High school district's champion of minority students set to retire | March 17, 2017 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

News - March 17, 2017

High school district's champion of minority students set to retire

Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf will take a part-time role

by Kevin Forestieri

After almost half a century working in Mountain View's education system, Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf announced she will be retiring from the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District. Sarraf is credited for relentlessly championing efforts to raise achievement among the area's underrepresented minority students since the 1970s, which ultimately won Mountain View High School national recognition last year.

Sarraf, who spent most of her career overseeing curriculum and instruction including the recent roll-out of Common Core state standards, told the Voice she "technically" retired in December last year, but made no formal announcement and continues to maintain her role in the district office. The district is currently reviewing applicants to replace Sarraf, and is expected to make a final decision by the end of March, according to Superintendent Jeff Harding.

Although Sarraf will quietly be exiting, her colleagues have no problem extolling the work she's done for the district. Harding hailed Sarraf for being a constant advocate for open access and breaking down barriers that used to prevent lower-performing students from enrolling in rigorous academic classes. Under her watch, the district put together a framework dedicated to bringing underrepresented minorities up to speed, and ensuring that they take the classes that allow them to apply for the top colleges in the state. That framework includes at-risk youth counselors at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, more Spanish-speaking staff and bilingual community liaisons to help parents navigate the school system.

The district was among the first in California to adopt "open access" policies — which allow students to take rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) classes regardless of past performance — even though the move was hotly debated and well-outside of standard practices in 2001. Sarraf recalled that there were no other districts with an open access policy in the immediate area, and her extended search wasn't exactly promising.

"We only found one or two schools at the time that were dabbling in it, and in both cases the policy failed and they disbanded it," Sarraf said. "We didn't let that dissuade us, and in retrospect I really, truly believe it was one of the best things we could have done."

In the 2013-14 school year, the district took it a step further and hired an outside consultant to help persuade low-income and minority students to sign up for the classes. The district, working with Seattle-based Equal Opportunity Schools, began tracking down students who were likely to succeed in AP and honors classes, but don't feel like they are qualified or belong in the tough classes.

The results were staggering. County data shows that 70 percent of low-income Latino students at Mountain View High School were enrolled in at least one AP class following one year of the program, compared to just 20 percent at the start of the 2013-14 school year. Last September, the school won national recognition for achieving equal representation in its AP classes — one of only 43 in the country — from White House Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson.

Pat Hyland, who was principal of Mountain View High at the time, said students used to have to clear as many as seven different requirements just to get into AP and honors courses, including a high grade point average, a "letter of interest" and a special lunch meeting. In one case, Hyland said, a student with a 4.0 grade point average missed the lunch meeting and torpedoed the chance to get into the class.

But adopting open access was hardly a walk in the park. Not only was there a chance that the policy could go wrong — students ill-prepared for AP classes could be in way over their heads and flunk out — but Hyland and others had the difficult task of selling the idea to the school community. She recalled one conversation where parents, who moved to the area because of the high quality schools, said they were concerned about allowing "those kids" into the same class as their son.

"Those are the times where I would go to Brigitte and say, 'This is so hard, this is so risky,'" Hyland said. "I have never had somebody support teachers and myself the way she would. She kept seeing the potential for success and the potential to achieve equity through this, and once she was on board it was like having an entire army at your back."

Sarraf joined the school district over 46 years ago, starting out as the assistant principal at Los Altos High School before making her way to the district office. She recalled the monumental challenge the district faced when it had to close down the old Mountain View High School and integrate the school's students — the vast majority were minority students — into schools with little diversity. At the time, she said, Los Altos High School was about 90 percent white and about 9.9 percent Asian, and there was hardly a black or Latino student to be found.

During those early years in the district, Sarraf said she was shocked to find an "enormously huge" discrepancy in academic performance along ethnic lines, which galvanized her to close what would later be called the achievement gap.

"I vowed that I was going to commit every bit of my energy that I had to lessen that discrepancy, and I think we have lessened that over time," she said. "We haven't gotten to where we'd like to be, but we have made progress."

During her time in the district, Sarraf didn't just support new and specialized programs, she was often the founder. Long-time board member Phil Faillace said she played an integral role in shaping Middle College, Freestyle Academy and the AVID program, and was largely responsible for the district's continuation program — Alta Vista High School — as it exists today.

Faillace said the idea of Alta Vista was conceived at a time when it common to simply give up on low-performing students with severe behavioral problems, and for high schools to shirk responsibility by sending kids off to the county's latter-day version of reform school. Sarraf helped create a local alternative in Alta Vista, which is considered one of the top continuation programs in the state.

On the other end, Faillace said Sarraf took strides to make sure the top-performing students weren't neglected either.

"When math prodigies enrolled in our schools and exhausted even the most advanced courses we could provide through Foothill College, Brigitte spent many hours negotiating with U.C. Berkeley to have those students take courses there and receive credit," he said.

Because Sarraf might best be known for digging into student and curriculum data and slicing and dicing information into dozens of colorful graphs, former Superintendent Barry Groves said her passion for helping all students may have gone under the radar for some.

"What is less visible is her incredible devotion to those students who need extra help or support to be successful in school," Groves said in an email. "She has an enormous heart and dedication providing support, individual counseling, mentoring, and working to harness community resources to meet the needs of the students."

On top of doing her job, Faillace said Sarraf had to overcome being superficially type-cast as a self-disciplined, highly efficient executive woman who separates her emotions from her work. Her career as a high-ranking school official, he said, progressed during an era where women were routinely criticized for being either overly emotional or too cold and professional.

"Brigitte, like many women executives who had to rise above that Catch-22 situation, often did conceal the exceptional depth of her empathy, but I had the privilege of seeing it," he said. "She is living proof that deeply felt emotion need not cloud judgment, but can inspire thoughtful persons to achieve beneficial outcomes that would otherwise have remained out of reach."

When a civil rights group criticized the district in 2015, claiming that it disproportionately placed ninth-grade Hispanic and African American students in lower-level math classes, Sarraf didn't just call the allegation "preposterous," she backed up her assertion. She told the Voice at the time that she spent countless hours digging through transcripts for about 1,000 students going back to 2011, and said she found no clear pattern of discriminatory placement. Only 27 of the students, she said, may have needed additional review to see if they should have been placed in higher math.

The school district appears to be at a high water mark when it comes to helping Latino students succeed in their classes. According to a 2014 report, the number of Latino freshman with a GPA of 2.0 or lower dropped from 26 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 12 percent in the 2013-14 school year. Subsequent reports from the district show that Latino students performed on par with their white and Asian peers in AP classes based on grades and test scores.

More work to be done

Although Sarraf's career in education has been focused on helping all students regardless of background, she would probably be the first person to bring up the shortcomings and the problems that still need to be addressed. When talking about the successes and importance of open access, for example, Sarraf was quick to concede that the policy doesn't work as well in mathematics, which is "fraught with challenges" because math courses are so linear and rely on a strong foundation.

Similarly, when the district's state-standardized test results came back last year showing a drop in performance, Sarraf compiled a thick binder full of graphs and data sets and held a special board meeting with the trustees to review what went wrong. Although the exact reason for the dip in performance continues to elude district officials, Sarraf said it likely boils down to lack of test preparation and over-confidence following strong test scores in the 2014-15 school year.

Part of that review includes going classroom by classroom and giving teachers feedback about their students' performance — in a public way with teachers' names attached — in order to figure out what went wrong at the most granular level. Sarraf said doing this kind of review during her early years in the district would've been akin to starting World War III with the teaching staff, but decades of trust-building and support have build a climate where teachers can delve into the data with impunity.

Those same test scores also show that the achievement gap continues to be a problem at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, with sharp divides along both ethnic and economic lines that surpass both state and county-wide discrepancies. Although the problem has persisted throughout decades of her career, Sarraf said she has not taken a cynical view, and maintains that underrepresented minorities are really "under-served" minorities that can succeed with the right support.

"I have a deep personal belief that when the conditions are right, virtually all students can achieve," Sarraf said. "It's a moral imperative for me."

Email Kevin Forestieri@kforestieri@mv-voice.com

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