A Unified Vision
Tustin’s Connection Initiative expands opportunities for its high school students
By Susan L. Wampler
Future engineers, computer programmers and welders work side by side in the Tustin Unified School District (TUSD). From building a car to designing a prosthetic hand, they are empowered to craft their own futures. It’s just one example of a districtwide effort to expand the aspirations of every student.
Under the leadership of Superintendent Greg Franklin ’83, EdD ’97, the TUSD Connect Initiative combines engaging instructional strategies with rigorous academic standards supported by technology to increase the percentage of students completing the A-G course requirements for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. TUSD students’ A-G completion rate has risen from 48.7 percent in 2012 to 58 percent in 2016.
The primary goal, Franklin says, is putting every student in charge of his or her decision to attend college, rather than the district determining who is on the college-versus-vocational track.
The curriculum was restructured so that even non-college-prep courses lead to a certification or postsecondary training. Courses increasingly follow the flipped classroom model, with more collaborative, hands-on learning and fewer lectures.
A prime example is the Engineering Pathway coursework in which seniors build a car. In addition to utilizing engineering and computer design skills, students also construct the vehicle. Another class designed and built a prosthetic hand using a 3D printer to help a middle school student missing the lower portion of his arm since birth. Yet another team is part of a multi-school consortium supported by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to create and launch a satellite.
Every TUSD student now takes both the SAT and PSAT, raising aspirations to college. The district also eliminated course prerequisites — opening access to honors and advanced placement classes.
“If a student wants to try the hardest class we offer in English or history, she can do that without having to jump through hoops,” adds Franklin. In four years, TUSD witnessed a 40 percent increase in AP enrollment, while the pass rate remains strong. The district also has seen a 20 percent increase in four-year college attendance in just two years.
Franklin credits TUSD’s participation in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program with helping first-generation college-bound students succeed. “If a student is taking AP physics, he doesn’t just sink or swim,” Franklin says. “He’s got twice-a-week tutoring for that class.”
The district also works hard to accommodate students with busy class schedules, adds Grant Litfin EdD ’07, director of secondary education. “We may let a student take a seventh class or shift one class to summer school to free up a period to allow them to be in AVID, Model United Nations or complete a Career Technical Education Pathway,” he says.
For the district’s large number of English-language learners, Litfin says, “We want to get them into the AVID pipeline earlier, so we’ve started AVID Excel [a program designed to accelerate English language acquisition] at two of our most EL-heavy middle schools this year.”
TUSD further benefited from a general obligation bond in 2012 that generated money to upgrade technology in each of its approximately 900 classrooms, while also providing an iPad to every fifth through eighth grader and a laptop to every high school student. A recent grant enabled the district to secure 2,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for students who otherwise lack Internet access at home, eliminating the “homework gap.”
Of the Connect Initiative’s future plans, Franklin says: “Right now, we’re just trying to do more of the same and continue to engage every kid, every hour.”
This article appeared in the fall/winter 2016 issue of USC Rossier Magazine.
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