Sanger High School is a large, comprehensive high school serving 3,579 students and is located in California’s central valley. Although Sanger’s chronic absence rate of 21.8% is higher than school leaders would like, it is still well below the statewide average of 30%. Kirstin Coronado, who is in her fourth year as principal, began at the school as a teacher. She’s also a Sanger High graduate, and called the fact that she is now principal of the school she attended “a full circle moment.”

When asked to describe the school, Coronado noted its strong culture and family connections. The school draws from a relatively large geographic area, and has a diverse student population. Because of this diversity, Sanger offers a range of pathways and opportunities for students within a family- and community-centered school. The school leaders foster an environment in which all students have an opportunity to “realize excellence,” particularly through attention to equity and access to rigorous courses. The district promotes four pillars for all students: respect, integrity, tolerance and responsibility. Throughout their four years students work toward the completion of senior projects that are designed to demonstrate various aspects of their understanding of and engagement with those four pillars.

See the key takeaways below.

Improving chronic absence

Key to Sanger’s success in engaging students and reducing chronic absence is its close community ties and partnership with families, students and the district, in addition to “a lot of hard work.” For example, in addition to sending automated calls to families of absent students, front office staff may call home and strive to use a “personal touch,” Coronado said. Other family outreach includes consistent communication about attendance expectations and why being in school is so important.  Innovations such as restorative justice that included professional development for staff and the hiring of counselors trained in social-emotional learning who facilitate several small groups for students also contribute to students’ sense of belonging and safety on campus. “So if you’re having trouble, there is somebody at school who you can be in relation with [about] your feelings,” Coronado said. Student voice provides important feedback for Coronado. At a recent Principal’s Forum, students shared that relationships between teachers and students is one of the primary motivating forces that bring them to school. “Oh I was having a [bad] day and someone noticed.”

Sanger utilizes a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) approach to supporting students throughout the year. Coronado convenes a team composed of multiple staff members who bring a range of perspectives to the challenges students might be facing. The team meets regularly to examine data together and make plans to follow up with students who struggled with attendance at the beginning of the year and those who continue to have multiple absences throughout the year. A counselor and assistant principal meet with students who are identified as having too many absences and their families to discuss challenges. Once the barriers are identified, counselors offer school resources that might provide needed support.

In 2022-23, the school launched an advisory program that was created in collaboration with faculty.  Coronado hosted several focus groups with teachers during the previous academic year to seek input on the design of the program. Students meet for thirty minutes each Wednesday to engage in what Coronado called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)-like activities: students set goals, track their progress, and learn about postsecondary options and what steps they must take to prepare for those options. On Thursdays students participate in a social emotional skills (SEL) program using a curriculum called “Character Strong.” As the advisory program unfolds, Coronado is collecting feedback on the successes and challenges in an effort to continuously improve.

Partnerships with groups outside the school play a large role at Sanger, particularly with regard to the pathway programs. Students are offered opportunities to see how what they are learning in school  applies to work in the community. In addition, one counselor is assigned to support foster and homeless youth, and has leveraged community partners to set up a food bank at the school for families experiencing food insecurity. Other community agencies help provide services focused on mental health, housing and substance abuse recovery.  

Intentional Ninth Grade Transition Support

Sanger offers nine pathways towards graduation. Several “Pathway Nights” are held in late fall and throughout the spring for students and families to familiarize themselves with the campus and learn about each pathway before selecting the one most closely aligned with their interests. Over the summer, Sanger mails a booklet to each incoming ninth grader with information about the school, schoolwide expectations and the bell schedule. Sanger also offers a robust summer school program that provides incoming ninth graders with the opportunity for both remediation and enrichment.

District Role

Sanger Unified School District has invested a great deal of its resources in SEL services “to ensure that kids have that foundation to be successful in school.” Funding is decentralized so that schools can make decisions about the resources that would most benefit students. Schools develop a “Summit Success Plan” outlining their goals and the resources that might be required. District Area Administrator Jamie Nino supports the monitoring of those plans throughout the year to assess the effectiveness of the resource allocations. In addition, the district has a Child Welfare and Attendance Department that takes an interdisciplinary approach to student attendance. This department is also responsible for communicating about and overseeing the district School Attendance Review Board processes. According to Coronado, SARB policies and processes “have never been better.”

Ongoing challenges

As the Sanger community moves out of the pandemic, Coronado said that focusing on SEL skills is essential. She has made it a priority to welcome ninth graders, invite students and families in, and assure families that she is there to support their children by having open lines of communication. It’s important for the school to emphasize the “personal touch,” and to lead with “you know, just being nice,” Coronado said.

Key Takeaways

  • Sanger has a team that meets regularly to examine data and target students who might need additional support. Team members represent a wide range of perspectives to ensure that multiple solutions are considered.
  • Addressing the ninth-grade transition is paramount. Providing multiple opportunities for students and their families to participate in school activities before they arrive in September is key. Opening the school to incoming students and their families to see the campus, learn about the range of pathways offerings, and make a plan begins to demystify the transition from middle to high school.
  • Decentralized funding allows schools to direct resources to areas of the greatest need. District leaders support schools as they monitor progress toward goals for those resources.
  • The district provides consistent policy and messaging regarding Student Attendance Review Board practices. That consistency helps families understand the importance of regular attendance and helps school staff follow clear guidelines for when and how to reach out to families.

This bright spot story was developed with the support of the Stuart Foundation.