Volume 25 · Number 4 · Fall 2009
Education for All
Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education, chats with students at West Sacramento Ealy College Prep. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
On the afternoon of Aug. 20, 2007, Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education, stood at the back of a crowded school cafeteria in West Sacramento. Ahead of him, sixth- and seventh-graders and their families murmured in rows of metal folding chairs. They had come to learn more about a new charter school, set to open in two days, that promised to prepare every one of its students for college.
An administrator, Greg Himes, walked to the front of the room, slid a typed list of school supplies into an overhead projector and began reading the items aloud in English:
“Working backpack … two three-ring binders … six three-hole punch folders with pockets …”
Himes paused to hold up examples of some of the items, recommend a source for $1 paperback dictionaries and urge families to create a designated place at home for homework.
“One highlighter … two pens (BLACK or BLUE ONLY) … math protractor …”
A teacher came forward to repeat the list in Spanish; a parent stood up to read it in Russian.
Communicating the list of 23 school supplies took the better part of an hour. So went the first orientation for West Sacramento Early College Prep.
Levine removed his jacket and fanned himself with a back-to-school packet.
Now the real work would start. At stake were his hopes and aspirations, and those of everyone else who packed the cafeteria that hot August day.
At first glance, Levine seems an unlikely school reformer. His doctorate, from the University of Pennsylvania, is in anthropology: For his dissertation, he lived in a hut in New Guinea for 19 months, studying death rituals and decision-making among the Kafe tribe. After earning his Ph.D., he joined UCLA as an ethnographic researcher, exploring how developmentally delayed students learn and solve problems. He has never been a schoolteacher or principal.
But in his two decades at UCLA — where he served as chair of the Department of Education and professor and interim dean of the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies — Levine developed ideas about improving professional education schools.
“Too many schools of education are remote and distant from the field they’re meant to serve,” he said. “I wanted to change that.”
In 2001, Levine took the job as founding dean of the UC Davis School of Education, with a mission of transforming the campus’s decades-old teacher-training and small graduate programs into a full-fledged graduate school.
Shortly after his arrival, he jumped at a chance to put his beliefs into practice. Don Shalvey, founder of California’s first charter school and a national leader in the field, wanted to team up with him to establish a new university-assisted school in an underserved community.
“It was an opportunity to ‘walk the talk’,” Levine said. “We can talk about reinventing education. But can we do it? If we can’t, we don’t have any business in this field.”
Shalvey, who now leads school district transformation efforts for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, worked closely with Levine until the Washington Unified School District, which serves West Sacramento, embraced the charter concept.
“When the school district seized the opportunity to work with the university, it was a home run,” Shalvey said. “The more closely a school district and its leadership get involved in a charter school, the more likely that model is to stick in other schools in the district, and the more likely the innovation is to spread.”
Ultimately, West Sacramento Early College Prep emerged as a public benefit corporation that is jointly governed by a university, a community college district and a public school district. Levine is board president. The board runs the school, from hiring the principal and signing off on the curriculum to approving the budget. There may be no other partnership like it in the country.
Levine’s fellow board members are Kathryn Jeffery, president of Sacramento City College (the community college helped develop the curriculum, consults with teachers at the school and, when upper grades are added, will offer students access to college classes at its West Sacramento satellite campus) and Steve Lawrence, superintendent of the Washington Unified School District (the school district supplies the school site, food services and transportation at cost to the charter school). A community member, Ursula Ruffalo, also serves on the board.
“Harold was the vision for West Sacramento Prep,” said Consumnes River College President Debbie Travis, Ed.D. ‘08, who represented Sacramento City College on the charter school’s board for two years. “He has this very wonderful and amazing talent for keeping a focus on what will benefit a student, no matter the competing political constraints and external pressures.”
College for All
Two days after the August 2007 orientation, West Sacramento Prep opened its doors in a wing of an elementary school near the city’s downtown. This fall, it moved into new quarters at a school a few blocks away. The first class consisted of 100 sixth- and seventh-graders. As those students advanced, the campus added eighth-grade in fall 2008 and ninth-grade this fall. When fully enrolled, in 2012, the school will house more than 400 students in grades six through 12.
Some critics complain that charter schools skim the strongest and most talented, leaving public schools with higher concentrations of struggling students. But at West Sacramento Prep, enrollment priority goes to the most underserved: students who live in poverty; those who come from homes in which English is not the first language; those whose parents have not attended college; and those who are attending a “low-performing” school, as measured by the California Department of Education’s Academic Performance Index. Kids with all four risk factors get the highest priority in admissions.
UC†Davis alum Yolanda Falkenberg, principal of West Sacramento Prep, works to create a ìcollege-for-sureî culture.
(Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
Once enrolled, all students are expected to complete the entrance requirements for the University of California system, including two years of history and social science, four years of college preparatory English, three years of college preparatory mathematics, two years of laboratory science, two years of a foreign language and one year of visual and performing arts. Yolanda Falkenberg, ’94, the school’s principal, sees the stringent academic requirements as the most important aspect of the school.
“We are a single-track school,” Falkenberg said. “We will not have a noncollege-bound track, a community college track and a CSU and UC track. We are not going to put kids in remedial classes. We are going to give them a ton of support, so that every one of them can complete the a-g (UC admissions) requirements.
“This is where a lot of kids’ parents are frustrated. A lot of them don’t learn until right before graduation that their senior is not eligible to go to a four-year college. Nobody told them that if you’re in remedial math in high school, you cannot meet the requirements for a UC or a CSU.”
Levine’s plan is to get West Sacramento Prep students into college largely by building a “college-for-sure” culture at the charter school.
The culture change starts in the classroom. When English teacher Liz Altschule, cred. ’05, M.A. ’06, assigned a research project last year, it was on college. She asked students to research a college in a place they would like to live or that offers a program they find interesting. The resulting poster-board projects, touting campuses ranging from Kansas Wesleyan University to UC Davis, decorated one wall of her portable classroom for much of the academic year.
Throughout the curriculum, students are encouraged to think like college-educated professionals. Rather than memorizing facts, they are challenged to ask and answer interesting questions or problems related to their coursework. Facts and skills are acquired as they become relevant. Paul Heckman, associate dean of the UC Davis School of Education, meets weekly for two hours with teachers to promote this “project-based learning” approach, a hallmark of West Sacramento Prep.
The UC Davis presence affords abundant opportunities for West Sacramento Prep kids to become comfortable around college professors and students. In one typical week during the 2008-09 school year, a UC Davis professor and graduate student worked with a small group of science students. Another UC Davis graduate student observed a history class. Levine came to campus to lead the monthly board meeting, taking time beforehand to mingle with students, shake hands and ask them what they were working on.
Students spend time on college campuses. Middle-school students have already visited UC Davis several times and conducted research at Shields Library. Students will be eligible to take classes at Sacramento City College’s nearby satellite campus. They’ll also tour other campuses.
Families are involved as well. In the summer, Falkenberg and her staff make home visits to students. Through a partnership that Falkenberg forged with Sacramento Area Congregations Together, the school also offers evening parent workshops designed to foster a sense of community — and ensure that college is on everyone’s horizon. This fall a full-time academic counselor and half-time mental health counselor have joined the staff. The academic counselor will work with students and their parents on financial aid and scholarship options, application deadlines and other hurdles on the way to college matriculation. The mental health counselor will help students and families address nonacademic issues that stand in the way of academic success.
The West Sacramento Prep approach was evident this spring in a six-week biology enrichment class led by Lin Xiang, a UC Davis Ph.D. student, and her adviser, Cindy Passmore, an assistant professor of education at UC Davis. The class used an innovative computer program that models natural selection — sort of an evolutionary “SimCity.” The goal was to teach basic principles of evolution, and at the same time determine whether the computer-model approach is effective.
Alejandro Lara and Jose Perez, both 14, were part of the class. One morning, the two boys partnered on a paper-and-pencil exercise designed to assess how much they had learned from the simulation. Xiang and Passmore asked them to choose an animal, target an evolutionary change for that animal, and identify the variables they would need to program into the computer simulation in order to produce the change.
The eighth-graders settled quickly on sharks. Both wanted their sharks to evolve into bigger sharks.
“Maybe when they grow old, they, like, have something like old people, like grey hair?” Lara suggested.
“The start could be how sharks are, like, babies and change color and grow up and die,” Perez offered.
Passmore, who was listening in, deftly steered the boys away from hair and skin color and toward a more productive line of inquiry.
“In the ocean, some sharks are big and some are small,” she pointed out. “Can you explain why?”
The boys looked puzzled.
Passmore asked a follow-up question: “Why would they get bigger?”
“From their parents?” Alejandro ventured.
“And what would be the advantage of getting bigger?” she asked.
Both boys thought.
“Well, why would you want to be big?” she prompted.
“Prey. Fighting for existence,” Perez said.
Passmore, smiling, moved on. Perez, the team scribe, began filling in variables on a worksheet.
“They (the sharks) have to be different (in size at the outset), otherwise nothing’s going to happen,” Lara said.
“And the population has to increase so they have to fight for resources,” Perez added, writing.
“So put ‘variation’ and ‘population change over time’,” Lara coached.
“Over many generations,” Perez clarified.
“Yes,” Lara agreed.
As successful as the exercise was, Levine has no illusions that any one program will change kids’ lives.
“Changing schools to be effective organizations is not something that’s done with a program,” he said. “It’s looking at all aspects of the school: the decisions the school board makes, how the principal allocates money, whether the principal can engage with teachers to be more effective, how the teachers collaborate, how teachers are rewarded, whether the lessons incite a passion for learning, how parents are engaged, how the community is engaged.”
The latest test scores suggest that West Sacramento Prep is on the right track. For the 2007-08 school year, the students scored 691 on the API — below the state target of 800, but above the other middle school in the district and the two elementary schools from which most students are drawn.
Charter status gives West Sacramento Prep certain leeway that some critics say may limit its usefulness as a model for public schools. Teachers are not unionized, and work on year-to-year contracts. Students and parents also sign contracts, under which they can be dismissed from the program for more than three unexcused absences, a grade point average that drops below 2.0 (a “C”) or more than four suspensions.
But with the exception of an initial boost from a $400,000 start-up grant from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to the UC Davis School of Education, West Sacramento Prep receives no more funding per pupil than other charter schools in California. And it draws from the same attendance areas as other schools in the Washington Unified School District.
For these reasons, Levine believes the lessons learned at the charter school will benefit other schools in the district and beyond. “We have the flexibility to push the envelope on how best to engage these students in the process of learning,” he said. “We are determined to demonstrate the value of new models of learning that can be adapted at similar schools to help many, many more students succeed.”
Levine’s vision in education has earned him seats on state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell’s P-16 (preschool through college) Council, the California Department of Education’s “Brokers of Expertise” Advisory Panel, and the board of WestEd, one of the nation’s Regional Education Laboratories. He also served a three-year stint as associate provost for education initiatives for the UC Office of the President, a part-time position in which he was charged with developing, implementing and evaluating systemwide strategies, initiatives and partnerships for UC engagement with California’s public P-12 educational system.
“If you want a dean who really believes in grounding the university in the world, Harold’s the guy,” said Shalvey, who worked with Levine for more than a year on the design of West Sacramento Prep. “In addition to his excellence as an academic, he has the set of diplomacy skills that are essential to establishing a school like this. Harold is a collaborator and consensus-builder with high standards, and he is respected in higher education and K-12 education alike.”
The ultimate measure of success or failure — both Levine’s and West Sacramento Prep — will be years from now, as the first class of students starts getting acceptance notices from college admissions offices and grades from professors.
But there are less scientific barometers worth watching, too. During last spring’s biology enrichment class, a visitor asked the 14-year-old Lara which college he wants to attend.
“I’m not going to college,” he replied soberly. “I’m going to a university.”