J.J. Cairns is focus of Stanford University study attempting to measure social, emotional growth in high school students
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
LINDSAY – Mario Rodriguez is a quiet and proud Lindsay learner. He makes eye contact as he shakes hands, listening intently to what you have to say and says very little in return. The 18-year-old’s oil stained overalls show his willingness to work and his steady hands show his confidence in that work. When you ask his employer, customers, teachers and advisors, the senior is a model student. But things were not always that way.
Mario was once considered a troubled kid. He was known at Lindsay High School for having a bad attitude toward school, being anti-social and unable to work well with others. By the end of his freshman year, Mario had earned just 5 credits toward the 175 needed to graduate and was, in his mind, demoted to John J. Cairns, the continuation high school for the Lindsay Unified School District.
“I was frustrated, didn’t like the crowds and couldn’t concentrate with all of the people around,” Mario said.
Mario felt like he was being punished for struggling and carried his frustration to J.J. when he started his sophomore year. Within a few months he had more than 60 credits toward graduation, close friends, and teachers who cared about his success.
So what exactly changed for Mario at John J. Cairns? He doesn’t really know and neither do his teachers, but an ongoing study of the school hopes to answer that question and use it to help students like Mario all across the country.
The three-year study
Paolo Martin, a doctoral student at Stanford’s School of Education, and Vinci Daro, a researcher for Envision Learning Partners, are conducting a three-year study of six high school sites in California. The study focuses on social-emotional learning, or the personal growth that a student experiences in school that can’t be measured by traditional metrics.
The study’s goal is to attempt to measure how students feel about their school site and the adults that run it and how that connection impacts their academic growth beyond state test scores.
“It’s hard to measure experiences,” said Martin, who has been observing and interviewing J.J. Cairns learners and learning facilitators for more than a year. “There are surveys statewide but we are trying to find a way to go beyond that.”
Principal Dennis Doane said learners like Mario are the rule rather than the exception at his school site. He said every student at J.J. Cairns is credit deficient, meaning they cannot graduate on time without a different approach to increase their focus and accelerate their learning. The main reason LUSD learners fall behind in school is chronic absenteeism and the primary source of that is trouble at home.
“When most of those kids come through the door, and you get them talking, they are saying, without saying it directly, ‘Please mentor me. My life is overwhelming.’”
J.J. Cairns truancy rate has dropped from 21.83 in 2011, which was higher than the district average, to 15.57 in 2016, lower than the average for the district, county and state. “Ten minutes after the bell rings, if they aren’t here, we’re calling home to get them here,” Doane said.
Since 2011, J.J. Cairns had the second lowest suspension rate of any school in the district.
“We don’t suspend students, and sometimes that’s frustrating for the staff,” Doane said. “But sending a kid home doesn’t teach him how to deal with conflict and disappointment. Home is also where they are learning the poor behaviors.”
However, the school’s chronic absenteeism rate remains the highest in the district and more than five times the statewide average. The site’s graduation rate has climbed from 59.2% in 2010 to 68.2% in 2017. Four years after J.J. Cairns students took the first Smarter Balanced Assessment Test, an online achievement measurement, students improved their proficiency in English language arts (ELA). In 2015, only 17% of students met standards for ELA compared with 27.59% in 2017. No students were proficient in math in 2015 or 2017. The student teacher ratio at J.J. Cairns is 17 to 1 instead of 22 to 1 at Lindsay High School.
“We do a lot of great work but we often do it accidentally,” Doane said. “We just aren’t able to capture it and replicate it. Customizing learning has helped us do good work here, now let’s do it even better.”
In the case of Mario, Martin said he has seen a completely different kid from August to October. In his interviews, Mario told Martin that he found the atmosphere of the alternative education school site to be less stressful. There were fewer students on campus, learning facilitators were able to spend more time helping him, and he found he had a lot in common with his new classmates.
“I wouldn’t have believed any of the things I heard about Mario prior to him coming to J.J. Cairns,” Martin said. “He’s a content, quiet kid that is doing really well.”
Doane said a big reason for Mario’s turnaround was the school’s internship program, but the success didn’t come without setbacks. Mario’s first internship was through the district’s Maintenance, Operations and Transportation Department. Mario was placed at the high school where he was given entry level tasks such as custodial work. Mario said he liked the work but didn’t like the looks his former classmates would give him when he had to clean up after them.
“It kind of pushed my buttons,” Mario said.
Rather than force Mario to stick out the internship, his advisor quickly pulled him out and met with Mario to figure out a better situation. Mario told the school he had already found a new internship at Gutierrez Automotive Repair in a field he was genuinely interested in learning more about. In the last two years at the auto shop, Mario has learned to work on brakes, flush transmissions, change oil, and replace power steering pumps.
“I requested him for a second time this year,” said owner Miguel Gutierrez, who could not have hired Mario without the insurance provided through the program. “He’s not afraid to get dirty and if he doesn’t know something, he asks questions.”
Senior Karina Garcia didn’t have much hope of graduating when she began her freshman year at Lindsay High School. Within a few weeks of high school she was already in trouble with the law and missed a lot of time from school between her 7th grade and 11th grade years. She eventually found her way to J.J. Cairns where she found the atmosphere to be more “mellow” than the high school and the teachers were “pretty awesome.”
“I’m happy I came to this school,” Karina said.
As the oldest of five siblings, Karina thrived in her internship helping the teacher in a first grade class at Washington Elementary. She said the internship helped her find a purpose in life and realize what was important. She is now working hard to not only graduate on time, but also experience the things people remember most about high school.
“I don’t want to miss out on prom and other stuff from my senior year,” Karina said.
Student advocate and internship coordinator Eric Gonzales said students like Karina do much better at J.J. Cairns because it maintains the academic rigor without the social stresses of a traditional high school.
“We do things a different way here, a way that makes it easier for them to comprehend,” Eric said. “It’s the same work they are doing at [Lindsay] High School but we can offer more support.”
Gonzales said nearly every student at J.J. Cairns is in an internship program ranging from auto shops to hospitals and from custodial to computer work. Students attend a traditional classroom setting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while Tuesdays and Thursdays they either put time in a their internship or meet with their internship advisor to discuss problems or praise at the job site. Each teacher at J.J. mentors between 15-17 learners through the internships. The learners also earn school credit during their internships, a big deal for students trying to make up lost credits to graduate on time.
The school’s motto is “We work hard and we finish STRONG!” It was created by learners and learning facilitators to change the culture at the school to reflect a new emphasis on working toward a goal, whether that is graduation, a paying job, or just being more equipped to deal with life’s obstacles. STRONG stands for Self-directed, Trust, Respect, Ownership, Never give up, Growth mindset.
“When you give a kid a diploma, they think they are done, but it’s really just the beginning of the rest of their life,” Doane said.
Martin said a huge piece of understanding J.J. is the closeness students feel to their teachers.
“We call it the ‘J.J. magic’,” Martin said. “Students say things like ‘our teachers care for us, ‘I trust my teachers,’ those things come out again and again.”
ELA learning facilitator Bernadette Shelton has been teaching at J.J. Cairns for the last five years. She said a lot of the kids that come to J.J. Cairns come from broken homes with little to no support for education from their parents.
“In order to be a positive adult, a person needs five supportive adults in their life while growing up,” Shelton said. “You try and create a safe environment where there is coaching and listening.”
Shelton has her learners leave anonymous notes of positivity for their fellow classmates and brings a lot of homemade food for her students to share at breakfast and lunch earning her the nickname “mom”.
“They give me the kids who are emotionally sensitive and looking for a mother figure,” Shelton said. “I recognize their potential and have empathy for their situation.”
Thanks to the support of their teachers and the mentors at their internships, Karina and Mario both plan to graduate on time in the spring and attend college next fall. Karina will be pursuing a career in law enforcement while Mario wants to become a certified diesel mechanic.
Daro said it is too early to know what educational methodology will come out of the Stanford study but does know that J.J. Cairns will be featured prominently in the data.
“Our way of thinking across the study has been shaped significantly by J.J. Cairns,” Daro said. “There is so much great stuff here that others can learn from.”