Eye on the Future

Tech-savvy Sunnyside Unified School District keeps a clear focus

GUEST COLUMN | by Julie Smith

Sunnyside USDAccording to the National Center for Education Statistics, a high school graduate can expect to earn $32,800 annually, but without a diploma, annual earnings drop to just $21,000. The bottom line is that earning a high school diploma positively impacts a student for the rest of his or her life.  In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are roughly 66 million jobs available for workers with a high school diploma. These numbers speak loudly to the educators at Sunnyside Unified School District (USD) in Tucson, Ariz. In 2007, roughly 40 percent of the district’s high school freshman did not graduate. This alarming statistic spurred the district to make significant changes to its curriculum and how it engaged its students.

When Superintendent Manuel L. Isquierdo joined Sunnyside USD in July 2007, he faced numerous challenges, including low literacy rates, a public image as a “dropout factory,” and the reality of 86 percent of his students coming from low-income families. Dr. Isquierdo faced a huge task by anyone’s standards, and he knew that a comprehensive district reform initiative was essential.

To turn Sunnyside USD into a leading school district, Dr. Isquierdo launched Project Graduation, a multi-phased, research-based effort aimed at significantly reducing the number of high school dropouts and increasing student graduation rates. Project Graduation included a site-based graduation plan, comprehensive attendance component, credit recovery and a new student advisory system. In developing the plan, Dr. Isquierdo focused on student success, community progress and incorporating technology into students’ education. According to Learn Now, Lecture Later, a survey from technology solutions provider CDW-G, Dr. Isquierdo was right on track. The report found that 69 percent of students would like to incorporate more technology into their education.

Project Graduation is based on dropout prevention research and the belief in the power of technology.  The initiative includes six strands:

  • Graduation awareness plan:  Each incoming freshman is provided an individual graduation plan that is their roadmap to graduation
  • Credit recovery:  To increase the number of seniors that graduate on time, the district makes credit recovery easier by offering computer labs for students to take online courses during and after school
  • Freshman intervention:  School officials identify freshmen needs and challenges prior to and throughout the freshmen year experience to provide tutoring and other customized instruction that ensures academic success and on-time promotion to the next grade level
  • Monitoring student attendance: The district creates a culture that connects attendance to academic success. Twice a week during an advisory period, the district provides students with attendance information and counseling
  • Advisory period: Students are paired with advisers who connect them to school and help develop opportunities for belonging while an adult supports their academic and attendance progress

To help make Project Graduation a success, the district installed computer labs for students to take online courses, and it established a student information system to track daily attendance, grades and student completion of homework assignments. As a result, Sunnyside USD’s graduation rate improved from 505 students in 2007 to 873 students in 2012 – a significant increase for the district, which now has a 70 percent graduation rate.

With its new standard for academic excellence, Dr. Isquierdo and his team are revamping Project Graduation, including a one-to-one computing program for every student grades 4 through 9. The district is also investing in new classroom technologies by partnering with CDW-G.  Sunnyside will provide every teacher with a tablet computer and will install document cameras, projectors and interactive whiteboards in every classroom.

Dr. Isquierdo and Sunnyside USD set out to improve student achievement and graduation rates and the technology available in the school district – through Project Graduation, Dr. Isquierdo did just that. Project Graduation served as a catalyst for redesigning instructional delivery and technology integration with a one-to-one program that is earning national recognition for best practices. Sunnyside USD recently earned the distinction of being one of 20 districts across the country named a Project RED Signature District and has been invited to become a member of the nation’s Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. While change continues at Sunnyside USD, Dr. Isquierdo believes that by rejecting the image of the district as a dropout factory and remaking itself as a tech-savvy district, Sunnyside will be able to provide its students with even brighter futures.

Julie Smith is Vice President of K-12 at CDW-G. Write to: jsmith@cdwg.com

  • Emily Olsen


    There is a great new tool for students out there that may be worth looking into. Tutor Universe is a new online virtual marketplace where people can go to be tutored or become tutors. The website offers a virtual whiteboard that makes it easy to write math formulas, upload documents (like worksheets or essays), communicate through audio/video, etc. This is a really simple way to get students involved and interested in what they’re learning. It can be a great tool for students who don’t feel comfortable seeing a tutor in person. Definitely something to check out!

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