Updated at: 12/22/2013 3:56 PM
(AP) SANGER, Calif. - SANGER, Calif. (AP) â€” When Yadir Sanchez arrived in this San Joaquin Valley agricultural town at age 5, she joined a well-traveled path to academic failure that children of other Mexican farmworkers had been on for years.
Students like Sanchez â€” poor, Hispanic and barely bilingual â€” routinely fell through the cracks in the Sanger Unified School District, which had one of the worst records in the state. Lacking basic math and English skills, students were pushed into trades or allowed to drop out.
Sanchez appeared to be no different, speaking only Spanish in kindergarten and struggling with English until fifth grade.
But something remarkable happened that lifted the fortunes of Sanchez and so many like her. The district reinvented itself, making huge strides by shaking up the way teachers worked with students, parents and each other.
In 2012, the district graduated 94 percent of its Hispanic students, 20 percentage points higher than the state average and similar districts. Its Hispanic dropout rate was just 3 percent, compared to 18 percent statewide.
Sanger's success is still the exception across California. While Latinos are poised to become the state's largest ethnic group in 2014, they continue to score lower on standardized tests, graduate at lower rates and drop out more often than other students.
Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that will funnel more money to help poorer schools, but Sanger's success serves as a model for how a district made vast gains despite budget cuts.
In 2004, the year Sanchez entered fourth grade at Wilson Elementary School, the district was named one of the 98 lowest performing in the state. Wilson, six other schools and the district as a whole were declared in need of improvement under federal law.
At Wilson that year, just 5 percent of English learners scored proficient in language arts on a standardized test. Just 18 percent of Hispanic students and 10 percent of English learners scored proficient districtwide.
"When we looked at those scores, it was eye-opening; we were shocked," said Marc Johnson, who became superintendent in 2003 and retired in June. "We knew we had kids who struggled, but we had no idea it was that bad."
As a child of farmworkers who toiled long hours in the fields, Sanchez was hardly unique in Sanger, where 82 percent of the students live in poverty and more than half come from homes where the adults lack a college degree and do not speak English.
Sanchez's struggle was palpable. While the vast majority of Sanger students are Hispanic, most of the children around her spoke English, a language she did not understand. She had few friends, had an especially hard time writing in complete sentences and expressing what she wanted to say. Her report cards showed very low grades.
"Not knowing English, it was definitely isolating and frustrating," Sanchez said. "I thought I would never be able to learn it."
Sanchez was among a quarter of English learners pulled out of class for small group reading and writing sessions.
But federal testing showed that wasn't enough. Deeply engrained beliefs, administrators said, slowed many children's progress.
"The mentality was: these kids who have darker skin or who don't speak English are not going to go to college; they're going to work with their hands," said Daniel Chacon, principal of Sanger High School. "Teachers had to start believing in their potential."
Faced with failure, most districts respond with quick fixes geared for immediate results but few long-term gains, said Jane David of the Bay Area Research Group, co-author of a study about the district. Instead of spending on costly programs or teaching aids, Sanger set out to change its culture.
The district made "an investment in time versus money," said Matt Navo, Sanger's superintendent. "It allowed us to use personnel who already existed," train teachers and provide additional help to students by changing schedules and trying new approaches.
Key to change was a model requiring collaboration among teachers, data to track students and holding teachers accountable to each other.
To better understand why students like Sanchez struggled, the district created its own standardized tests. Teacher teams regularly analyzed scores to determine what succeeded and what failed. They set goals, exchanged strategies and tried out new teaching methods. They even retaught each other's students.
Some teachers initially resisted, but administrators emphasized the approach was not punitive.
"There wasn't that fear of failure, so we could be creative and innovative," said Cathy Padilla, principal at Jefferson Elementary School.
At the end of fifth grade, Sanchez was reclassified as fluent in English and her grades started to improve. Teacher Stacy Smith remembers the transition.
"Yadir was shy; she did not talk a lot and never raised her hand. So during the year we pushed her to improve her oral language skills, her academic vocabulary," Smith said. "Once we gave her the tools, she really figured it out and started to participate."
Sanchez' writing and social skills also flourished, Smith said, and the girl found it easier to make friends.
"I felt accomplished, thankful and proud of myself, because I knew I had learned a whole new language," Sanchez said. "It motivated me to do even better."
Seeing Sanchez's progress, her mother enrolled in English classes. And her parents started to get more involved with the school â€” a goal the district worked toward by offering bilingual staff and a free nine-week parent education program, among other things.
The district also tracked students with high absentee rates and placed hundreds of high school kids in a mandatory after-school program.
By the time she got to Sanger High, Sanchez hardly needed extra help â€” she was enrolling in Advanced Placement courses.
The district, too, was on the right track. Within five years, all seven struggling schools had improved. Most now meet or exceed state goals. Twenty of the schools have been awarded distinguished school status by the California State Board of Education.
The highest achieving group on both federal and state benchmarks: former English learners like Sanchez. As a group, they scored higher on standardized tests than the overall district population.
"When you move the bar up for a kid and tell them to jump, they learn to jump," said Johnson, who was named superintendent of the year in 2011 by the American Association of School Administrators. "For some kids ... they learned to pole vault."
Indeed, Sanchez crossed a very high bar. She graduated in June as valedictorian and is attending California State University in Fresno on scholarships, majoring in political science.
"Whichever path we choose to follow, we will be successful, because we have the preparation and confidence needed to do so," Sanchez said during her graduation speech as her farmworker parents listened from the audience.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)