DTM: Imperial High School
“Good teaching is good teaching.”
—Lisa Tabarez, former principal
- Imperial, California
- Imperial Unified School District
- Grades 9-12
- DTM awarded in 2006
Awarded the Dispelling the Myth in 2006, Imperial High School was recognized as a California Distinguished School for the third time in 2013.
School administrators at Imperial High School — a working-class school with a large Hispanic population — agree that the starting point for Imperial High School’s improvement came in the late 1990s, when California adopted its standards and then began administering state assessments tied to those standards.
Standards represented a massive shift from what had been required of high schools and high school students in the past. Traditionally, high school teachers made most decisions about what they would teach and when they would teach it. Changing the focus to meeting state content standards and preparing students for state assessments “took a mind change for teachers and administrators,” said then-Superintendent Barbara Layaye.
Tabarez had all the teachers go to the gym to shoot baskets. Some teachers objected, saying that it was easier for the taller and more athletic teachers to get the basketball in the hoop. Tabarez agreed but said that all of them still needed to get the ball through the hoop. That became the metaphor for the fact that all Imperial students were going to be required to meet state standards and that it was up to the teachers to help students meet that goal. “It was one of those epiphany moments,” said one teacher.
Layaye and then-Principal Lisa Tabarez took the initial 2001 scores, in which only 27 percent of the students had met state English standards, and used them to appeal to Imperial’s competitive spirit. They told teachers that, although the school was the most successful in the Imperial Valley, it was still only at the 36th percentile in the state. “At first the goal was to be at the 50th percentile. Now — it’s the best we can be,” Layaye said.
Imperial’s steady improvement has been the result, Tabarez says, of carefully aligning instruction with California’s standards, studying individual achievement data, establishing a positive school climate, all while improving and refining classroom instruction. State standards and assessments, Layaye said, “give you an objective way to start.”
In 2010, Tabarez became superintendent of the Imperial School District, replacing Layaye who went on to lecture at San Diego State University. Roger Ruvalcaba, who had headed the counseling department at Imperial High School in 2006, became principal.
As with any change in leadership, there were a few wobbles, but in 2013 the school once again was awarded the California Distinguished School Award.
And, Tabarez said recently, “Everything is changing in California — from funding formulas to how budgets are submitted and assessments and technology and standards.”
The 2013-2014 school year, she said, “has been a shift in the way we do business.” Subject area teams from across grades have been meeting to think about how to transition to Common Core State Standards, which were adopted by California. “No one is going to do that work for us — and we don’t want them to. We know our kids.”
Although the changes have been unsettling, she said, “Good teaching is good teaching,” adding: “We have the systems, we know how to work together, we know how to determine when a student isn’t successful and how to intervene. We know students need to eat in the morning to be ready for learning. Once we understand the shifts to the Common Core standards, we’ll be able to get the students to be successful as we move into 21st-century learning.”
Added Ruvalcaba: “Knowing how to work together is important. We may not agree about everything, but when it comes to our kids, we’re on the same page.”
- HOW It’s Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools features Imperial High School.
- 2013 Conference Presenters
- Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools features Lisa Tabarez, former principal.
- All Teachers Can
- All Students Can
- Buzz: Defying Expectations and Other Lessons from the Bumblebee docudrama
- School Website
- District Website
- Great Schools profile