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CA: A culture of collaboration spurs academic growth in low-income school district


Henry Escobar’s Superintendent’s Literacy Program uses donated funds to buy books for students to take home and read. (Photo courtesy of Livingston Unified School District.)

Summary: Eighty-eight percent of this school district's students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and seventy percent are classified as English language learners. Given this background staff and administrators thought they "weren't doing so badly," but test results showed something different. In 1999, the district had some of the lowest achieving scores in the county and the state. Changing the school culture to one of collaboration with an unwavering focus on excellence has helped the school grow from one with dismal performance to one with distinguished growth. By 2005, the district was recognized for its outstanding academic progress.

Educators in Livingston Union School District in California thought they were doing a pretty good job teaching their students, predominantly English language learners from low-income homes. But they got a wake-up call when they saw their schools’ uniformly low scores on the state’s first Academic Performance Index (API).

After district officials got over the shock of their “absolutely dismal” scores, says Livingston Superintendent Henry M. Escobar, they instituted an improvement plan called Goals 2000 and Beyond and began consciously changing the schools’ culture to one of collaboration with an unwavering focus on excellence. Since then, the district has journeyed from dismal performance to distinguished growth.

District Characteristics
Name: Livingston Union SD
State: California
Type: Rural
Grades: Pre-k–8
Enrollment: 2,447
Students per teacher: 20.4

Enrollment Characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 88%
English language learners: 70%
Students with disabilities: 9%
White: 8.3%
Black: 1.2%
Hispanic: 77.9%
Asian/Pacific Islander: n.a.
American Indian/Alaska Native: n.a
Other: n.a.

California’s API reporting, begun in 1999, represents average academic achievement and growth for a school or district, ranging from 200 to 1,000. Livingston Union’s schools in that first year all scored in the 400s, disappointingly low.

With 88 percent of Livingston students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch and 70 percent classified as English language learners, the district’s teachers clearly have hurdles to overcome in educating their students.

Given the students’ backgrounds, says Escobar, “we thought we weren’t doing so badly.” But then the API results showed that Livingston schools had some of the lowest achieving scores in the county and the state.

Taking action

The cultural shift involved many elements, starting with acknowledging the problems and moving forward decisively. “We have faced those brutal facts,” Escobar says, and “moved from rationalizations and excuses to responsibility and action.”

As a result, in 2005 the lowest API score in the district was 675 and the highest was 758. As further recognition of the schools’ outstanding academic progress, Livingston’s Yamato Colony Elementary was named a California Distinguished School in May.

District teachers and leaders are thrilled with the students’ progress, yet they acknowledge that it is not yet where it needs to be. While continuing to work on the challenges, they celebrate the visible evidence of continuing improvement.

Escobar has identified some secrets of the success along the district's journey:

  • Recruit and retain only the best people.
  • Create a collaborative culture.
  • Provide a coherent program of rigorous instruction.
  • Ignite a passion for student success.
  • Stay the course.
  • Create a partnership between school and home.
  • Celebrate and communicate successes.

Selecting the best people

Escobar views the first element as the most important, saying, “Our teachers are the heart of our program.” With people as the focus, Livingston worked to attract good teachers. The district raised teacher salaries to the highest level in Merced County. “Money, we find, is not the only variable, but it is an important variable,” Escobar says. “The fact is that people want to be compensated, monetarily and otherwise, as professionals.” Now he finds that teachers who have other offers wait to see if they can get jobs in Livingston.

In addition, Livingston school leaders raised expectations for teachers and became more selective when offering permanent positions. “We don’t retain anyone beyond the probationary period who is not exceptional,” Escobar says.

Because Livingston’s students come to school with challenges, the teachers have to work extra hard, Escobar acknowledges. To cope with those challenges, teachers and principals receive continued professional development in areas such as literacy and instructional leadership.

Building supportive teams

Livingston looks for people who are not only good teachers but also good team players. Everyone else, including the superintendent, is viewed as part of the team that supports teachers.

Livingston’s five-member school board, called the Governing Board, is no exception. Training from the California School Boards Association helped board members recognize the scope of their responsibilities and set ground rules for working as a team. “We agreed to hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct based on mutual trust, honesty, and integrity,” says Susan Ruth, one of the board members and an educator in a neighboring district.

The board emphasizes proactive, specific planning to handle the complex work of school improvement, Ruth says. At every meeting the board gets an update on progress toward the district’s goals and priorities to ensure that plans are on track. Staff members throughout the school system use self-evaluation and hold themselves accountable to the goals, Ruth says.

Providing data for accountability

The district’s approach to accountability involves empowering teachers by providing specific data about the level of classroom instruction and their students’ progress. Opportunities for intervention include before and after school programs, as well as summer school.

If a student needs more challenging coursework or more structure, teachers can make that change without waiting until the end of the school year, says Filomena Sousa, principal of Livingston Middle School. For example, based on teacher recommendations, an English language learner at Livingston Middle School this year moved to fluent English status, entered the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, and began taking more advanced classes. This student, Annabel, ended eighth grade with higher than a 4.0 grade point average and received the Hope of America award, which is voted on by school staff and sponsored by the local Kiwanis club.

Raising the bar higher

Teachers like Debra Mesa, who was named the Merced County Teacher of the Year, are successfully challenging students to excel. Mesa, who says teaching has been her passion for 25 years, teaches a 7th grade AVID class and 6th grade at Livingston Middle School. One of her former students, Jesus, could have slid by, Mesa notes, but his teachers convinced him to join AVID and challenge himself more. Jesus, who rose to that challenge, graduated high school in June of 2006, and plans to attend the University of California at Riverside this fall. At an AVID regional meeting, Mesa recalls, Jesus thanked his teachers and reminded them not to give up on students like him.

“We’re continually raising our own bars,” Sousa says, and the success of students like Jesus and Annabel propels teachers and students to reach higher.

Support from the community is also giving Livingston students a boost. For example, the Superintendent’s Literacy Program garners financial donations from the business community to buy books for students’ personal use at home. After hearing about the literacy program, a developer donated $100,000, Escobar says.

In addition, the Livingston Community Network is a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to students and follows up to ensure that they stay on target all the way through college.

Staying on target is important for everyone in the district, Escobar says, as the schools continue to close gaps in student achievement. “We know that our students can achieve at higher levels than they are, but we are tremendously proud of their progress. We are beginning to feel very successful.”

Lessons Learned
  • Emphasize that the school board’s role is to provide vision, establish major goals, and set policy, yet not impede the work of the superintendent and staff.
  • Build a mutually trusting relationship between the superintendent and board members, so they can share concerns and concentrate on areas that need work.
  • Focus on quality staff and teamwork. A successful district has the right people working together collaboratively as a committed and cohesive team.
  • Use frequent assessments and data to guide instruction and interventions. Livingston uses data to ensure that instruction is appropriate for the grade level and to help teachers assess student achievement levels and adjust instruction if needed.
  • Remember that success begets success. Publicly celebrating the positive accomplishments will spark a passion for further achievement in teachers and students. Encourage, support, and celebrate teachers and learners.


Penny Weaver
Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services
922 B St.
Livingston, CA 95334
Phone: (209) 394-5433
Fax: (209) 394-5401
Email: pweaver@lusd.k12.ca.us
Web site: www.lusd.k12.ca.us

Susan Ruth
Member of the Governing Board
Phone: (209) 394-4144
Email: dignidad@elite.net

This story was written by Terrey Hatcher Quindlen a freelance writer living in Hampstead, North Carolina.

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