Six years ago, Sanger Unified School District was struggling: The district and six of its schools were put on "program improvement" -- a sort of academic probation for failing to meet standardized testing goals that could lead to a state takeover.
Superintendent Marcus Johnson was at a loss. He knew that what the district was doing wasn't working, and that Sanger Unified's demographics -- a high concentration of poor, minority students, many of whom are English learners -- put the district at a disadvantage.
But Johnson wasn't ready to give up. "When you have evidence that learning didn't occur, then you respond to that," he said.
And respond they did.
Today, 12 of the district's 13 elementary schools have met or exceeded the minimum 800-point target (out of a possible 1,000) on the state's Academic Performance Index, a measure of how schools perform on standardized testing. Many of Sanger's schools rank in the top 10% to 25% of schools with similar demographics.
Sanger's methods may not easily translate to larger school districts, but they have caught the attention of educators across the state and nation.
Last year, Sanger's John S. Wash elementary was named a national Blue Ribbon School -- a rare honor bestowed on schools that demonstrate academic excellence. Only 25 schools in the state and 314 nationwide earned the honor.
And this year, eight of Sanger Unified's elementary schools were recognized for academic achievement by the state Department of Education.
Sanger had more schools on the list than any district in the Valley, including Fresno Unified and Clovis Unified. Only schools that use federal No Child Left Behind funding were considered for the state's recognition.
Sanger's achievements are impressive, especially considering its demographics, said Larry Powell, Fresno County Schools Superintendent. "It would appear it would be nearly impossible to turn those things around," he said.
But in Sanger Unified's case, there was full support for implementing educational reforms from the board of trustees to teachers and principals, Powell said. "They decided they are going to go for excellence, and nothing else. They are a model district for other districts in California."
These days, a constant stream of school officials from across the state are coming to Sanger Unified, hoping to learn about successful practices and strategies from the 10,500-student rural district.
Johnson has been superintendent at Sanger Unified for eight years, a long tenure in a district that previously had seen rampant top-level turnover -- six superintendents in a 10-year period.
Before coming to Sanger, Johnson was superintendent for American Union Elementary School District, a small, rural district between Easton and Caruthers in Fresno County.
He gives much of the credit for Sanger's success to his staff and to a way of teaching that centers on a concept called professional learning communities.
The system encourages teachers to work collaboratively, sharing ideas about what is working with students and what is not.
The program also involves constant monitoring and student assessment, and extra intervention for students who are falling behind.
Johnson learned about professional learning communities during a 2005 conference in Riverside. "It was an epiphany," he said.
His teachers, who are represented by a union, have bought into the concept wholeheartedly.
They work together instead of dealing with their class and students behind closed doors, said Christy Platt, a first-grade teacher at Reagan Elementary in Sanger.
In the old way of teaching, it was easier to blame the student, Platt said. "The concept was, 'I taught it, why didn't they get it,' " she said. But with learning communities, teachers are trained to look deeper and find out why students didn't master a lesson.
Teachers are pushed to communicate with one another during regular meetings, which is considered the program's cornerstone.
For example, Platt said, if 95% of students in one first-grade class mastered a lesson, but the majority of first-graders next door did not, teachers talk about what went wrong. There are regular "deployments," where students who have struggled with a lesson are sent over to a teacher who had greater success with the lesson. The other students who mastered the lesson get a complementary assignment so that no one loses out on core instruction time.
Parents support change
The consequences also are different in Sanger schools.
At Washington Academy Middle School, a fifth- through eighth-grade campus, students can't simply skip assignments and opt out of learning, said Principal Jon Yost. He came to Sanger seven years ago -- when it was one of the lowest-performing districts -- from high-performing Clovis Unified.
In the old way of teaching, a student who missed an assignment would earn a zero, and ultimately could fail the course. But at Washington, students who don't turn in an assignment must give up some of their precious lunch time to attend a homework lab, where they must complete the missed work. "If lunchtime isn't sufficient, then we can get into after-school tutorial," said Yost. The goal is to make it more difficult for students to miss an assignment than to turn it in, he said.
As a result of the new practices and strategies, "our academic performance has skyrocketed," said Yost. The school is on the verge of meeting the 800 minimum target on the API -- its most recent score was 794. By comparison, Washington was a program improvement school with an API of 625 in 2004.
Parent Michelle Gibbs, who is president of Washington Academy's Parent Teacher Association, said the changes have been drastic. The youngest of her three children, 13-year-old Sarah, is at Washington.
Compared to the past, "there's a huge difference in the responsibilities that are put on the students," said Gibbs. While the expectations are higher, there is also more help for students and more opportunity for them to excel, she said.
Gibbs said parents support the changes at Sanger Unified, which has been key to the district's educational success.
So if Sanger Unified is so successful, why haven't more districts -- such as Fresno Unified, which has similar demographics -- adopted the same program?
Fresno Unified already has such a program in place at several schools, Superintendent Michael Hanson said. "We call them accountable learning communities," he said.
But Hanson and Powell said that it is more difficult to make sweeping changes in a larger district like Fresno Unified, which has more than 73,000 students.
Johnson said he believes the same reforms eventually will work in Fresno, but will take more time.
Hanson said he is impressed by the improvements in Sanger's academic performance. "They deserve all the accolades and attention they are getting," he said.
Sanger seems to have perfected the professional learning communities model.
The district is one of three highlighted in the book "Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap, Whatever It Takes," released earlier this year by longtime educators and authors Rick and Rebecca DuFour.
The DuFours travel the country teaching educators about professional learning communities; they were the speakers in Riverside who inspired Johnson. The DuFours and Johnson have since developed a professional relationship.
"Sanger is one of the most inspirational stories," Rick DuFour said from his Virginia home. "They shattered that myth that demographics is destiny -- if you teach poor kids, they can't learn at higher levels.
"I think they are very unique, because it's not just one or two schools getting results -- many of their schools are among the top 10% in the state. ... They are doing it right," DuFour said.
Sanger's efforts also have caught the attention of state education officials. The Department of Education -- at the request of the governor's office -- selected a small group of model districts to help write the state's application for the second round of a federal school-funding competition known as Race to the Top. Superintendents from Fresno and Clovis school districts, along with Long Beach, Los Angeles and Sacramento, San Francisco and Sanger -- the smallest in the group -- led the effort. Johnson helped write a plan within the application for implementing professional learning communities in the state's schools.
Yost, the principal at Sanger's only middle school, said he is proud of what the district has accomplished in a few short years.
"I would put my staff up against any staff in California," he said. "We are the best-kept secret in the Valley."