Straight A’s: Clayton Valley’s David Linzey
The new charter high school’s head talks about new teaching strategies, the failure-free zone and other efforts to take the school from good to great.
Clayton Valley Charter High School's Executive Director David Linzey.
The new Clayton Valley Charter High School opened on August 15—bringing with it high hopes that autonomy from the Mt. Diablo Unified School District would reduce behavioral problems and boost academics at the 1,800-student campus.
To lead the new and—they hope—improved Clayton Valley, the school’s governing board hired David Linzey, who has a track record of turning around troubled schools and increasing student achievement, graduation rates and college admission rates in regular and charter schools in Southern California. Linzey grew up in the Bay Area but spent his more than 25 years in education in Southern California, as a teacher, counselor, principal and superintendent.
In a meeting with Diablo a week after school opened, Linzey talks about converting to a charter school and explains his plans for transforming Clayton Valley into a great school.
Despite some problems, wasn’t Clayton Valley always known as a pretty good school?
When I met with staff in May, we identified areas where we’re clearly great. There has been community support for this school all along. But when it comes to achievement results, we’re good but not great.
We’re 7 out of 10 on a statewide scale of schools. Seven out of 10 is good. Our API score from 2011 is 777. Seventy percent of schools wish they could be like us. But it’s not good enough for Clayton. With our students, we can become a 9 or a 10. I’d say we’re on a journey from good to great.
What did you have to do to get the school ready to open?
After I got hired in May, I went on to hire the administrative team. There are four committees of parents, teachers, staff and community members that really are the support system to various aspects of school. A student services committee this summer implemented skill- building classes for incoming freshman in English and in math (whose 8th grade test scores showed they needed the help). We had well over 300 kids participate. It was like an online summer school, using really effective technology-based programs. A lot of schools weren’t able to do summer school because of funding. I worked with some companies that let us pilot it for free.
The good thing about Clayton is that parents want to be involved. We had a Saturday workday where 200 parents and community members came out and painted and did landscaping projects around the campus.
How many Clayton Valley teachers stayed through the transition?
We were able to retain 80 percent of the teachers from the old school. We had to hire 15 or 16 new teachers and 10 classified staff to replace those who didn’t stay.
How about students? Were kids given the option to stay or go elsewhere?
Kids were given the option because this is a charter school. They could have gone to any of the Mt. Diablo schools: Ygnacio Valley, Concord, Northgate. But certainly, by far, the vast majority stayed. Other kids applied to come here. As a matter of a fact, we had a waiting list for a while because so many kids wanted to be here.
How has teaching at Clayton Valley changed?
Bob Marzano and John Hattie [international leaders in analyzing classroom strategies] have done extensive work on research-based practices that work. We’ve rolled these out. It’s not a mystery. What’s a mystery is why teachers across America don’t embrace the research-based practices that work.
When we leave it up to teachers and say, “Do the best you can,” they do; but it may not be the best they can. Our focus is on mastering learning. Our fundamental belief is that all kids can learn, and can achieve at very high levels.
We’ve implemented something we’re calling a failure-free zone. Kids are expected to learn. And we won’t stop working with them until they do learn. And when we expect kids to perform well and they demonstrate they haven’t performed well, we don’t punish their grade. We keep them after school. We put them in Saturdays where we have achievement academies—not discipline academies but achievement academies where we have tutoring programs, where we might even use some of our the brightest kids to help the struggling kids and use our best teachers to work with kids who are struggling.
The belief from Dr. Douglas Reeves, one of the fathers of school reform is that not all kids learn in the same way on the same day. Some kids need more time. In the average high school you learn it the way everyone else learns it and if you don’t you suffer.
How are you instituting these strategies in the classrooms?
We have a core philosophy. It is “rigor, relevance, relationships.” We’re really looking at getting better at teaching kids’ critical thinking skills; as opposed to just shoveling out information and hoping they can regurgitate that. You try to apply learning to real-world situations. When kids are interested and engaged they learn better.
So you take a work like Romeo and Juliet, which students typically read in high school …
Usually, kids read it and try to identify the characters and try to understand the story. In this case, you might have a group of kids who would re-write it in modern-day language and act it out and video scenes of it.
Or you take poetry. Usually when you talk about Walt Whitman, kids are deathly bored. We’ll have teachers look at what’s the poetry of today. Depending on who the kids are and what their music is, we’ll have them study the lyrics and ask, “What are the issues that the poets of today are saying? What are the messages?” Love, anger, hatred, death, loss, alienation. The teachers will then say, “Let’s go look at the poets of yesterday and see what their key issues were.” Students are looking at Whitman and other poets and they find out the same issues were being addressed 100 or 200 years ago. Students find that fascinating.
Could you implement these strategies in a non-charter school?
The point is all schools can do this. Here, we’re in an environment where people want to get better. For us, 80 percent of our kids go to college—the vast majority go to a community college. That’s fine. But we believe they can be prepared for the four-year college. It’s our job to motivate them.
What are you proud of?
There’s so much I’m proud of. We had a two-day institute with 35 or 40 teachers studying best practices: Looking at instructional guides on how to develop highly effective lessons.
This summer, we implemented the interventions programs to close the achievement gap. And, I’ll tell you this, our kids are stepping up here.
Another thing we’ve done is to create a clean campus. This is not normal for high schools, but it’s normal for us. Not just now in the morning, but five minutes after lunch it will look like this. I have kids pick up after themselves. I have administrators walk around the school picking up trash, being role models. In May, when I was on campus, it wasn’t like that. That’s a small thing but it goes to character and responsibility.
Academics are clearly the focus, but character education is also a focus for us. We’re building citizens, not just academicians.
What keeps you up at night?
Answering emails. I want my administrative team and our teachers and myself to be responsive to our community and our kids. Sometimes I won’t get back to people during the day but at 10 or 11 or 12 o’clock at night. Within 24 hours we want to respond to our community and our kids.
The other thing that keeps me up at night is that we live in a bad economy and a bad budget. That certainly impacts us, too. We’re working really hard to keep the impacts away from the classroom. The impending tax initiative, if it doesn’t pass, it will have a devastating impact on all school districts, including us. I’m trying to manage my budget and to prepare for the worst case. I’m praying that doesn’t happen.
If you had a magic wand what about education would you fix?
The drop-out rate in America is 30 percent. In minority kids its 50 percent. The answer to all this is teacher effectiveness. Some teachers reach those kids, some don’t, and some schools reach those kids and some don’t. If you could have every teacher be effective that would address the issue of the drop-out rate in America.
The other thing I’d fix would be the state budget. It’s clearly one of the worst in the nation, but we have one of the most demanding needs in the nation. We’re 48th or 49th in funding, but we have one of the highest costs of living for teachers. Ninety percent of what districts spend on is personnel; only 10 percent is on maintenance and books and technology. That’s wrong. Much more should be focused on giving schools the supplies they need to teach kids.
Straight A’s is part of a new series of occasional education blogs Diablo. Check back for more.