‘You have to act as a disruptor’: Sacramento schools chief tackles challenges in district

'It changed my life.' New schools chief looks back at a pivotal week.

New Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar says a CSUS conference inspired him to become an educator.
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New Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar says a CSUS conference inspired him to become an educator.

New Sacramento city schools chief Jorge Aguilar says the education system is inequitable by design and he wants to help level the playing field.

Aguilar has big plans after finding success in Fresno facing similar challenges. Among them: reinstating interim tests to gauge student performance, strengthening partnerships with local colleges and universities and having school officials preregister students into classes.

“When a system is inequitable you have to interrupt it,” he said. “You have to act as a disruptor to it.”

Aguilar became Sacramento City Unified superintendent in July after having served as Fresno Unified’s associate superintendent for equity and access. During his four years in that position, the district’s graduation rate increased from 75 percent to 85 percent.

In Sacramento City Unified, a majority of students grow up in poverty – 64 percent are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals based on low household income.

“I’ve said several times: What I don’t want our community to hear from me is that external forces will be limiting factors to our students’ success,” Aguilar said during a recent visit to Hiram W. Johnson High School in Sacramento. “And so, the idea that poverty, or the idea that violence, or the idea that parents who didn’t have the opportunity to pursue education or didn’t graduate are not going to be used as the reason we have low graduation rates or low college completion rates.”

Aguilar, 45, draws confidence from his own experience. The son of migrant farmworkers from Mexico who only attended elementary school, he attributes his own success to education.

“I certainly wouldn’t be here if folks had attributed my future to forces outside of education,” he said. “So that is something that is very critical to me.”

Aguilar spent many of his first 100 days at Sacramento City Unified visiting schools, listening to parents and meeting with community organizations and leaders in an effort to get to know the city’s neighborhoods and to understand residents’ concerns.

The new graduation task force Aguilar put in place in August is a direct result of parental dissatisfaction with the district’s low graduation rate of 81.4 percent. The task force consists of 21 community members, teachers and civil rights activists.

The district also commissioned the Council of Great City Schools to audit the special education department after Aguilar heard from dissatisfied parents.

On his first day of work, Aguilar met with the Black Parallel School Board, a community organization that advocates for low-income and minority students in the district. The group’s leaders and Aguilar agreed to work together to improve academic outcomes for all students, said Darryl White, chairman of the board.

Black Parallel School Board leaders also have been invited to be on the graduation task force and other education subcommittees, White said.

“I would say we had a pretty good relationship with (former superintendent) Jonathan Raymond, but I see more participation with this superintendent,” White said. “I think I personally like him at this point. He seems really committed.”

Aguilar is a big proponent of using data to drive instruction. He plans to use data to determine which kids should be enrolled in Advanced Placement classes or need summer or winter classes. District officials won’t wait for students to enroll, but will instead preregister them and require them to opt out if they don’t want to attend, Aguilar said.

The interventions would include elementary students who are falling behind. The superintendent has asked his principals to target students who are falling behind in specific areas, including those who are not reading at grade level by third grade and English learners who have been enrolled in the district for some time but have not been re-designated as fluent in English.

The school currently has summer school programs at some elementary schools, but they are not available across the district and students are not preregistered and required to opt out.

In August, district officials looked at the class assignments of high school students to determine if they were on track to graduate on time. When they found problems, they changed schedules and increased the number of students on track to graduate by 200, Aguilar said.

In his first weeks on the job, Aguilar landed a $300,000 grant from College Futures Foundation to help SCUSD share data with universities. This will allow the district to alert colleges to students who are on track to complete all of the requirements they need to enroll in their school, as well as to students they might want in their honors program, he said.

“I’m very clear and very comfortable that, for better or for worse, the role of a superintendent is to work with foundations and garner support from foundations,” he said.

Aguilar has his challenges. The Sacramento City Teachers Association has voted to strike as early as Nov. 3 if a contract agreement can’t be reached with the district. The union and district officials have been in contract negotiations for more than a year and can’t agree on compensation.

Union president David Fisher said Aguilar is an improvement from the previous superintendent and has ensured the union is represented on the graduation task force and other committees. But, says Fisher, Aguilar still isn’t putting an emphasis on filling all the teaching vacancies in the district, with many filled by substitutes without teaching credentials.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Graduation task force

The public meetings will be held at the Serna Center, 5735 47th Ave., beginning at 5:30 p.m.

  • Tuesday, Oct. 17
  • Monday, Oct. 30
  • Tuesday, Nov. 14
  • Tuesday, Nov. 28

Dec. 7 Board Meeting – Present Preliminary Recommendations