A focus on writing in every class is key to success in this rural California district

Jesse Sanchez, principal at Brawley Union High School in Imperial County, was alarmed when four years ago he read proposals seniors submitted for voluntary end-of-year projects on topics such as nutrition and community service.

“What I was reading wasn’t making any sense,” said Sanchez, principal of the main high school in Brawley, a town in a remote desert region of California a halfhour drive from the Mexican border. What worried him most was the poor quality of students’ writing, which showed some lacked the ability to make coherent arguments for projects they wanted to do to earn a special graduation sash and a note on their transcripts recording project completion. Sanchez responded by creating a school-wide program that requires all students to write regularly in every class, including P.E., where earlier this year, students wrote about what they had learned regarding muscle anatomy and weight training.

The writing program helped spur a culture shift throughout the Brawley Union High School District, which includes a continuation high school for students who are behind in credits and a community day school for students who have behavior or attendance problems. The culture shift included comprehensive teacher training and staff team building, new classes, and stressing the importance of standardized Smarter Balanced tests in English language arts and math to students.

Over the past three years, the school, which serves about 1,670 students, has seen its scores soar on these tests aligned to the Common Core standards, which high school juniors take each spring.

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