It's not often that a middle school principal would be pleased to hear about a decline in one of his student's grades, but when Arturo Valdez heard about a Luther Burbank student who complained about going from straight A's to "mostly B's," he cant help but smile.
That's because, in his first year as 's top administrator, he's set out to turn around the academically flagging school by installing an even more challenging curriculum.
As part of his plan to accomplish his goal, Valdez has required every eighth grade student in the school to take Algebra--regardless of their academic success in the previous year.
The student who saw his grades dropped from A's to B's relayed the story while sitting in Amy Uyeshima's 8th grade Algebra Class, where during one of the last days of the school year, students were being taught how to construct a complex geometrical structure known as a Mobius Strip from cardboard.
"This group is so hard working," Uyeshima said. "I'd say three-fourths of them will be ready for high school Geometry next year."
Those who don't pass the class will still be able to move forward to high school, where they'll retake Algebra. To Valdez, the fact that three-fourths of the students have passed the the rigorous class is more impressive than passing 100-percent of students in lower level courses. He adds the students who have to retake Algebra in high school will have a leg-up on students who didn't take it in eighth grade.
Valdez, who has lead the reconstitution of Burbank that was required by the Los Angeles Unified School District following years of lagging test scores at the school, said his focus has been on enforcing academic rigor in an attempt to transform the school's culture.
"What happens in the classroom permeates all areas," Valdez said.
As part of the school's reconstitution, Burbank's teachers were required to reapply for their jobs and sign and academic compact that would marry them to Valdez's vision for the school.
Over 80-percent of the staff was turned over. As a result, Valdez said, Burbank now features a staff of holdovers and new recruits who are all focused on a single goal--challenging students to perform at levels they previously thought were impossible.
In what Valdez refers to as "heterogeneous classrooms" students classified as "advanced" sit next to those with "far below basic" skills. The lower performing students are expected to keep up, Valdez said, with the help of their more gifted peers.
"Instead of putting, like they did last year, all the advanced and proficient students in Algebra and all the basic and far below basic in an algebra readiness class--essentially putting all the ones that can over here and all the ones that can't over there--in heterogeneous grouping we matched it so that there was an equal amount of advanced, proficient, basic and far below basic in those classes, so they could help and mentor each other," Valdez said. "What happened is the ones that really rose to the occasion were the basic and far below basic, because they wanted keep up with the advanced and proficient."
The opportunity to mentor their peers has also been beneficial to the higher performing students, Valdez said.
"The best way to learn something is to teach it. Once you teach, it's ingrained in you, because you have to defend it. Your peers are going to ask you questions about it and you have to be logical about it," Valdez said. "So, now these kids that are advanced and proficient are working with not only their teacher, but their peers to help them understand content."
The positive results can been seen in testing data collected by the school. According to regularly administered assessment exams meant to mirror the California Standards Test, more students at Burbank are now classified as advanced and proficient in Algebra compared to the 2010/2011 school year.
According to data provided by Valdez, by the third periodic assessment exam, 42-percent of Burbank's eighth graders were advanced or proficient in Algebra compared to only 31-percent at the same time last year.
"When I tell you we're making gains, it's because of that. It's not what I think or what I feel, or even what I see. The bottom line is the data," Valdez said.
Valdez said the classroom success has spurred positive developments elsewhere.
Attendance has improved. According to Valdez, 76-percent of Burbank's students are attending school 97.3-percent of the time. Enough to earn an attendance award from the district.
Longtime Gym Teacher Ed Barazza--who left the school in 2010/11 before returning this year--said the change has been "amazing."
"We used to have a lot of fights, a lot problems in class," Barazza said. "Not this year."
During a tour of the school's grounds, he flaunted bathrooms that were free of tagging and stopped to chat with students who walked through the halls with color-coded passes.
And, while most students were hesitant to applaud the implementation of more difficult courses at Burbank, some noticed that the school had changed for the better.
Sitting in teacher Zachary Weiss' eighth-grade algebra class, Karina Sosa-Cortez and small group of student finished out the class year by working on Calculus problems.
"You can tell that the classes are more challenging," Sosa-Cortez said. "That's a good thing."