By May S. Ruiz
The city of Alhambra, about eight miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, started out as a small residential town when it was first established in 1903. Today it has grown into a bustling community where businesses and residents co-exist amicably.
While Alhambra’s roots were largely Spanish, the 2014 U.S. Census figures show its population is about 53 percent Asian, 34 percent Hispanic or Latino, 10 percent white, 1.5 percent Black or African-American, and a sprinkling of other ethnic groups.
The Alhambra Unified School District (AUSD) encompasses 13 elementary, three comprehensive secondary, and two alternative high schools servicing Alhambra, and adjacent Rosemead, Monterey Park, and San Gabriel. It is a middle-size district with close to 18,000 students under the leadership of the superintendent, Dr. Laura Tellez-Gagliano.
An award-winning district, AUSD has earned numerous accolades as California Distinguished and Blue Ribbon Schools – in 1993; 2002 through 2008; in 2010 and 2014. From 2002 through 2013, several of the district’s schools received the Title I Academic Achievement Award (AAA).
This year, U.S. News & World Report-America’s Best High Schools awarded all three AUSD high schools a Silver Medal. Newsweek’s America’s Top High Schools named San Gabriel High School #9, Mark Keppel #107 and Alhambra High School #165, in Beating the Odds.
AUSD has received five Golden Bell Awards from the California Board Association in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2013. Its three high schools have also garnered an impressive array of achievements – they placed in the LA County Academic Decathlon annually beginning in 2008 through 2015. Alhambra High and Mark Keppel High Schools reached state level in 2009 and 2010; Mark Keppel got to state finals in 2013 and, in 2015, with Alhambra High as well.
Programs in the school district address the needs of its students. According to Dr. Gary Gonzales, Assistant Superintendent, the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), a critical component of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), designates Alhambra as having 72 percent unduplicated count in English learners, socio-economically disadvantaged, and foster youth. Because of this, the district is able to get a supplemental and concentration grant which enables administrators to develop programs, hire teachers and teacher assistants as well as non-certified certificated personnel in their various schools, to provide extra education. Eligible students can take summer classes or extended school days.
According to Brad Walsh, Director for Secondary Learning, AUSD offers four California Partnership Academies – International Business, Business and Technology, Medical Careers, and Green Construction. Students who take classes in any of these academies get real life experience as they practice what they learn in the classroom made possible through partnerships with the business community. Graduates not only receive a high school diploma, they leave school with higher employability skills.
Career and Technical Education courses provide not only classroom learning but practical skills for students who choose these paths – architecture/computer-aided drafting; automotive technology; business; computer applications; culinary arts; drafting; emergency medical responder; emergency medical technician; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); health careers and medical terminology; restaurant; retail; and wood technology.
AUSD is currently developing its Dual Immersion Initiative which it will implement in a pilot program in two elementary schools during the 2015-2016 school year. Mandarin and Spanish will be offered as early as kindergarten, preparing students for a global society and economy.
An open enrollment procedure for Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses started during the 2007-2008 school year. AUSD offers 122 AP classes at their three comprehensive secondary schools – Alhambra, Mark Keppel, and San Gabriel High Schools. An AP course in Human Geography is available as early as 9th grade.
A Special Education Collaboration Model from 8th grade through high school supports students with learning disabilities. Teachers and credentialed facilitators help these individuals keep up with class work and assist students in the classroom. Online education tools, like APEX and ACELLUS, are especially helpful for all students.
Partnerships with community colleges, including Cerritos, Citrus, Rio Hondo, Mount San Antonio and PCC give AUSD high school students an edge in college. Through classes offered on their high school campus, they earn credits towards an Associate or Bachelor’s degree.
All AUSD teachers have been involved in intensive professional development for three years to get their students up-to-speed on the Common Core curriculum. The recently-released results of the new standardized assessment put in place by state superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, indicated that all their hard work have paid off. The publicized numbers were met with jubilation at the Alhambra Unified School District as their assessment scores showed that they outpaced county and state levels.
Fifty-eight percent met or exceeded county and state levels in ELA (English Language arts).
Among Latinos, 43 percent met and exceeded county and state levels; 29 percent English learners exceeded county and state levels; and 53 percent socio-economically disadvantaged (SED) met or exceeded county and state levels.
In the Math exams, 50 percent of AUSD students met or exceeded county and state levels. Among Latinos, 26 percent met or exceeded county and state levels; 35 percent English learners met or exceeded county and state levels; and 45 percent SED met or exceeded county and state levels.
According to Dr. Gonzales, “This new standardized assessment is completely different from the tests given in the past. It wouldn’t be fair to compare the results with past scores; it’s not a pen and paper test, it’s all online. It’s more than a multiple choice exam where students can answer with some guesswork; it’s analytical. It makes students go beyond the procedural; they utilize the conceptual part of learning. It forces them to be critical thinkers – a great way to prepare for college and careers.”
“College and career preparation at AUSD begins even at the elementary school level,” said Judy Huffaker, Nutrition & Career Technical Education Specialist at Alhambra High School. According to Ms. Huffaker, AUSD college counselors invite 8th graders to attend a day-long event that introduces them to College and Career Readiness. Students start 9th grade with the mindset that they will be going to college; they get acquainted with an online process called Career Cruising.
This Oct. 15, 2015, approximately 3,000 senior students and parents will be on the San Gabriel High School campus for a College Fair. From 6 to 8 in the evening, they will meet with about 70 college representatives and attend workshops on planning for college, financial literacy, difference between the ACT and SAT exams.
AUSD’s Career Center conducts college tours at local universities (UC, Cal State, and other private institutions). Counselors hold workshops on resume writing, preparing the personal statement, and available scholarships; they provide assessment orientation and counseling.
Each school year, the approximately 1,800 AUSD seniors attend Cash for College events. With 68 percent socio-economically disadvantaged students in the district, all seniors complete the FAFSA, which may provide financial aid to qualified students.
The Alhambra school district has an impressive academic record. In 2015, it produced nine National Merit semi-finalists; annually, 43 percent of seniors meet the A-G requirements. Graduates go on to some of the most prestigious universities in the country, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, USC, Cal Berkeley, and Stanford. Additionally, students attend many local colleges and universities like Cal Poly Pomona, Occidental, Azusa Pacific, Cal State Los Angeles, and Whittier College.
So while the recent state-administered exams showed there is still a gap in academic skills between AUSD’s Asian and Latino students, that divide is narrowing. Administrators are working feverishly to put in place action plans and services to close that learning difference.
As Dr. Gonzales pointed out, “Each and every student in the Alhambra School District believes he or she will go to college.” Initiatives and programs are in place to ensure students harness their potential to realize that dream. Indeed they have much to look forward to and celebrate!