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'We Want a Kid You Don't Have Any Idea What to Do With'

Sacramento Academic and Vocational Academy helps very vulnerable students succeed in high school—and beyond.
Jason Wasserman, a teacher, plays chess with an advisee. "It's all the underdogs," he says of students at SAVA.

Jason Wasserman, a teacher, plays chess with an advisee. "It's all the underdogs," he says of students at SAVA.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Hechinger Report.

Earlier this year, Ricketa Bluford, a teacher at the Elk Grove campus of the Sacramento Academic and Vocational Academy, assigned her students a personal narrative essay. The one submitted by Maria Garcia, a senior in her independent study class, stopped her cold.

"The beginning of my senior year I got addicted to drugs and was really depressed. I was in a very toxic relationship and let a man control my every move and thought. ... When the drugs stopped working I thought about the next best thing or what I thought it was."

Maria, then 17 and addicted to cocaine, wanted to end her own life.

As the essay recounted, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. After several weeks of interventions by doctors and caseworkers, and with the help of family members and educators from SAVA, she began to improve. She expressed the desire to go back to school.

Despite her newfound determination, though, the journey to on-time high school graduation—only nine months down the road—would not be easy. As her senior year began last fall, Maria had completed only 100 of the 200 credits she needed. SAVA was her second high school, and she still lacked fundamental academic skills. She lived with her aunt and uncle—her father had left and her mother, who was addicted to drugs, was ill-equipped to care for any of her 10 children—and Maria struggled to navigate the chaos of her life.

By her own account, though, her greatest obstacle was her lack of confidence.

"The other teachers at my old schools would make me feel stupid," she says. She had internalized an identity as a checked-out, trouble-making kid.

According to Morri Elliott, SAVA's principal, Maria is a "typical" SAVA student. On average, he says, the school's new students have attended two prior high schools and test four years below grade level on reading and math. They tend to have low motivation and self-esteem, to come from families in poverty, and to be susceptible to forces such as drugs, violence, and gangs. They are at high risk of dropping out. Many students have been involved in the criminal justice system, have vulnerable citizenship or residency status, or have experienced homelessness. Many have special needs—previously diagnosed or not—and many are in the process of learning English. Some are involved in the foster care system, and many are the children of teenage parents—or are already parents themselves.

"We want a kid that you don't have any idea what to do with," Elliott says.

A teacher, Jason Wasserman, says, "It's all the underdogs."

The school takes many approaches to educating these students, but central to them all is a belief in the benefits of intensive one-on-one relationships. In the case of Maria Garcia, it was the indefatigable support of one teacher, Moriah Theroux, that motivated her to get on track.

"Every time I walk in the door—I'm not even exaggerating—every time I walk in that door, Ms. Theroux opens her arms and is like: 'Hey girl! Oh my God, you're doing so good!'" Maria says, beaming. "She'll say, like, 'You're the best student ever.' And it's not even fake! And she does it all the time. When I come in here, tired as heck, she says, 'Hey girl, you're doing it!' And I'm like, 'OK, I'm going to go home and I'm going to work hard.'"

Maria Garcia, 17, plans to graduate this spring.

Maria Garcia, 17, plans to graduate this spring.

For students like Maria, "working hard" means crafting a customized course of study with an assigned teacher—in her case, Ms. Theroux—tailored to the student's outside work schedule, academic needs, and career goals. On computers provided by the school, students independently watch instructional videos and complete assignments through Edgenuity, an online curriculum provider. At least once a week, the student and teacher meet to choose academic units from Edgenuity's library—all the lessons are aligned to California state standards and are curated by the school—and to schedule times for the student to take Edgenuity's unit exams on campus.

Aside from its academic model and mentorship approach, SAVA prides itself on its Career Technical Education curriculum. Along with their academic work, students enroll in at least one of 10 vocational "pathways," which are designed to foster or develop interests applicable to postsecondary employment. Taught by local experts, these pathways include such diverse offerings as Residential and Commercial Construction, Fashion Design and Merchandising, Performing Arts, and Agricultural and Natural Sciences.

Maria said that the courses she took last year in the Food Service and Hospitality pathway (one of the school's most popular) enabled her to gain work experience and skills—and attain financial independence.

"The culinary classes helped me get my first job, at Subway," she explains. "As soon as I went into the interview, I showed them my resume—which the school helped me build. And I showed them my food handler's card—which the school helped me get. And they asked me questions like, 'How would you sanitize the dishes?' And I knew that—because my teacher told me that!"

Maria has moved on from Subway to work at Sandwich Spot, across the street from campus. She works full shifts on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and attends school Tuesdays and Thursdays. She does her Edgenuity work before and after her shifts, attempting to complete one unit—which equals one credit—per day. When she doesn't understand a concept, she seeks help at school.

Entering her final semester, Maria has 20 credits left, meaning that—fewer than seven months after being released from a psychiatric hospital, two years behind where she should have been in terms of academic credit—she is now well on her way to graduating on time.

"It's awesome," Maria reflects.

She pauses. "It makes me really happy."


Sacramento Academic and Vocational Academy is among a small (but growing) cadre of high schools across the country that embrace alternative approaches to educating society's most vulnerable students. The school is clearly doing something well: 80 percent of its students graduate from high school, which is remarkable considering that every one of its students was at risk of dropping out of the school system entirely before enrolling. About half of the school's graduates go on to higher education, nearly all to local community colleges.

Since opening in 2007, Elliott says, the school has grown significantly. At first, it was merely a collection of makeshift classrooms scattered around a nondescript parking lot in southeastern Sacramento. Now, thanks to consistent parental interest and local support, the school is a conglomerated network of six campuses in six different regions of the city. (The newest and smallest campus, which currently has only 10 students, is in a homeless shelter.)

Elliott, who has been the school's principal since 2012, began working there in the nascent stages of the school's existence—and of his own career. After teaching for a year at a local public school, Elliott took a job as an independent study teacher at SAVA. Now, Elliott is a constant, companionable presence at all of the school's campuses, and seems to interpret his role as, at least in part, chief cheerleader to students and faculty alike.

On a drizzly February day, Elliott roamed the Power Inn campus, poking his head into classrooms—observing students sewing a kente-cloth dress in one while, in the garage next door, a boisterous group welded a jagged-edged bumper to a truck—and reflected on SAVA's trajectory.

The journey to the current incarnation took time, he says. A few years ago, an accreditation visit proved a rude awakening when the school's academic curriculum—which, according to faculty, primarily consisted of slapdash photocopied packets created by individual teachers—was found to fall short of state standards. As a result, Elliott and other administrators decided to purchase a more systematized, rigorous curriculum from Edgenuity.

Other changes came after observing and listening to students' needs: new pathway offerings ("A kid told me that he was interested in pursuing a career in fire safety, so I found a great firefighter to teach a course"), instruction in basic life skills ("Adulting 101"), and a sex education curriculum.

Students in a fashion design class, part of a career "pathway" course of study in the Sacramento Academic and Vocational Academy’s CTE curriculum.

Students in a fashion design class, part of a career "pathway" course of study in the Sacramento Academic and Vocational Academy’s CTE curriculum.

Also, Elliott says, when it became clear to faculty several years ago that the school needed a new, uniform approach to student engagement and behavior management, he decided to train every staff member in an approach called Capturing Kids' Hearts. Now, both he and the staff members agree that the program has been effective in creating a school culture defined by firm-but-loving structure, flexibility, and the individualized attention SAVA students need.

One recent morning, the main hall of the SAVA Sim Center campus embodied these values. In the center of the room, sitting upright at desks or sprawled on yellow couches, students clacked on keyboards and wrote in paper notebooks, headphones in ears; chatted softly in groups of three and four; and munched on breakfast distributed by their peers via rolling gray metal carts. (The school provides free snacks, meals, and clothes for any student who requests them.) A mother walked in with her diffident 14-year-old son, asking the receptionist, in Spanish, for information about how to enroll him. (She later said that the school reminded her of the "escuelas abiertas"—"open schools"—her family members attended in Mexico.) In one corner, students met one-on-one with teachers; in another, administrators reviewed lesson plans and data with faculty members. A heavily pregnant student got up suddenly to hurry to the bathroom. Twice in one hour a teacher called for attention, singling out a student: This student, he announced, has completed all of her graduation requirements; can she please have a hearty round of applause?

Students enter and leave, enter and leave. There is a calm, consistent buzz to the place—it feels at once orderly and busy, well-managed by adults but filled to the brim with adolescent energy. It feels like it's, well, working.

It's clearly working for Maria Garcia, who, like so many other students at the school, came close, again and again, to giving up on a high school diploma—and, at her lowest, on life itself. But her personal narrative essay finishes with a very different story: "When I came to Sacramento Academic Vocational Academy, all the other experiences from my past didn't matter because this school made me feel really important and like my education was important to them and to myself. In my life, I disappointed a lot of people. But I plan on spending the rest of my life impressing everyone."

This story about at-risk students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.