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Everything You've Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong

Attendance: up. Dropout rates: plummeting. College acceptance: through the roof. My mind-blowing year inside a "low-performing" school.

Illustration by Jon KrauseIllustration by Jon Krause"SPEEK EENGLISH, TACO," THE GIRL with the giant backpack yelled when Maria asked where to find a bathroom. The backpack giggled as it bounced down the hall. It had been hours since Maria began looking for a bathroom. Anger boiled inside her, but she didn't know any English words to yell back. That was the hardest part. Back in El Salvador she'd always had something to say.

The bell rang. A flood of shoulders and sneakers swirled around Maria, and she couldn't see much until the sea of strangers streamed back into classrooms. Then she stood alone in the hallway.

It was Maria's first day at school, her first week in the United States. Her middle school in San Francisco was the biggest building she'd ever seen. It was bigger than the entire Best Buy store she'd walked through in awe on her first day in the city.

Eventually, Maria found her way to class, a special setting for Spanish-speaking newcomers. There she would practice English words for colors and numbers, learn how to introduce herself and how to say thank you. By eighth grade she was moved into mainstream classes, where she struggled. It didn't help that her math teacher started each class by saying, "Okay, my little dummies." He spoke really fast. Maria never raised her hand in his class.

One day Maria stopped by the administrative office, looking for someone to help her with multiplication. She took her spot in line behind a middle-aged woman who chatted with her in Spanish as they waited. Maria said school was really hard for her. The woman told her not to worry. "Latinas usually don't finish high school," she said. "They go to work or raise kids."

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The woman was right, statistically speaking, and Maria's middle-school experience all but ensured she'd join the 52 percent of foreign-born Latinos who drop out of high school. She graduated from eighth grade without learning to speak English. She had a hard time writing in Spanish and didn't know how to multiply.

And then everything changed. At Mission High, the struggling school she'd chosen against the advice of her friends and relatives, Maria earned high grades in math and some days caught herself speaking English even with her Spanish-speaking teachers. By 11th grade, she wrote long papers on complex topics like desegregation and the war in Iraq. She became addicted to winning debates in class, despite her shyness and heavy accent. In her junior year, she became the go-to translator and advocate for her mother, her aunts, and for other Latino kids at school. In March, Maria and her teachers were celebrating acceptance letters to five colleges and two prestigious scholarships, including one from Dave Eggers' writing center, 826 Valencia.

But on the big state tests—the days-long multiple-choice exams that students in California take once a year—Maria scored poorly. And these standardized tests, she understood, were how her school was graded. According to the scores, Mission High is among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country, and it has consistently failed to meet the ever-rising benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law mandates universal "proficiency" in math and reading by 2014—a deadline that weighs heavily on educators around the nation, since schools that don't meet it face stiff penalties.

IT WAS WITH THESE PENALTIES on his mind that Mission High principal Eric Guthertz got ready for work one morning in 2010. It was his wife's birthday, and also the day California was supposed to release its list of "persistently low-performing" schools—schools that the state deemed as urgently in need of improvement. As he put on his tie, he recalls, "I told my wife, 'I hope we dodged that bullet!' But I was kidding, because I was convinced we wouldn't be on that list. And on my ride to school, I was feeling bad for the principals" who would.

It wasn't long after he got to the office that the phone rang. It was the district. Mission was on the list.

Guthertz was in shock. His teachers had been working so hard, he thought. What would they say? How about the parents, the students? Where would he get extra resources to bring up the numbers? Mission's test scores and college acceptance rates had been going up. But for purposes of the list, that didn't matter.Maria arrived at Mission barely speaking English. By the time she left she'd been admitted to five colleges. Photo by Lianne MiltonMaria arrived at Mission barely speaking English. By the time she left she'd been admitted to five colleges. Photo by Lianne Milton

A few months later, Guthertz got another call from the district. This one was of the good news/bad news variety: As a low-performing school, Mission qualified for additional funding—but only if it agreed to undergo a major restructuring. Options included replacing the principal and either revamping the curriculum or replacing half the staff; closing the school; or turning it into a charter. Guthertz had been promoted to his job less than two years earlier, and the district was allowed to report this change to the federal government as a replacement of the principal—a loophole that bought Mission some time. But San Francisco's oldest comprehensive public high school, founded in 1890, would still have to show dramatic growth in scores by 2014 or face more interventions, including possible closure.

Around the same time that Guthertz was digesting this news, I was calling education officials in search of a school that would let me spend time inside its classrooms. I was looking for a grassroots view of America's latest run at school reform: How do we know when schools are failing, and why is it so hard to turn them around? Is the close to $4.4 billion spent on testing since 2002—with scores now used for everything from deciding teacher pay to allocating education budgets—getting results? Is all that data helping us figure out what really works, or seducing us into focusing only on what the tests can measure?

If you wonder why you haven't read many accounts of how these questions are playing out in real life, there's a reason: It's easier for a journalist to embed with the Army or the Marines than to go behind the scenes at a public school. It took months to find one that would let me play fly on the wall. Once Guthertz opened the door at Mission, it took months more for some teachers, wary of distortion and stereotyping, to warm to me. In the end, I'd spend more than 18 months in Mission's classrooms, cafeterias, and administrative offices, finally watching the Class of 2012—including a beaming Maria—show off their diplomas.

I'd expected noisy classrooms, hallway fights, and disgruntled staff. Instead I found a welcoming place, satisfied students and parents, and an 88 percent college acceptance rate.

The surprises began almost right away. Judging from what I'd read about "troubled" schools, I'd expected noisy classrooms, hallway fights, and disgruntled staff. Instead I found a welcoming place that many students and staff called "family." After a few weeks of talking to students, I failed to find a single one who didn't like the school, and most of the parents I met were happy too. Mission's student and parent satisfaction surveys rank among the highest in San Francisco.

One of the most diverse high schools in the country, Mission has 925 students holding 47 different passports. The majority are Latino, African American, and Asian American, and 72 percent are poor. Yet even as the school was being placed on the list of lowest-performing schools, 84 percent of the graduating class went on to college, higher than the district average; this year, 88 percent were accepted. (Nationally, 32 percent of Latino and 38 percent of African American students go to college.) That same year, Mission improved Latinos' test scores more than any other school in the district. And while suspensions are skyrocketing across the nation, they had gone down by 42 percent at Mission. Guthertz had seen dropout rates fall from 32 percent to 8 percent. Was this what a failing school looked like?

WHEN MARIA TURNED THREE, SHE stopped hearing the voice of her mother in the mornings. No one explained where she'd gone, but when Maria was seven, her grandmother explained that her mom had crossed three borders to find work in California. Maria and her older brother were raised by her grandparents in the village of San Juan Las Minas in El Salvador. Their aunt Angelica came to visit when she could.

Maria doesn't remember much from those days except for her auntie's soft, soothing voice. Angelica had two children of her own, but she didn't mind when Maria started calling her "mom." When Angelica left, Maria kept to herself. Her grandparents were busy growing vegetables, raising cows and chickens, and looking after Maria, her brother, and four cousins.

Angelica ran a corner liquor store in San Salvador, two hours away. To stay in business, she had to pay off the MS-13 gang each month. They left her alone most of the time, except the day they shot one of her customers in the store. Maria was there. A piece of the man's head dropped on her foot.

Angelica loved escaping the city for Las Minas. "I'm like you, Maria. Like a little girl," she used to say when they played soccer together or climbed the mango trees.

Maria remembers everything about the day of her auntie's funeral. Angelica's tall body in a light wooden coffin beside the kitchen table, surrounded by candles. The scent of wax giving way to the smell of beer and sticky sweat as the day wore on. The 20 strangers in the house, their shiny, shirtless bodies covered in tattoos of letters, numbers, and devil's horns: symbols for MS-13. As the house got hotter, the men's voices grew louder. They started playing poker, roaring at their own jokes.

Maria, now 12, was praying near the coffin. She could see her auntie's dark hair through the white lace covering her face. It had been a week since she'd last heard from her. "Don't worry," Angelica had said. "I'll take care of everything. I'll pay off MS-13."

Making the Grade

But she couldn't. She didn't have enough money. Three days after that call, she was found at the entrance of a San Salvador hospital, naked and barely alive. The doctors said she'd been raped and tortured for days. There was nothing they could do to save her.

Maria tried to focus on praying, but the men who'd invaded her grandparents' house got louder, throwing cards across the table and spitting on the floors. Maria gathered her courage and walked toward them. "Be respectful or get out of my house!" she shouted. The men's heads turned. For a few moments, the house was quiet. Then the men started laughing.

They left only after Angelica was buried, and they'd taken all of Maria's grandparents' money.

"Why don't you come to America?" Maria's mother asked her on the phone a week after the funeral. She had been talking to her about coming to the States since she was seven. "I'd always say no," Maria recalls. "I loved my auntie more than anything. I didn't want to be in any other country but mine. But when my auntie died, I had no one close left."

Maria was the youngest passenger on the bus crossing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico toward California. Her mom had paid the coyote $3,000, and Maria's ride was easy. No wandering through the desert. The coyote bought them chicken for dinner every night. At home, her grandparents cooked chicken only when relatives came over on Sunday.

THE FIRST TIME MARIA SET FOOT IN Mission High, she thought it looked like a church. The facade and doorway were decorated with intricate Spanish Baroque moldings. Heavy iron chandeliers adorned the ornate ceiling above the entrance hall. The light glittered on spotless yellow linoleum. As Maria and her middle-school classmates toured the library, courtyards, and cafeteria, she noticed that people seemed friendly. Even the security guards were cracking jokes. Principal Guthertz regaled students with the school's history and famous alumni: Carlos Santana, Maya Angelou. There were after-school programs—the Latino student club, soccer, creative writing. Maria asked a few students if they liked Mission. To her surprise, all of them did.

Everyone Maria knew outside of Mission told her not to go there. Her mother's friends said she should pick a better school. Maria's friends said Mission had gangs.

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