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Downtown College Prep Changes Lives

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Tears were flowing on Tuesday morning. The few seniors that had not met all of the graduation requirements were making a case for an exception and constructing next steps with a panel of staff members. The bar is set very high: not only does every student need to successfully complete a rigorous college prep curriculum, every student must be accepted into a four year university in order to graduate.

Downtown College Prep (DCP) in San Jose is a high school that goes out of its way to find students that were not successful in middle school. Most students are Latino, from low income families, and substantially behind when they come to DCP. Through building relationships and hard work, each student leaves DCP college-bound.

Teachers are there because they believe in the mission and support the culture: ganas, comunidad, orgullo (desire, community, and pride). The whole staff advises a group of about 22 students for the four years they are on campus with some aid from Naviance.

Like Summit Prep, DCP has developed smart people systems. A sophisticated hiring process that screens a big pool of applicants and invites a qualified few to teach a lesson -- not a favorite but the next lesson in a defined sequence for a specific group of students. Once hired, a rigorous staff evaluation process is accompanied by quarterly staff surveys and 360-degree evaluations of school leaders.

Have you heard some cranks say that small schools were a failed fad? Anyone that says small schools didn't work obviously doesn't get out much. Every developer of high quality schools in the U.S. still uses the 100 kids per grade rule of thumb. A delegation from Washington State visited KIPP, Aspire, Summit, Rocketship, and DCP schools this week -- they saw schools that follow the formula.

It's interesting to note that they are all introducing blended learning models in September spurred on by catastrophic California budget cuts. The personalizing potential of online learning and budget pressures will cause all these chains to experiment with slightly larger schools. Any negatives caused by a slight increase in size are expected to be offset by the benefits of personal digital learning technology.

DCP, and charter schools like it, are changing lives. Maybe five or six out of 100 poor kids from downtown San Jose finish college. DCP grads finish college at ten times that rate -- that's an order of magnitude improvement in expected life outcomes.

As I've said for a decade, small school are no panacea -- necessary but insufficient determinants of quality -- they just give you a shot at getting to know a group of kids and creating an intentional culture. As we invent new ways to customize learning and build community (online and onsite), we'll invent new school formats and invent new rules of thumb. As my friends at Big Picture taught me, rigor, relevance, and relationships are likely to be key to academic success with teenagers for a long time.