Strict, supportive campus environment deemed a key to student success
By Barbara Jones Staff Writer, LA Daily News | http://bit.ly/14VpK2s
Linda Calvo is the principal at high-achieving Arleta High School. (Hans Gutknecht / Staff Photographer)
Arleta High School student Cobey Paiz. (Hans Gutknecht / Staff Photographer)>>
Related: Arleta High honors its three top Mustangs
5/26/2013 04:07:38 PM PDT :: When Arleta High holds its commencement ceremonies next week, its graduation rate of 92 percent will be the highest of any traditional high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
All but a handful of the 391 members of the Class of 2013 applied to college, and those who didn't are headed for the military or a family business.
Ask the students how they did it, and they credit Principal Linda Calvo and the strict-yet-nurturing campus environment that encourages them to do their best, support one another and believe in themselves.
"I think about being a Mustang and just feel joy and how proud I am," said graduating senior Cobey Paiz, who plans to study kinesiology this fall at Cal State East Bay.
Achieving that level of school spirit was Calvo's goal as she prepared to open Arleta High in October 2006. The glass-and-steel structure was built to relieve overcrowding at neighboring San Fernando, Monroe and Francis Poly High schools, and she wanted to give students who would have gone to those campuses a place of their own to love.
"Parents and students wanted a school that was clean and safe, where the expectations were high," Calvo said during a recent interview. "I wanted a school where students were treasured. "
For the kids she affectionately calls "my Mustangs," Calvo developed a curriculum and support system based on her own version of the Three R's "" rigor, relevance and relationships. Students enroll in one of three small learning communities, with themes to help them set a course for their future. They take eight classes a year rather than the usual six, with longer-than-usual periods so they get more in-depth instruction.
<<Arleta High School student Abner Hernandez. (Hans Gutknecht / Staff Photographer)
A midday advisory period gives kids time to learn leadership skills or prepare for the California High School Exit Exam. Seniors participate in College Summit, a nonprofit-run program that guides them through the post-secondary application process. They can also work on their portfolio, a four-year scrapbook of their achievements that is a requirement for getting a diploma.
Flipping past pages displaying outstanding classroom assignments and a rock-solid academic transcript, Abner Hernandez stopped at the certificate he received as Mustang of the Week for his behind-the-scenes assistance to the football team.
"We get recognized for the little things," said Hernandez, who will be heading to Valley College in the fall, with the long-term goal of joining the LAPD. "Having someone realize what you're doing "" it means everything. "
Calvo said she uses a formula of high expectations and positive reinforcement to ensure that her Mustangs get a good education and become valuable members of the community.
Nearly 90 percent of this year's sophomore class passed the CAHSEE on their first try, including 27 students who got perfect scores. (They earned a "CAHSEE-dia" party as a reward.) The school's Academic Performance Index, based on standardized test scores, has skyrocketed by 110 points to 688 points since it opened. Students must earn at least a "C," not a "D" to pass a math class, a requirement being implemented districtwide this fall. The football team was honored this year for having the highest grade-point average - a 3.1 - among all school in LAUSD.
Arleta High School student Jennifer Sanchez. (Hans Gutknecht / Staff Photographer)>>
And there's an emphasis on staying in school, with networks of staff members and classmates to prevent anyone from falling through the cracks.
"Everyone is held accountable," Calvo said. "There's no discussion. My Mustangs know, 'This is what's expected of me.' This lets us have a positive relationship and accountability."
Rather than chafing under the tough standards, students say they thrive because of the school's supportive atmosphere.
"My friends at other schools say Arleta is too strict, but I think it's really good for us," said Jennifer Sanchez, a math whiz who plans to major in biology at Cal State Northridge, with an eye toward becoming a veterinarian. "It's like a warm hug. "
<<Arleta High School student Mariela Dorado. (Hans Gutknecht / Staff Photographer)
For all of their academic success, students said it's the all-for-one atmosphere they find most appealing.
There are no mean girls. No bullies. No cliques that make outcasts out of smart students or kids in the band. Anyone who crosses the line is just as likely to be scolded by a classmate as reprimanded by a teacher.
"If someone doesn't buy in, they find their way to another school," Paiz said.
Frequently shunned in junior high because of her exceptional grades, Mariela Dorado found acceptance at Arleta High, where she not only excelled in her classes but became a star in the school's leadership program.
"I learned that I love to help other people," said Dorado, an aspiring attorney who will be attending UC Irvine in the fall. "Feeling good is not about yourself, but about how you help others. "
Calvo's efforts have won kudos from both inside and outside LAUSD.
Superintendent John Deasy describes her as an "A-No. 1 principal" who helped make Arleta a "stunning example of a highly, highly successful high school." The Valley Economic Alliance last week presented her with its Champion of Education Award, although she insisted the honor recognize the accomplishments of the staff and students and not just her own.
The school's June 7 commencement ceremony will be among the last officials duty for Calvo, who is quietly retiring after 37 years with the district. She's pledged to come back when the Class of 2014 graduates, and has no doubt that she'll find the Mustang spirit intact.
"Our programs are designed to be sustainable," she said. "The school's legacy will continue. "