Transforming Sanchez School: Shared Leadership, Equity and Evidence.

The Story of Sanchez School

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In this book we document how a principal and faculty at Sanchez Elementary School in San Francisco’s Mission District implemented organizational and instructional changes over a 13-year period (1999-2012) aimed at increasing the academic achievement of low-income students from linguistically diverse backgrounds. During this period, the student population at Sanchez considerably exceeded district- and statewide averages with respect to the proportion of students whose family income qualified them for free/reduced lunch (>80%), English language learners (>60%), students with learning disabilities (>24%) and Latino students (>80%). In 1999, when Raymond Isola started his tenure as principal, the school was experiencing major dysfunction with respect to its mission to provide high quality and equitable education to low-income and socially marginalized students and families. Its academic performance was in the lowest quartile of California’s Academic Performance Index (API score of 499 on a scale ranging from 200 to 1000 points—see Endnote 1, Chapter 2). By the 2011-2012 school year, its API score was 761, a performance far beyond what would be predicted based on its demographics. Over the course of thirteen years, the average annual academic growth was 24 points, more than double the 11-point average growth for elementary schools in California.

This turnaround took place in an extremely turbulent period in the history of American education. In 2001, the Bush administration enacted its landmark educational legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which dramatically increased standardized testing as a tool to make schools more accountable for student achievement. The orientation of NCLB was punitive. Schools that consistently failed to make ‘adequate yearly progress’ were subject to ‘reconstitution’ whereby all school staff were terminated and required to re-apply for their positions or move to other schools. The dominant ideological narrative, which continued throughout the Obama administration, largely dismissed the impact on achievement of social and economic factors. Instead, it was claimed that the achievement gap between social groups could be closed through the expansion of non-unionized charter schools and the weeding out of ineffective teachers and principals who failed to raise students’ performance on standardized tests.

As we document in the following chapters, the reforms implemented in the context of NCLB were devoid of empirical evidence, and not surprisingly, left the achievement gap largely unchanged. One of the most frustrating aspects of the top-down policies implemented during this period at both federal and state levels was the absence of genuine dialogue between policy-makers and both researchers and educators. Research-based critiques of educational policies (e.g., Berliner, 2009; Darling-Hammond, 2010) were ignored (Cody, 2013) and the voices of educators who deplored the impact of NCLB on both teacher morale and student engagement were dismissed as self-interested whining. Policy-makers were simply not interested in what was happening inside schools—their orientation was to manage dissent through soundbites (‘no excuses’, ‘just do it’) rather than engage in collaborative dialogue aimed at helping schools become more effective.

Our goal in this book is to address this lack of dialogue. We take you inside a school engaged in a complex, challenging, and ultimately successful turnaround process. We present the perspectives and actions of administrators, educators, students, parents, and community members as they collaborated to transform a dysfunctional school into a powerful learning environment. The learning was powerful because the interactions among teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members generated intellectual, academic, and personal power for all involved. This process was neither smooth nor easy—in 2005/2006 Sanchez also experienced the trauma of a misguided reconstitution process, which devastated staff and community morale. Fortunately, we were able to rebuild from the foundations that had been established in the preceding years (see Chapter 2).

The directions we pursued at Sanchez are all consistent with the research evidence regarding effective educational reform and the promotion of student achievement. These directions stand in stark contrast to the evidence-free policies enacted in NCLB, and unfortunately continued to a considerable extent in its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Obama in late 2015. In the chapters that follow, we present an account of what enlightened accountability might look like in a school context characterized by multiple economic and social challenges. Our account illustrates the complexity of the reform process, the long-range planning required to turn around dysfunctional schools, and the importance of fostering identities of competence (Manyak, 2003) among principals, teachers, students, and parents.

Although each school context is unique in important respects, the Sanchez turnaround experience points to some general elements that are fundamental to improving educational outcomes in schools serving low-income culturally and linguistically diverse students:

  • A consistent emphasis on building relationships of trust and respect among administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, students and parents;
  • Distributed leadership that offers opportunities for all staff to grow professionally and share in the responsibility for promoting student achievement;
  • Instruction that connects to students’ lives, respects their multilingual talents and cultural knowledge, and enables them to use multiple modes of representation (e.g., language, music, visual art, etc.) to express and extend their identities;
  • Strong parental and community engagement in the shared enterprise of educating children;
  • A focus on students’ physical, emotional, and social well-being in order to remove potential impediments to learning;
  • Preschool provision that generates curiosity, habits of inquiry, and literacy engagement;
  • Curriculum-focused assessment that monitors students’ academic growth in order to inform instruction and, when necessary, intervention;
  • An understanding that school grounds have tremendous potential as educational resources to enhance students’ socio-emotional wellness, physical fitness, nutritional awareness, and overall environmental literacy.

These components of effective schooling are increasingly relevant not only in North American contexts but also in many international contexts where unprecedented numbers of refugees and immigrants are now attending public schools.

The collaboration between a school principal (Isola) and an educational researcher (Cummins) in documenting this ‘insiders’ account’ of how one school successfully implemented evidence-based instruction draws on 20 years of engagement and discussion about issues of educational equity. In 1997/1998, as part of his doctoral studies at the University of San Francisco, Raymond spent six months at the University of Toronto exploring issues of educational leadership, bilingual education, and English academic development. During this six-month period, we (Raymond and Jim) spent many hours discussing the intersections between Raymond’s experience as a bilingual teacher and school principal in California and the empirical and theoretical basis for bilingual education that Jim had written about. These conversations continued after Raymond became principal of Sanchez School. Jim visited the school on numerous occasions to observe classrooms and interact with teachers, parents and community members. We constantly attempted to link the initiatives undertaken in the school to the broader set of research findings relating to educational effectiveness for diverse students.

This book encapsulates these conversations in written form. The book also reflects the input of many teachers, parents and community members over the 13-year period it covers. Several of the chapters have been co-written with teachers, university collaborators, and partners in community organizations and their names are noted at the beginning of the relevant chapters. Thus, the perspectives articulated in the book draw from the shared experiences of many educators and community members who were instrumental in shaping the school improvement initiatives documented in the following chapters.

An overriding theme that flows through the entire book is that continuous improvement in the effectiveness of classroom instruction requires a leadership process that is clear, authoritative, and collaborative. In contrast to popular conceptions of the ‘strong leader’ who exercises top-down ‘my way or the doorway’ power, there is increasing recognition within organizational theory (e.g., Laloux, 2014) that the most effective leadership creates conditions in which team members take on increasing responsibility and self-management in pursuit of organizational goals. In Sanchez School, as we pursued our ‘turnaround’ goals, leadership became increasingly distributed across all the stakeholders in the organization—teachers, paraprofessionals, non-teaching staff, students, parents, and community members. Leadership was not a quality that resided in the person of the principal to be exercised in hierarchical and authoritarian fashion. Instead, the principal took the initiative to communicate clearly what our collective mandate was and to encourage dialogue about how we might pursue this mandate. This dialogue was authoritative insofar as it was informed by research, which was discussed and interpreted in the context of what it meant for Sanchez School. This collaborative leadership process enabled the collective talents and energy of instructional staff and other stakeholders to be mobilized in powerful ways that fueled students’ academic growth.



Berliner, D.C. (2009). Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved 5 March 2010 from

Cody, A. (2013, August 20). Monitored and ignored: Ravitch and the rest of us. Education Week. Retrieved from monitored_and_ignored_ravitch_.html?cmp=ENL-EU-VIEWS2

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education. How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. New York: Teachers College Press.

Manyak, P. C. (2004). “What did she say?” Translation in a primary-grade English immersion class. Multicultural Perspectives, 6, 12–18.

Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness. Brussels, Belgium: Nelson Parker.


Dr. Raymond R. Isola

Dr. James Cummins