Comprehensive Center at WestEd and its partner, the American Institutes for Research, worked with the California Department of Education to identify and gather information on schools with higher graduation rates than were statistically predicted for certain subgroups of students. The work of the Center is supported with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Researchers then interviewed administrators and conducted focus groups at some of the high schools and feeder middle schools. The research helped identify programs and strategies that help middle grade students transition to high school and ultimately graduate in preparation for college and careers.

“Successfully transitioning students from middle grades to high schools is vitally important to California education,” said Tom Parrish, Managing Research Scientist for the American Institutes for Research. “Students crossing this bridge successfully are much more likely to stay in school and graduate.

This study identified successful strategies that include:

·       Creating opportunities for staff across school levels to jointly plan and collaborate;

·       Arranging activities for transitioning students to become familiar with the high school campus and culture

·       Ensuring all students feel connected to the new school;

·       Identifying students who are struggling prior to transition; and

·       Preparing timely and individualized supports for such students.

Researchers also found some prevailing themes in these strategies. For example, enabling collaboration among teachers, providing students with many opportunities for academic support, helping students feel connected to school, having a strong counseling program, maintaining high expectations for all students, and the importance of having a caring staff and caring environment.

“Steps like these are a central thrust of our Blueprint for Great Schools report,” added Torlakson. “That is, great schools know they have to meet the needs of the whole student—not just their academic needs—to give them every chance to succeed.”

For more information on Torlakson’s A Blueprint for Great Schools, please visit the California Department of Education’s Web site at

Education News Roundup

Photo credit: Good Education Change Agents (click image to read)

Within the small but mighty ranks of California GEAR UP, we often share articles of interest that sometimes become the focus of a blog post or shared on our Facebook and Twitter profile. We decided we would share with you some of the education websites we enjoy and in turn hear from you as to where you like to get your education news. Below is a list of websites and resources which is by no means comprehensive.

L.A. Times Education: A news blog operated by the LA Times that features local happenings and the political pulse of education in the southland. Particularly interesting during times of controversy, such as when the newspaper released testing data on more than 6,000 third to fifth grade teachers.

WestEd: A non-profit, non-partisan, research and development organization that focuses on achieving excellence and equity in education. Their reports are excellent and comprehensive and their enewsletters are a great source of information.

Good Education: Good is a magazine and is an ever evolving, self described ‘progressive’ organization and is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits ‘pushing the world forward’. We like good because they bring fresh ideas from around the world with very little spin or editorial content.

Education Week: A never ending stream of information on all things education. We really like their Twitter feed, as it really is a fountain of information all day long.

Education Trust-West: Their basic tenant is “All children will learn at high levels when they are taught to high levels.” They work with school districts, principal, and teachers to conduct research and services to help transform all education institutions. Their blog is a good read.

Public Policy Institute of California: A nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank who are dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. Excellent publications.

NY Times Education: The best part of this NY Times website is the comments section on the articles. Comprehensive and a national focus.

Huffington Post College: College news and opinion from the left leaning Huffington Post. When your standard internet news sites get a little boring, check this one out and enjoy.

ASCD: Founded in 1943, ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization dedicated to advancing best practices and policies for the success of each learner. We like the SmartBrief you can sign up to receive daily education articles and professional readings.

That’s a brief rundown of some of our favorite sites. We’d love to hear where you go to get our education news. Let us know in the comments section, or chime in on our Facebook page.

WestEd: Improving Educational Outcomes for Hispanic Children

A new report from SchoolsMovingUp discusses closing the achievement gap for hispanic students. Here are some of the recommendations:

Federal level:

  • Recognize and share with colleagues that the majority of Hispanic children in ELL classes are U.S. citizens by birth
  • Clearly define Limited English Proficient (LEP) and former LEP students in Title III of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
  • Create a 50-state consortium to share best practices and develop common academic standards, assessment, and reclassification procedures
  • Recommend teacher education policy to ensure all current teachers and teacher candidates learn about second language and literacy acquisition, reading across the content areas, and sheltered instruction and ESL methods
  • Educate parents about college requirements and funding options for post-secondary education
  • Educate and prepare students for various workforce opportunities in addition to traditional college options

State and local level:

  • Introduce college awareness in middle school
  • Coordinate in a comprehensive manner the policy and procedures in ELL placement, reclassification, and assessment;
  • Call for transparency in ELL placement, assessment, reclassification, and aggregate public dissemination of the data
  • Recognize and reduce disparities across schools in the quality, experience, credentials, and professional training of teaching staff
  • Require objective data on the effectiveness of different instructional programs

SchoolsMovingUp, a WestEd initiative, helps schools and districts address the challenge of raising student achievement. In an interactive web format, SchoolsMovingUp offers resources to help education professionals make sound decisions and take action in their school reform efforts. You may remember our post on Doing What Works, also a WestEd initiative.

For the access to the entire report please visit SchoolsMovingUP.

Doing What Works: Turning Around Low Performing Schools

New for our ‘Courageous Conversation’ and ‘Discussion’ catagories:


Our friends over at WestEd (thanks Sanjay) shared with us a great multi-media site that is a wonderful clearinghouse for research based education practices online. This site is a joint venture lead by the Department of Education to create an online library of resources that may help teachers, schools, districts, states and technical assistance providers implement research-based instructional practice.

What we at GEAR UP particularly like about this site is the well produced videos, slideshows, and information under each topic. It is hard to think of another website that has as much information and is as user friendly as Doing What Works.

One example that fits nicely into the organizational capacity building efforts of California GEAR UP is the topic of ‘Turning Around Chronically Low Performing Schools”. It has an easy to implement step-by-step process with multimedia presentation that makes it easy to share at Leadership Team meetings.

Check it out:

Signaling the Need for Dramatic Change With Strong Leadership

Here are the recommended best practices with video:

Here, from the California GEAR UP Community, we present proven practices, thought provokers, walk the talk, and other exemplary stories and articles of information for you to peruse. The idea is to stimulate or reframe the conversation during the next meeting in the teachers lounge, lunch break, supervision duty, staff meeting, conference or professional development or other gathering of your committed colleagues.

Share your thoughts, ideas, comments, or just give us a thumbs ‘up’ or ‘down’.

We want to hear from you.