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How a Unique Border-Town District Defies Demographics

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October 11th, 2018

Serving the entire city of Yuma, Arizona—a town near the Mexican border with a population just under 100,000—the Yuma Union High School District (YUHSD) consists of five comprehensive high schools and one alternative high school.

The majority of students in the district are economically disadvantaged and Hispanic. Seventy-three percent of YUHSD students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and 22% are the children of seasonal migrant farmworkers, many of whom lack education and are only in the U.S. from October through April.

Statistically, students with similar demographics tend to struggle academically. However, YUHSD is proving that all students can succeed, regardless of past performance or post-high school aspirations.

In 2011, officials in the district launched the Ready Now Yuma (RNY) initiative, funded with a $5 million dollar grant from the Helios Foundation. Designed to help all students master skills demanded by colleges and employers, RNY relies on a rigorous curriculum and rigorous data analysis to help students succeed.

According to data from the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR), RNY is working. More than 68% of YUHSD students from the class of 2016 enrolled in college, beating the state average by more than 15%.

All of YUHSD’s comprehensive high schools ranked in the top 26% of all Arizona high schools, and San Luis High School, with a college-going rate of 76.3%, ranked seventh in the entire state.

As part of Ready Now Yuma, YUHSD has been using the Cambridge Curriculum with all of its students. Designed to develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration skills, this internationally-recognized curriculum is often only used in “honors” classes. At YUHSD, however, officials follow a core belief that all students can do well if they’re given the right tools.

To help students handle the rigor of the curriculum, the district adopted Illuminate DnA, the assessment data platform from Illuminate Education, to collect and analyze student data. Gina Thompson, who became district superintendent in 2017, says that the district’s teachers needed more information than a traditional student information system could provide, namely accessible data about learning that could be used to support individual students.

“Illuminate DnA rose to the top of an RFP because it empowers teachers to use data for the benefit of each student,” said Thompson. “The philosophy behind Illuminate DnA was directly aligned with Ready Now Yuma, and we were excited to embrace them as a partner.”

Using periodic assessments and benchmarks, Illuminate DnA provides teachers at YUHSD with many opportunities to identify struggling students and make instructional modifications to get them back on track. Teachers analyze data on a regular basis to see exactly what they need to teach differently or personalize for various students. Because each assessment can be broken down by topic areas, reporting from Illuminate DnA shows how each student, classroom, or subgroup is performing at a very granular level.

Once the YUHSD principals started working with student data, teachers began to follow suit, supported by data technology coaches who helped create and share assessments. Timothy Brienza, Associate Superintendent at YUHSD, says that these positions were recently eliminated as most YUHSD teachers are well-versed in Illuminate DnA and no longer require coaching.

Currently, the district is looking for coaches who can improve analytics capabilities and expand the types of data the district can review. As the district transitions to substituting ACT results for state tests, for example, district leaders are receiving outside help analyzing historical data for trends, instructional gaps and synergies, and a better understanding of how practice tests and tutoring can help more students succeed.

Brienza asserts that transparency is of primary importance when it comes to data discussions. “We want everyone to see the data,” he says. “The success of our students depends on it. ”

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