Where Everybody Belongs

By NASSP Breakthrough Schools on Behalf of Marshall Fundamental Secondary School, California


  • A 2012 cohort graduation rate of nearly 98%
  • 949 AP tests taken by 416 students in 2013, up from 578 AP tests taken by 261 students in 2010
  • 90% of Marshall students pass the California High School Exit Exam in English language arts on their first attempt, and 87% do so in math

There is a special energy at Marshall Fundamental Secondary School. Students exhibit a cheerful spirit and are clearly glad to be there; teachers are welcoming and energetic. As a result, demand to attend Marshall has grown in recent years and typically exceeds the number of spaces available with a waiting list that approaches 1,000 students. Although this grades 6–12 school, originally built in 1925, has been enhanced and the campus expanded over the years, there is no additional space to house an increase in enrollment beyond the current capacity of 1,950. The few available spaces are awarded through a districtwide open enrollment and random lottery process that ensures fairness. Consequently, Marshall’s students come from every corner of the Pasadena (CA) Unified School District, ensuring a widely diverse student body with one common characteristic: all are proud to be attending a school that others are clamoring to get into.

Mark Anderson, the 2011 California Assistant Principal of the Year, joined the faculty as principal in September 2011. When he was chosen to lead the work at Marshall, Anderson immediately saw the need to focus on two important goals: raising student achievement and increasing school spirit. Early conversations with faculty and staff members left him thinking that the school mission and vision needed to be more clearly defined. He observed, “Everyone worked in the same place but were not on the same page. There were lots of people working hard, but I needed to get us all working symbiotically.”

Anderson’s first official focus was working with the faculty to establish a set of core beliefs and values and to create a new mission statement that reflected the “breakthrough” attitude of the school. This was accomplished through a series of activities designed to guide the faculty to a common definition that expressed their core mission. Throughout this initial process, Anderson focused on using the skills and input of the newly created instructional leadership team (ILT), emerging teacher leaders, and other staff members to move the school forward. A competition to create a new school logo brought students into the schoolwide plan to positively “brand” Marshall in the community. This effort to establish and consistently follow a clear direction was not a one-time, symbolic activity. Today, it continues to be modeled and sustained throughout the school community. Marshall students remark that their principal is always reminding them to “focus on the focus.”

Anderson credits former administrators and faculty members as far back as 10 years before his tenure with making the initial breakthroughs in achievement, including more focused attention on closing the achievement gaps. He sees his role as sustaining and valuing that work, while challenging staff members and students to build on those accomplishments to be even greater and to expand the vision of what Marshall can be. In doing so, Anderson encourages everyone to operate under the premise that the work is never done, so they must try each day “to think better, do better, and be better.”

Both the principal and the faculty regard the required implementation of Common Core State Standards as a welcome opportunity to enhance their teaching skills and continue the school’s upward progress. Curriculum refinement committees support teachers as they create pilot Common Core lessons that meet the new standards. Teachers have embraced this challenge, and evidence can be seen throughout the building: staff members are collaborating to carefully craft lessons that address the standards and the principal has provided multiple supporting resources, including “flip” books that help teachers and students easily access and understand the shift to stronger, more rigorous instruction. Teachers are provided with sample assessments through the state-funded Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium; the standards and learning progressions are posted in classrooms; and academic vocabulary is evident throughout the building. Students speak knowledgeably about open-ended and essential questions and academic language, described by one senior as “talking like a scholar.”

AP for All

Perhaps the most stunning recent achievement at Marshall is the rapid growth, both in size and quality, of its AP program, which has expanded from 578 tests taken by 261 students in 2010 to 949 tests taken by 416 students in 2013. While this growth may appear to have occurred quickly and unexpectedly, the foundation for it began a number of years ago when the decision was made by previous administrators to open AP admission to all students. Marshall’s 6–12 grade configuration facilitates long-range vertical teaming. AP teachers who had initially developed strong programs in English, math, and social studies worked with teachers at all grade levels to develop a curriculum and create pre-AP courses to prepare students for rigorous AP course work early. As a result, students in sixth grade boastfully announce that they are in such classes, preparing for the AP classes they will take in high school.

The success of the pre-AP program builds cohorts of students more ready and willing to take on the challenges of the AP courses. The pre-AP courses also serve as a scaffold to high school courses in general. The stated purpose is to prepare students for the rigors of AP so that a student in the middle grades, who may not have the traditional academic history of a “typical” AP student, is already being challenged and prepared for work that is five years into his or her future. Perhaps more importantly, all students are being encouraged at a younger age to develop the mind-set that they are capable of such work. The same confidence in their ability to be successful is communicated to students in the special education program. Although the timeline, amount of support, and the methods may vary, the expectations are the same.

The school is justifiably proud that through the AP open-access process, school staff members actively recruit students who may not normally see themselves as AP course candidates.

Once in the program, clear, high expectations are maintained for all students, with the goal that every participant will progress and benefit from the rigorous program. For some, this means growing an AP score from a 4 to a 5, while for others it may mean moving from a 1 to a 2. Marshall teachers see the latter as an advancement to be celebrated with as much joy as the 3, 4, and 5 scores earned by other students. According to AP teacher Patricia Kavanagh, “Marshall not only encourages its scholars, we make certain that our curriculum is as challenging as any curriculum offered at the best prep schools throughout the United States. What many Marshall students lack when they come to us is enrichment and exposure, not aptitude. This, I believe, is the specific deficiency reflected in those who score below a 3.”

The Marshall AP program has grown not only in size, but also in terms of the variety of courses offered. As students have continued to develop and experience success in AP, they have asked for more opportunities. Each year, new AP courses have been added to the master schedule, which currently totals 18 course selections. Just as Marshall students are encouraged to establish new extracurricular opportunities at the school, they are also empowered to seek out new AP courses. For example, last year a small number of students approached the principal to request that a calculus-based AP physics course be added to the offerings. They were advised that if they could recruit 20 qualified students, the school would provide the teacher, the books, and the materials. Soon the students returned with names of more than enough interested students to make up the class, and another AP course was established. Their teacher describes the students’ collaboration to find solutions to complex problems as “a beauty to see.”

Teachers seek out, counsel, and encourage potential AP students for the various courses, saying, “You may not be an AP calculus student, but you can be a successful AP student in art or music theory or Spanish lit.” This mind-set and active encouragement have made AP courses at Marshall the norm, rather than the exception. (See figure 1 in the pdf for the most recent data, which show solid growth.)

College and Career Readiness

Marshall provides additional scaffolding and support through multiple partnerships. PasadenaLEARNs offers engaging enrichment, leadership, and learning opportunities for K–12 students in the school district. Activities complement the school day and include homework help, leadership, visual and performing arts classes, structured recreation, academic enrichment activities, and literacy development. Field trips are a regular feature of the spring break and summer programs. California State University provides Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math-Science programs, where Marshall students receive mentoring and test preparation for the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), the ACT, and the SAT, as well as seminars for college planning and financial aid information. Another partnership with the University of California offers early academic outreach, supporting students in academic planning, goal setting, and scholarship searches. Caltech’s Reaffirming and Increasing Scholastic Endeavors (RISE) program offers math and science tutoring.

Marshall students have additional opportunities available through afterschool tutoring, weekend practice exams, and a “summer bridge” program, facilitated by faculty members. Puente, the Spanish word for bridge, is a program similar to Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), which identifies students with academic potential who have not had the opportunity to be in a college-preparation program. Puente students are assigned both a teacher adviser and a mentor from the community, and when they are 9th and 10th graders, they are provided extra preparation and support before AP enrollment, with a strong emphasis placed on collegiate writing. In addition to exposure to a multicultural curriculum, students are required to perform community service, increasing the level of relevance in their studies.

High expectations for all students and the goal of each graduate being college and career ready permeate conversations with teachers and students alike. Ninety-seven percent of Marshall graduates enroll in either two- or four-year colleges after graduation. Also impressive is the large number of Marshall students passing the CAHSEE on the first attempt: 90% in English language arts and 87% in math.

Partly because so many Marshall graduates will be the first generation in their families to attend college, the four school counselors understand that they must be proactive. An emphasis on “when, not if” students go to college starts with sixth graders. Counselors try to anticipate issues that might be stumbling blocks for families and work to remove those impediments. Accessing scholarships, completing student financial aid forms, and meeting application deadlines are priorities. Goal setting around high school graduation and college admissions begins early, and counselors ensure that plans are reviewed frequently. The result was a 2012 cohort graduation rate of nearly 98%.

Each year, a number of Marshall graduates have received scholarships from the Posse Foundation, which identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. Partner colleges and universities award the “Posse Scholars” four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships. Scholars are sent to a single institution in cohorts of 10 students, increasing the likelihood of success by providing students with a natural support system, or posse, of students they already know.

A Culture of Belonging

“WEB Crew” is the official name of the program that gives eighth-grade students the chance to mentor sixth graders, supporting the younger students as they enter the middle grades, while encouraging leadership skills in the older students. But WEB—Where Everybody Belongs—also describes the culture of the entire school. Supporting evidence comes from conversations with students where they offer such descriptions as, “Our school is like a family”; “No one gets bullied here, and no one falls through the cracks”; and “Jocks, musicians, academics—we’re all the same kids.” Students describe their teachers as comforting, encouraging, and enthusiastic about the subjects they teach.

Marshall’s positive, inclusive culture is not an accidental occurrence. Teachers, especially, describe a set of positive structures and systems designed to support and sustain an atmosphere where respect and inclusiveness are valued and modeled consistently. These structures, faculty members report, include regular, positive communication with a principal “who listens to us.” The ILT ensures that concerns and suggestions from teachers are included in the decision-making process. Decisions are prioritized to reflect the team’s established belief that they must “focus on the focus” of high-quality teaching, learning, and success for every student. The administration demonstrates that it values and respects time for teacher collaboration by confining announcements and general information to a weekly newsletter, which also often includes recognitions and celebrations of accomplishments. New teachers are actively supported and mentored; as a result, teacher turnover has been significantly reduced.

Because of the school’s unique grades 6–12 structure, parents of incoming sixth graders sometimes voice concerns about how their children will fare on a campus that also includes 17- and 18-year-old students. Sixth graders attend most of their classes in a separate building, but to further ensure the comfort of all, a group of high school students initiated a buddy program that begins in the spring when all new students are invited to visit the school. Adults are asked to remain in the school’s auditorium for a program geared to parents and guardians, while the high school students take the rising sixth graders to an outside area called “the Quad,” leading them in a series of activities and connecting each youngster with a high school buddy. Throughout the subsequent school year, the older students, described as being very protective of the younger students, reach out and involve their buddies in campus life.

The school has worked to provide positive behavior support and interventions for students, as well as training for teachers in how to manage their classrooms effectively, engage students creatively, and maintain high expectations and positive attitudes. Raising the expectations of student behavior as well as of academic performance and focusing on positive classroom management has drastically reduced student suspensions: in 2010–11, there were 258 suspensions that involved 172 students; in 2012– 13, suspensions dropped to 117 and involved only 91 students in a school of nearly 2,000.

Strong, consistent communication with parents and families has contributed to a notable increase in their participation. According to one, “Parents have wrapped their arms around this school.” Marshall employs two community liaisons—one is fluent in Spanish—to support and expand parent engagement. The Parent Portal, used by more than two-thirds of Marshall’s parents and guardians, is an Internet-based application that enables them to see a student’s overall grades, assignments, and attendance records and allows teachers to directly communicate with them. Spanish translation is standard in all publications and meetings, and there are distinct parent organizations that support English language learners, Black students, and students with special needs. In addition, parent boosters for athletics and the arts regularly work in tandem with the school to build and sustain a positive school culture of high academic and social expectations. The result is that Marshall is a school where everybody belongs.

Copyright 2014 National Association of Secondary School Principals. For more information on NASSP products and services to promote excellence in middle level and high school leadership, visit www.nassp.org. Reposted with permission. The original post can be viewed here.

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