Mesquite: an alternative path to success

Mesquite: an alternative path to successBy REBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff Writer

At last month’s meeting of the Sierra Sands Unified School District Board of Education, Mesquite High School Principal Jo Anne McClelland gave a report on her school’s progress toward the district’s mission to “engage all learners.”

Unlike traditional high schools, Mesquite caters primarily to students who are at risk of not graduating. Many are behind in credits; others need flexible schedules because of jobs or family obligations.

“Our goal is to help each of them earn a diploma,” said McClelland. “We don’t give them away, but we do offer different strategies to help achieve that goal.”

One metric she uses to gauge that progress is student improvement on the English portion of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress tests — scores from which rose from 28 to 31.

But with Burroughs, SSUSD’s other high school, earning a 78 (tied for first in Kern County), Mesquite’s number needs context.

“Burroughs’ scores are so different than ours — you really cannot compare the two,” said McClelland “I wanted people to understand that we are not an inferior school, we are in a different category.”

By the state’s new scoring and accountability system, 31 percent of the juniors tested last year at Mesquite met or exceeded standards. That number sits below the state average of 59 and the county average of 52.

But when compared to other continuation schools in the region, Mesquite’s student performance towers above the rest. Other Kern County continuation school scores fall between 0 and 21 — putting Mesquite far ahead of the pack compared to similar schools.

“Continuation schools are so different from traditional high schools that our state is actually looking at finding a separate metric to track progress,” said McClelland, add ing that incentivizing the test for students can be tricky, since individuals do not see a grade impact or credit earning.

“I think the improvement is a reflection of the dedication of our English teacher,” said McClelland.

“One thing we try to do is engage them in applied instruction, not abstract concepts,” said Marla Cosner, who taught English to last year’s juniors.

McClelland and Cosner agreed that one of the advantages of the Common Core curriculum is the emphasis on practical problem-solving approaches.

“I think the pragmatic aspect of Common Core lends itself well to our students,” said Cosner. “Instead of having multiple choice options, our kids are writing informative articles and fiction passages.”

“I have to credit this in part to [Cosner’s] presentation,” said McClelland. “Another teacher could present the information and get back a blank stare. But I think we are improving our ability to engage students in a meaningful way — and the scores are showing that.”

Mesquite has also earned other distinctions over the years, including being named a Model School in 2008, 2011 and 2015.

“The first year the program was in existence we were among those selected,” said McClelland, who noted that only about 30 continuation schools are chosen from about 500 across the state.

“And you can only reapply every three years — so we’ve pretty much won every chance we have had.”

McClelland said that Mesquite also got the highest rating possible during its last site visit from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation team.

So what’s the secret to Mesquite’s success?

“I think our staff here creates a culture that is very nurturing and learning-focused,” said McClelland. “Our students are expected to work hard for their credits, but we don’t sit them down in front of a computer or with a packet of worksheets. We still have a very dynamic teaching and testing environment.”

“One thing to remember is that for many of the kids who come to Mesquite, this is the first time in their school careers they have ever been successful,” said Cosner. “When they finally get an opportunity to realize how smart they are, achievement becomes important to them where perhaps it wasn’t before.”

“I think this sense of accomplishment means so much to our students because so many have had something difficult to overcome in their personal or academic lives,” said McClelland.

She pointed out that students are also very supportive of each other. “Because we have students graduating throughout the year, we have a little ritual whenever someone completes their requirements. We gather their friends in the office and we announce their achievement over the loudspeaker. The entire school breaks out into cheers for them.”

Pictured: Mesquite High School Principal Jo Anne McClelland (center) is flanked by teachers Brian Williams and Marla Cosner. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-02-17