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How a Focus on Access & Equity Is Making a Difference in Yuma

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November 29th, 2018

This excerpt comes from our latest white paper written in conjunction with Gina Thompson, Superintendent of Yuma Union High School District. Read the entire article here.

Based on raw numbers, Yuma Union High School District (YUHSD) would appear to be a school district poised to fail. Poverty is endemic to the region; 73% of YUHSD students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Seventy-eight percent of the students are Hispanic, a population challenged by high dropout rates nationwide. Twenty- two percent of YUHSD students come from migrant families, and often deal with disrupted home lives, parents who lack education, and a shortened “school year” that typically runs the length of a farmworker’s contract, from October through April.

The language barrier is another struggle for the 5% of YUHSD students who are English-language learners (ELLs). Nationally, only 63% of ELLs graduate from high school, compared with the overall graduation rate of 82%.

In addition to these potential barriers to student success, YUHSD faces challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining talented educators. Yuma, sitting in the desert near both the California and Mexico borders, is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as an “urban isolated area.” Attracting teachers to a place like this isn’t exactly an easy sell.

Simply put, the students of YUHSD aren’t “supposed” to do well in school. But it seems as though the district’s 9th-through-12th graders have chosen to ignore the voluminous literature showing a correlation between their particular demographics and reduced academic performance. Against all odds, Yuma’s high school students are thriving.

A core value throughout YUHSD is that all students in the district are capable of learning and will graduate with the dispositions and skills they need to live successfully in the 21st century. This value is the district’s North Star, and after few years of focused effort the district has made tremendous strides toward the goal of college, career, and community readiness for all.

According to data from the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) on the class of 2016, 68% of graduating YUHSD seniors enrolled in a postsecondary educational program, beating the state average of 52.5% by nearly 16 percentage points.

The district’s San Luis High School, located on the Arizona- Mexico border, achieved a college-going rate of 76.3%— more than six percentage points above the national average. This high-performing school ranks among the seven best high schools in Arizona. (See sidebar.) The rest of YUHSD’s comprehensive high schools rank in the top 26% of all 174 Arizona high schools. Even Vista High School, the district’s alternative high school serving at-risk students, improved its college-going rate from the previous year by 6.2%.

These incredible numbers are in large part the result of an innovative partnership between YUHSD and the Helios Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students—specifically in Arizona and Florida— succeed in postsecondary education.

Helios President and CEO Paul Luna says, “What we found in Yuma … were leaders and a community … willing to embrace this idea that we can do better for our students, that we could introduce a more rigorous curriculum that would challenge the students to do more and to be better.”

Together, the two organizations developed an initiative called Ready Now Yuma (RNY), which began in 2011 with a $5 million grant from Helios. The initiative provided grant- funded positions that will sustain themselves after the 2018-2019 school year, thanks to self-funding mechanisms built into the district budget.

“It was important to build in self-funding mechanisms for all of the grant-funded positions and salary increases,” says Gina Thompson, YUHSD’s Superintendent who began her 29-year career as a teacher in the district’s Cibola High School. “Our CFO is always looking ahead when it comes to paying for new personnel—we never hire anyone without a sustainability plan.”

With funding in place, the district and Helios have been able to focus on RNY’s clear and ambitious goals:

  • Provide a rigorous curriculum for every student
  • Create a college-going culture
  • Make sure that every student graduates and is prepared to succeed

While any district can construct a strategic plan that appears to have great vision and a solid theory of action, only districts that relentlessly pursue success can achieve the kind of results realized by YUHSD.

To break the norm for a district with challenging demographics, officials at YUHSD focused on six distinct elements:

1. Bold Leadership
2. Parent/Guardian and Community Partnerships 3. Safe and Supportive Schools
4. Professional Capacity
5. Ambitious Curriculum and Instruction
6. Student and Teacher Supports

In this paper, we’ll explore these six elements, to help officials in other districts understand what can happen when the educational experience is guided by a single core value: that all students can find a path to success.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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