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Preuss School Receives Perfect 10 — Again

By Ioana Patrigenaru | April 10, 2006

Preuss students Alan Arellano, Estifanos Hajos and Leslie Garcia do research for a community service project.

Step into any classroom at the Preuss School at UCSD, and you’ll find students who all come from low-income families. Some don’t speak English at home. Their parents aren’t college graduates.

Students from these backgrounds are more likely to struggle in school and less likely to go to college, studies have shown. But at Preuss School, they strive, said Principal Doris Alvarez.

Last month, the school received a perfect 10 for the third year in a row on California’s Academic Performance Index, which ranks schools based on a flurry of test scores. That means Preuss is in the top 10 percent of all high schools statewide. The school also received a perfect 10 when compared to 100 schools that face similar academic challenges. In San Diego County, only three other high schools, which serve much wealthier students in Coronado and Poway, earned perfect scores in these two categories.

“The school is very unique,” said Pat McCabe, director of policy and evaluation at the California Department of Education. “It’s obviously doing very, very well.”

Preuss serves about 770 students in sixth through 12th grade. It is a charter school, which receives state funds, but is exempted from parts of California’s education code. For example, the school only accepts students whose families qualify for federal meal assistance and whose parents haven’t graduated from a four-year university.

A longer school year, a longer school day and a rigorous college-prep curriculum are key to Preuss’ success, Principal Alvarez and several students said. Preuss’ school year is 18 days longer than that of a regular public school. Students also take two more classes every day. By the time they graduate, all students have taken enough courses to meet and exceed UC’s admission requirements. That means they have four years of math, English, social science and science under their belt. They start taking Advanced Placement classes in 10th grade. All of them must pass the Advanced Placement test for Spanish.

“I think college is going to be easy for us,” said Keilani Todd, 18.

Keilani has been admitted to several UC campuses, including UCSD and UCLA. She wants to study business and marketing and hopes to work in the TV and movie industry. She and several of her classmates said Preuss’ culture pushes them to succeed. Preuss students feel that college is the only option for them, said Jacqueline Nguyen, 17, who is from City Heights. She is waiting to hear from NYU, where she wants to study musical theater.

“All that you hear is college, college, college,” said her classmate, Christopher Khavarian, 17. “You really have that drilled within you.”

Christopher said he will go to Stanford to study bioengineering. He said he plans to become a doctor.

He and other students also said Preuss School has become part of their family. All students come from similar backgrounds and that helps them understand each other, said Jacqueline. Preuss doesn’t have any cliques, she said. It also doesn’t have any class conflicts or racial conflicts, said Kelly Diep. The 17-year-old from Carlsbad is going to Harvard and wants to be a lawyer. Students also said that their high school experience at Preuss sets them apart from their counterparts at regular high schools.

“We’re so much more committed, we’re so much more ambitious,” Jacqueline said.

Kelly said most of the students in her Carlsbad neighborhood have taken only one AP class. At other schools, most students cruise during their senior year, said Christopher. But at Preuss, seniors’ schedules are loaded with AP classes. They also have to complete a senior project.

The teachers are different too, said Tekeyia Armstrong, 18. She has been accepted to four UC campuses, but is hoping to get into USC, where she wants to major in African American studies. She said she wants to be an obstetrician and gynecologist and open a clinic to serve her community. When she went to Marshall Middle School in San Diego, Tekeyia said she would always answer the teacher’s questions, but other students did what they wanted. At Preuss, teachers pay attention to everyone, Tekeyia said.

In fact, each teacher is responsible for advising a group of students. This year, Spanish teacher Kenia Milloy took 25 sixth graders under her wing. She says she tries to focus on those who struggle and find answers to help them. Her life might be easier if she worked at a regular high school, she said, but it would be much less rewarding.

“All of the teachers believe in the mission, in the vision of the school,” said Milloy.

Preuss is located on a university campus, and that in itself is a huge motivation to succeed for students, Milloy pointed out. That also might be hard to replicate, she said.
And the big question is whether Preuss’ results can be replicated at other campuses. Alvarez said they can. The school teaches skills that students will use later in the workplace and that all students should have, she said. But there are caveats. Preuss’ students are very motivated, Keilani pointed out. Over the years, those who unable to cope with the school’s rigorous curriculum and long hours drop out of the charter school, she said. In 1999-2000, 45 students enrolled in Preuss’ first seventh-grade class. By 2004-05, 14 had left the school, according to a study by UCSD’s Center for Research on Educational Equity.

The same study also compared the performance of students who had been admitted to Preuss under a lottery system to those who had been placed on a waiting list. “These comparisons are vitally important, because the only systematic difference between Preuss School students and those who were not chosen for admission in the random drawing is, quite literally, the luck of the draw,” the study states. In other words, differences in academic results between the two groups stem from different school environments. The study found that students in both groups had similar test scores. But Preuss students had taken more classes that met UC admission requirements. Preuss’ class of 2006 had significantly higher weighted GPAs, probably because they had taken more college-prep classes. A pilot study of a smaller number of students also shows that more Preuss students are going to college. And college prep is what Preuss is all about, Principal Alvarez said.

“They know exactly why they’re here and it’s really powerful,” she said.

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