Sacramento Charter High leads the pack of most students taking the SAT

In a college-prep computer lab at Sacramento Charter High School, 17-year-old senior Tonkalya Rogers was online last week planning for college. She said she plans to apply to Howard University in Washington, D.C., in hopes of becoming a prosecutor.

“My whole life has been about my education and my future,” Rogers said. “This is the one school I know, for sure, will get me into college.”

She’s not the only one counting on the school to help her get it done.

Sacramento Charter High, part of St. Hope Public Schools, has instituted a culture in which taking the SAT and the ACT is central to the academic experience for almost all students. While that broad participation has resulted in a low average SAT score for the campus, officials say the payoff is getting every student at the ethnically diverse school to focus on higher education.

Rogers will take the SAT this fall, upholding a campus tradition in which nearly 9 in 10 seniors take the exam. No other school in the region has a higher percentage of students taking college entrance exams.

At many high schools, only a select group of students with sights on four-year colleges take the SAT or ACT. The hours-long tests are administered on weekends, and students who hope to score well spend months on exam preparation.

“At the end of the day, if you earn a college degree, it’s going to give you more choices in life,” said Jim Scheible, who served as St. Hope’s superintendent for three years before becoming its chief advancement officer this summer. “We’ve built up a culture where going to college is actually cool. It’s the thing to do, not to mention the life outcomes that go with the degree.”

At Sacramento Charter High, where nearly three-quarters of the students are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals, about 88 percent of 12th-graders took the SAT during the 2012-2013 school year and 96 percent took the ACT, the latest state data show.

The average SAT score at Sacramento Charter High is 1210 out of 2400, which hovers around the 20th percentile of students taking the exam, meaning that nationally 4 in 5 test-takers on average score higher.

Scheible said the school would like to see the average score climb. “We want to get the best of both worlds,” he said.

By comparison, nearby McClatchy High School had a significantly higher average score of 1627. But the campus, known for its selective Humanities and International Studies Program, also had a comparatively smaller share of seniors – 45 percent – take the exam.

Andrea Venezia, the new executive director for the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at California State University, Sacramento, said schools should encourage students to consider higher education and ensure that they prepare for college-level work.

At the CSU system last fall, 29 percent of first-time freshmen needed remedial help in math and 32 percent needed remedial help in English. Sacramento State intends to work with feeder high schools to reduce the number of incoming students who lack college-level academic skills, according to its new strategic plan.

If a student enters a two- or a four-year college and needs remediation because he or she is ill-prepared academically, “that could be a death sentence when it comes to completion,” Venezia said.

“That’s a big focus right now in high schools and in colleges – helping incoming students become academically ready so they don’t have to take development education – remediation,” she said.

At Luther Burbank High School, Principal Ted Appel said there’s nothing wrong with getting every senior to take the SAT, “but what you don’t want is to make that the point of the game.” Last year, 44 percent of Burbank seniors took the SAT, a share Appel said he would like to be significantly higher.

To accomplish that, the campus is “continuously developing a strong college-going culture, teaching students the importance and value of going to colleges, as well as what you need to do to go to college.” That effort is reflected in the curriculum, the career center, through smaller class sizes and counseling, he said.

“The real emphasis needs to be on preparing kids to be successful in college,” he said.

Throughout St. Hope’s charter schools – from kindergarten to 12th grade – the focus is college. Students visit college campuses yearly and, from fifth grade on, fill out college applications, just for the practice.

“When they do it for real in their senior year, they’ve already done that practice,” Scheible said. “And their parents are doing their applications with them.”

St. Hope has established relationships with some colleges, including Stanford University and the University of the Pacific. On some campus visits, “we’re actually starting to have Sacramento High alumni leading those tours.”

In 2002-03, when Sacramento High was not a charter, less than 30 percent of its students took the SAT. But the average score was roughly in the 35th percentile, higher than the school’s average now.

St. Hope Public Schools began tracking the progress of Sacramento High alumni in 2011. For the 2013 graduating class, 90 percent of seniors received acceptances to four-year colleges. Forty-eight percent of all seniors enrolled in those campuses last fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Another 33 percent of the students chose to attend two-year colleges, Scheible said.

While the SAT has become an academic focal point for Sacramento Charter High, it is only one of several factors in college admissions. Schools also consider high-school grades, the difficulty of classes taken, essays and extracurricular activities.

At Sacramento Charter, 17-year-old senior George Sandifer was in the college lab checking out the student life at California State University, Chico.

The college-prep track, which Sandifer has been on since entering St. Hope’s PS7 middle school, “has presented a lot of opportunities for me,” he said.

“They set high expectations for us,” he said, “and we try to meet them.”