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The Preuss School UCSD is unique in a number of ways, among them are its unusual name and requirements for admission. The school was named in recognition of a substantial bequest from the Preuss Family Foundation that was earmarked to establish a charter school on the campus of the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) and opened in fall 1999 under a charter agreement between the university and the San Diego Unified School District. Although the school is housed in a $14 million facility in affluent La Jolla, CA, the buildings were funded entirely by donors, and students commute from lowincome communities in 41 different zip codes throughout San Diego. As a result, transportation logistics and costs are an ongoing challenge for the school and the students.

Preuss students are selected through an application and random lottery process. To be eligible for the lottery, a student must qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, the student’s parents or primary guardians may not be college graduates, and the student must demonstrate the proper motivation—through academic records, student and parent essays, and recommendations—necessary to succeed in the rigorous academic environment. Every adult in the school community is dedicated to the school’s mission: to ensure that students from low-income families, who are traditionally underrepresented in most institutions of higher education, will be admitted to and be successful at the university level—each as the first generation in their families to attend college.

The Preuss School UCSD
La Jolla, CA
preuss principalPrincipal: Scott Barton
Grades: 6–12
Enrollment: 800
Community: Urban
Demographics: Hispanic 67%, Asian/Pacific Islander 19%, Black/African American 10%, White 4%, Free or reduced-price meals eligible 100%, Special education 2%, English language learners 20%
Note: Demographic data was provided by school in spring 2011.

Preuss currently serves approximately 400 middle school students in grades 6–8. The school is so popular that it is not unusual to have 800 applicants for the 120 spaces available in grade 6. The high school program begins at the freshman year with about 100 students in each grade from 9 to 12. Each year in high school builds on the previous year, so no new students are admitted after grade 9. Other atypical aspects of the school are the requirements that go beyond state mandates, including an expanded school year (198 days versus 175 days), an extended school day (seven hours instead of the traditional six), and more overall instruction time (74,669 minutes compared with 64,800).

When the principalship opened in 2007, the board of directors conducted a national search but was unable to find a better match than Scott Barton, who was a founding member and had been the dean of students for seven years. Barton, a teacher and administrator who has worked in middle and high schools with diverse populations for 30 years, lives his belief that all students can be successful in a rigorous college- prep curriculum. He adds, “The key is providing the proper supports for each student.”

Reflecting on the evolution of his leadership as principal over the last five years, Barton credits his attention to the three areas shown by current research to improve teaching and learning: facilitating teacher success, emphasizing teacher retention, and attending to external development. As he describes it, “I have learned that I must facilitate teacher success by engaging all teachers in professional development. When a teacher is struggling with a new concept or has a question about student success, the research shows that the first resource that this teacher will access is another teacher. Therefore, I must ensure that all of my teachers are properly trained so that they may learn with, and from, one another. I have emphasized increasing human capital while strengthening social capital.

“One way we have done this at Preuss is through lesson study. Using lesson study we were able to establish excellent lessons, and equally important, it taught our faculty how to collaborate as our teachers work together in many different configurations.” In the lesson study model, teachers collaborate to plan, observe, and refine research lessons that encompass their long-term goals for student learning and development.

Barton understands that it is also his responsibility to retain the excellent staff currently working at Preuss. “We had a higher teacher turnover rate before I became principal,” he explains. “I have retained teachers by listening to their ideas and engaging them in the decision-making process. In addition to teacher retention, I have made a commitment to having teachers teach the same course for consecutive years. The research shows that this leads to greater student success.”

The Senior Wheel Elective

Barton considers being an “external facilitator” in charge of enhancing the school’s resources to be a third major obligation. “It is important for me to meet with parents and to cultivate relationships with community members, potential donors, foundations, and locally elected representatives and to include those stakeholders on our founders circle.”

Teaching and Learning Together

“The Preuss School UCSD is a place where both adults and students learn,” says Jan Gabay, English department chair and staff developer. The leadership team engages teachers, other staff members, and students in effective learning through a professional development program that meets for an hour and 45 minutes each Friday, as well as extended learning time during teacher preparation periods where individual study, department meetings, and meetings called by colleagues for specific student learning issues may take place.

Gabay describes the primary role of professional development at Preuss as “providing the time for faculty learning teams to carry out appropriate protocols to examine and discuss student work, identify learning problems, develop mutual learning goals, and investigate what teachers need to know and do to help students overcome learning challenges.” The teachers’ examination of student work results in subsequent meetings to plan lessons, align professional practice with California standards, and develop best practices strategies that have been shown in the research literature to improve student performance. Gabay elaborates, “The learning team engages in an ongoing cycle of inquiry, problem solving, and improvement. Attention to teachers’ varying levels of motivation, interest, knowledge, skill, and experience is addressed through collaboration and collegiality of learning teams.”

Barton agrees with Gabay’s assessment and believes that collaboration is a key component of the success at Preuss. “I model collaboration for our faculty and the faculty in turn models collaboration for our students; as a result, our students regularly collaborate as part of their learning.” Students are taught a variety of learning strategies to deepen their understanding and work in an assortment of configurations, including large group, small group, and shared research models to bring their learning to life. As one teacher said, “Teachers are teaching kids to collaborate. What teachers model, kids mirror.” That collaborative practice shows up in student projects, presentations, academic competitions, subject-area portfolios, and exhibitions.

preussBecause the shared focus of all Preuss stakeholders is to prepare low-income, underrepresented students for college, the faculty has applied research-based best practices as the foundation of a demanding single-track college preparatory curriculum in grade-level learning communities. The approach is supplemented with tutor-assisted teaching, parental involvement, and extensive use of technology. All course objectives are derived from the California State Standards for grades 6–12 in the various subject areas. Teachers also have begun working with the Common Core State Standards to examine their alignment with current state standards.

Sixth graders start their Preuss education in rigorous courses that concentrate on skill development, study habits, and a deep understanding of subject content. In addition to the core courses, education and health sciences, literacy enrichment, and an elective “wheel” of exploratory courses are offered. Seventh and 8th graders continue to build academic background in the core subjects while they begin working on college admission requirements in subjects such as Spanish. They have exposure to health, leadership, music and technology courses through the middle school wheel. Ninth and 10th graders take courses that often exceed college admissions requirements. All 9th graders take classes in advanced biology and western civilization and culture, and many have progressed to geometry. Through a curriculum tied closely to the AP program, all high school students enroll in AP US history, AP English language, AP English literature, and AP government. The majority of students also complete AP art history and at least one of the three AP sciences offered.

In each course, teachers use the ICLEAR (inquiry, collaboration, linking, evidence, application, and research) framework, developed by Preuss teachers, to identify the aspects of learning that must be attained to gain an in-depth understanding of the subject. The framework helps students check their comprehension of concepts and ideas. “ICLEAR is the basis of all of our learning,” explains a Preuss senior.

The Preuss School’s commitment to closing the achievement gap for students includes offering rigor not only through the core and elective courses but also through the daily University Prep (UP) advisory program, which provides a combination of ongoing supports. The same teacher works with students in their UP advisory class from grades 6 through 12 to ensure personalized learning with strong academic support. The UP advisory class offers:

  • Easily accessible adult support
  • Tutoring and mentoring
  • Demystifying the college process
  • Reinforcement of academic, behavioral, social, and personal skills that are the basis for academic success.

Students remain with the same UP cohort of classmates throughout their entire time at Preuss, enabling them to grow up together and giving them a strong sense of community— what students often call their “family at school.”

In addition to the UP advisory, students have a variety of academic and personal supports. Because the students come with a range of interests, abilities, and prior knowledge, teachers must work hard to provide the necessary scaffolding and differentiation in their lessons. Another essential component of the support is tutoring: UC San Diego typically provides more than 100 college volunteer tutors each quarter. In addition, another 100 dedicated faculty and San Diego community members volunteer as mentors, meeting with their students once a week during students’ lunch or advisory times. In an attempt to meet every student’s specific needs, individualized instruction may be provided both in and out of the classroom.

preussThe school endeavors to ensure that parents are heavily involved in maintaining a community of high expectations and support for students. As part of the entrance requirements, parents commit to performing 15 service hours each year, with an additional 10 hours per student for families with two or more students attending Preuss. In a recent year, parents volunteered a total of more than 12,500 hours. Parents and guardians fulfill this obligation in a variety of ways, such as joining governance committees and parent organizations, attending special events, helping with fundraising, and assisting in classrooms.

Forums and educational opportunities are organized through monthly parent teacher association (PTA) meetings. The school’s parent coordinator has recently developed a new parent academy, designed as an in-depth orientation to the Preuss community. Three meetings are held in October for parents to meet the staff, hear about the curriculum, receive suggestions on how to effectively help their children, and learn about school services and procedures. At one session, current parents and students share ideas on how to become involved and feel like they are a part of Preuss and then answer questions. Parents earn volunteer hours for each session, as well as for attending the numerous workshops on college financial aid, scholarships, and other information relevant to their children’s futures. In addition, parents are able to keep abreast of their children’s progress and information about the school through conferences, progress reports, semester report cards, the school website, and school newsletters.

High-Level Results

The staff believes that student learning and achievement have increased as a result of the faculty applying new knowledge and skills that they learned in on-site professional development opportunities and complemented by knowledge gained through other means, such as conferences, training, and formal course work, all of which is shared with colleagues. Recent school data support this thinking:

  • Test data: the Annual California Performance Index (API) is 899, the third highest high school API in San Diego County
  • AP results: 295 students took a total of 766 AP exams in 13 subjects in May 2011; 68% of students who took AP exams received a score of three or higher, a rate that compares favorably with California and national averages
  • Summer opportunities: more than 100 Preuss students participated in 2011 programs and internships such as COSMOS (math and science emphasis), the Health and Information Partnership at UC San Diego, National Geographic Student Expeditions, UC San Diego Academic Connections, and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute summer internships
  • Class of 2011 college information: 95% of students were accepted to a four-year college or university; 79% attended a four- year college or university (51% enrolled at a University of California or a California State University campus, and 28% enrolled in an out-of-state college or university) and 19% enrolled in a community college with plans to transfer to a four-year college
  • Class of 2011 honors: the class as a whole received more than $2.1 million in scholarships and grants for their first year in college, four students were named Gates Millennium Scholars, and three students were named QuestBridge Scholars.

preussAs a result of the staff’s extraordinary efforts and unyielding dedication to the Preuss mission, coupled with the students’ hard work and their motivation to take advantage of this unique educational opportunity, Preuss has found itself on the state and national stage, singled out as an exemplary school from which others may learn. For example, the school was named a high-performing 2010 Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education and a 2011 California Distinguished School, one of the one hundred top middle and high schools in the state. In June 2011, Preuss was designated the nation’s top “miracle high school” by Newsweek magazine in recognition of its success as the number one “transformative school.” Preuss is also justifiably proud of its recent six-year (2011–17) accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a commendable accomplishment for a public charter school.

The primary mission of Preuss—access to college for underprivileged San Diego youth— is alive and well, but a visit to the bustling campus verifies that the less quantitative goals and objectives—the development of personal character, healthy lifestyles, good judgment, and ethical behavior—are being carried out through the collective efforts of the families, community institutions, and the school sharing the responsibility for encouraging young people to develop both as scholars and as citizens.

It’s easy to see why principal Scott Barton says, “Being the principal at the Preuss School UCSD is the best principal job in education.” He knows that the school continues to do what needs to be done to carry out the original charter vision of preparing low-income students for college, but he is wise enough to know that the school cannot do it alone. He is thankful for all of the outside involvement and describes managing it as challenging, but rewarding: “I have been able to harness the energy of all our stakeholders, including our most important assets—students and parents—and mold this energy into an incredibly successful school that has a college acceptance rate of more than 90%. The credit for our success belongs to all of our stakeholders.” PL

The Senior Wheel Elective

Through the Senior Wheel Elective, 12th-grade students at the Preuss School UCSD fulfill three components of Preuss graduation requirements in trimester strands: service learning, research and writing, and internship. Each year, students’ work culminates in the senior exhibition in May.

Service learning has three distinct elements: academic study using The Call of Service by Robert Coles, a fieldwork project, and tutoring underclassmen.

For fieldwork, students identify a need in their neighborhood and work in teams on a project that they research, develop, and complete in conjunction with an established organization (e.g., the public library or a local nonprofit organization) by contributing a minimum of 25 hours outside of school.

One example of a project that showcases how Preuss students work with the community is the partnership between a team of 12th graders and a university pre–health professional student organization. Students serve at a mid-city community clinic as translators for non–English speaking patients, as assistants in diabetes screening, and as advocates for fundraising community outreach. In other projects, students recorded stories of elderly patients at a rehabilitation facility who were eager to share their life histories; mentored special needs elementary students through theater games and music, organized political forums to inform voters about issues that affect their community, and taught Southeast Asian immigrants the skills to access and apply for social services online. In addition, all seniors work as teacher assistants in Preuss classrooms to tutor middle school students. In that role, students actively learn about the education system from the other side of the desk and become more knowledgeable about education issues. Reflections, logs, a research paper, and inquiry assignments are additional requirements for the course.

Research and writing require students to master how to efficiently locate, access, evaluate, and disseminate print and digital sources of information on their chosen topics. They demonstrate their understanding of the research process by conducting research at the UC San Diego Libraries, which encompass several subject-specific libraries within Geisel Library as well as the Biomedical Library and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library. Students synthesize research from primary and secondary sources to interpret and apply evidence and write an 8–10 page argumentative paper, using the Strunkian principles of composition and the Modern Language Association style. Recent student topics included arguing for the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the student’s home country of Ethiopia, creating ecofriendly campuses for schools and colleges, and reforming the system for creating credit scores.

Internship students spend 10 to 12 weeks assigned to a department or office at UC San Diego to meet the internship objectives. The exposure allows them to polish the communication skills they will need in the workplace; learn more about a chosen field, including becoming knowledgeable about general work functions; investigate organizational culture; and identify their individual careerrelated strengths and weaknesses. For example, students have interned at the Department of Cognitive Science, the Jacobs School of Engineering, the Arts Library, the Thurgood Marshall Student Affairs Office, and the Cross Cultural Center. Students are required to complete 30 hours at the internship site, complete weekly reflections, conduct a career interview with their supervisors, and a write final reflection papers.

Jan Gabay, a national board certified teacher, is the chair of the English department, a staff developer, and a service learning teacher at the Preuss School UCSD.