A model for progress
Aligning stakeholders to support students
By Cynthia Harvey, Denise Williams and Manny Barbara | November | December 2020
California’s achievement gap has long been a critical and seemingly intractable problem for educators and policymakers. Therefore, it was no surprise that San Jose’s East Side Union High School District was struggling with A-G completion rates of only 33 percent for all students and a mere 16 percent for Hispanic students (Potter and Barbara, 2014). In their 2008 report, “Closing the Achievement Gap,” Superintendent Jack O’Connell’s California P-16 Council found that: “Closing the gap is going to take unprecedented collaboration between all segments of the business community, higher education and the K–12 system.” The report goes on to recommend better alignment of prekindergarten to college educational systems. Few regions have been able to do so, but East San Jose succeeded in coming into alignment with the formation of the East Side Alliance. The East Side Alliance is a collective impact initiative that unites school districts, higher education institutions, nonprofit organizations and funders to improve student outcomes for over 76,500 students. Student demographics In East San Jose include 50 percent Hispanic, 39 percent Asian including Filipino, and 2 percent African American students, 28 percent current English learners, and 51 percent of students classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged (California Department of Education, 2020). Formed in 2012, ESA aligns efforts in 103 schools across eight districts in San Jose’s East Side. The Alliance brings together the educational systems of East Side Union High School District, its seven feeder elementary school districts, San Jose State University, Santa Clara University and Evergreen Valley College. The Silicon Valley Education Foundation guides and oversees the partnership and works closely with other nonprofits and businesses to provide resources and services necessary to accelerate achievement for East San Jose students. ESA’s success offers a model for school district partnerships elsewhere.
Collective efficacy with a single focus
The ESA was founded on the principles of collective efficacy, which holds that a group’s confidence in its own abilities affects its success (Bandura, 1977). Many studies have examined collective efficacy in the context of education and found it to be a powerful predictor of student outcomes (Eells, 2011). In fact, John Hattie named it as the most important factor influencing student achievement, with three times greater effect size than socioeconomic status, home environment, parental involvement or student motivation or engagement (Hattie, 2016). Manny Barbara, former superintendent of the Oak Grove School District and current advisor at Silicon Valley Education Foundation, and John Porter, former superintendent of the Franklin McKinley School District, decided to harness the power of collective efficacy for East San Jose students and spearheaded the founding of the East Side Alliance. They drew inspiration from similar collective impact efforts, including the Cincinnati STRIVE P-16 collective impact model and the “First in the World Consortium” of 16 school districts in Illinois and Indiana. Key to success, they found, was to build professional learning communities and “to focus on just one thing to improve,” said John Porter. That one thing, they decided, would be math, often viewed as a gatekeeper to students’ college attendance and success.  
Aligning multiple stakeholders
School district alliances had been attempted twice previously in Santa Clara County, with minimal success. Barbara and Porter knew that to build a lasting consortium of districts, they needed to win allies across stakeholder groups: board members, superintendents, assistant superintendents, teacher unions and teachers. In 2012, under the leadership of Barbara, SVEF convened the superintendents of the eight districts and proposed the creation of the ESA. The support of Chris Funk, superintendent of the East Side Union High School District, was critical in bringing the districts together. Funk remarked, “ESA is a great example of how collective impact can have a positive effect on large systems change. To have eight school districts come together with the support and facilitation of a third party is truly remarkable.” Once the superintendents were on board, SVEF brought in the assistant superintendents to explore primary focus areas for the initiative. The districts had just arrived at a common placement process for Grade 8 Algebra, and parties chose alignment implementing the recently adopted Common Core State Standards in mathematics as the Alliance’s focus.

Since teachers are the most important part of any initiative to raise student achievement, they were also critical stakeholders.
The next crucial group of allies would be the teachers’ unions, so Barbara spent two months meeting individually with each union’s president. He then convened all union presidents as a group and included representatives from the California Teachers Association regional office. The unions agreed to endorse ESA. To steward the relationship, Barbara held monthly meetings with the CTA and union presidents for the first four years of the ESA. Thereafter, written communications sufficed. Since teachers are the most important part of any initiative to raise student achievement, they were also critical stakeholders. From the beginning, SVEF has sought teacher input on ESA professional development priorities through regular surveys. The Santa Clara County Office of Education has played a key role in designing and delivering professional development and is considered a vital part of ESA’s ongoing success. One of the biggest accomplishments of ESA professional development stakeholders in the creation of the ESA Math Toolkit. The ESA Math ToolKit Task Force was a collaborative effort between math teachers, coaches, administrators and expert math consultants. The Task Force met over a period of eight months, researching mathematical best practices, and developed a Toolkit serving as a framework for math instruction and accountability.
Funding and governance
In addition to champions across schools, creating and sustaining an impactful alliance requires funding and a governance structure. An initial $60,000 grant from Applied Materials provided the seed funding for the ESA formation; the company has continued to grant that amount annually. Silicon Valley Community Foundation provided a three-year, $450,000 grant to ESA and four other similar initiatives in San Mateo County. Additional grants from foundations, companies, Santa Clara County Office of Education, Santa Clara County and individuals continue to sustain the ESA, but funding remains an ongoing challenge. ESA’s ability to persist where other initiatives were less successful may be due to the steering provided by SVEF. Co-founder Manny Barbara stated: “One of the critical components of a collective impact initiative is an independent backbone organization. SVEF served in that capacity for the ESA. We were here to support the districts: helping with the vision and mission, maintaining relationships with critical stakeholders, raising money, facilitating meetings, and more.” A robust governance model is also key to the Alliance’s success. An advisory steering committee consisting of superintendents, board representatives, union presidents, funders, higher education partners, and invited community members provides general oversight and attends to the vision, mission, and metrics of the ESA. The advisory steering committee originally met twice a year annually but now meets annually. The Superintendents Council meets monthly, attends an annual retreat, and is responsible for overseeing the ESA’s operations, liaising with Boards of Education, negotiating agreements, and signing MOUs. Assistant superintendents also meet monthly and in an annual retreat and are charged with approving professional development models.  
Goals and how to achieve them
Once stakeholders were convened, funding secured, and governance established, all parties spent several sessions agreeing on a common vision, mission and goals to guide their work. The ESA vision is to prepare every student for a lifetime of success in Silicon Valley. This vision is operationalized through its goals: to increase the number of students, especially Hispanic and African American students, completing University of California A-G requirements and to improve enrollment and success in Grade 8 Mathematics and upper-level math courses. ESA aims to achieve these goals by creating an articulated K-12 system of mathematics instruction, increasing collaboration among teachers across grade levels and tapping into the benefits of collective efficacy.
Professional development and regular convenings are central to cultivating collective efficacy, creating alignment, and improving pedagogy. Since 2013, over 1,000 teachers and administrators have been impacted by ESA’s work, attending at least one of the following convenings:
  • Math-focused forums and symposiums (four per year) discussing hot-button issues in education.
  • Professional development workshops including Assessment for Learning (five per year), a teacher-led initiative developed in partnership with the Santa Clara County Office of Education that trains mathematics teachers to use performance assessments to develop deep learning.
  • Professional Learning Communities called “Impact Teams” (five meetings per year), which are made up of teachers, counselors and administrators. The teams collaborate across grade levels, examine collective efficacy principles and learn tools to improve student outcomes.
  • ESA initially partnered for five years with the New Teacher Center and trained 600 teachers and principals in a common process on conducting Professional Learning Communities.
Superintendent Elida McArthur, Ed.D., has been involved with ESA’s professional development work for several years. Dr. McArthur described how ESA engages educators in action research: “Using the Improvement Science Framework, teachers, site administrators, district administrators, and outside experts work together as a network to improve teaching and learning. The network identifies a problem of practice, does cycles of inquiry, and implements the five principles of formative assessment and other best practices that we have learned. Silicon Valley Education Foundation and ESA have supported our district, site administrators and teachers to work together to build a learning culture where we are beginning to continually assess the impact that our decisions are having on student learning.” When COVID-19 hit, the ESA moved its convenings online, and attendance increased. While continuing their work around collective efficacy, teachers are discussing the challenges with distance learning and sharing strategies to best serve students while teaching remotely.  
A pathway to college
Beyond fostering collaboration and supporting teacher excellence, the East Side Alliance has championed initiatives to increase student graduation rates and matriculation to CSUs and UCs. To facilitate this, one of ESA’s first priorities was increasing A-G requirement completion rates. Through advocacy, professional development, student and family programming and alignment of math pathways, the ESA has succeeded in making A-G requirements the default curriculum in ESUHSD and boosting completion rates. In 2011, A-G completion rates for ESUHSD students were only 33 percent. In 2019, they were 52 percent. In 2011, high school graduation rates from ESUHSD were 77 percent. In 2019, they were 88 percent.
While continuing their work around collective efficacy, teachers are discussing the challenges with distance learning and sharing strategies to best serve students while teaching remotely.
Another initiative to increase college matriculation, the Spartan East Side Promise, was established in 2017. It guarantees admission to SJSU to ESUHSD graduates who meet basic requirements and has helped to increase SJSU enrollment of ESUHSD grads by 10 percent. East Side Union High School District Education Foundation also runs a summer bridge program to support students transitioning from ESUHSD to SJSU. Lastly, the ESA has worked to develop partnerships that support students financially in higher education. Corporate and philanthropic partnerships allow SVEF to award dozens of scholarships each year to students graduating from ESUHSD. Additionally, a partnership with Excite Credit Union provides $50 opening deposits and a match of $25 per year for any child in East Side Alliance schools who opens a savings account for postsecondary education. By offering robust teacher professional development, championing A-G completion and providing financial support, the ESA provides a three-pronged system to ensure students in San Jose have a pathway to college.  
Since its establishment in 2012, the ESA has built alignment and coordinated efforts across districts, grade levels, and educational institutions. All of these ultimately positively impact students by strengthening support along their pathway from kindergarten through college. Among its successes are the following:
  • Districts adopted a common and equitable process for placing students in gateway math classes such as Algebra and Integrated Math Course I.
  • Districts adopted a common Professional Learning Community process across the ESA. Over 1,000 teachers and administrators have benefitted from ESA’s professional development work.
  • More students are completing the A-G requirements and are qualified for UC admission. In 2011, the A-G completion rate in ESUHSD was 33 percent. In 2019, it was 52 percent.
  • Graduation rates are now 88 percent. In 2011, graduation rates were 77 percent.
  • Over 900 ESUHSD students have been given the opportunity to attend SJSU thanks to the Spartan East Side Promise.
  • More students are taking and passing AP exams. In 2012, 22 percent of ESUHSD students took an AP exam, and 64 percent scored a 3 or higher. In 2019, 32 percent of students took at least one AP exam, with 68 percent of those scoring a 3 or higher.
  • The East Side Alliance has won several awards, including the Kristi Porter Award, the Glenn W. Hoffman Exemplary Program Award and Certificates of Recognition from California Senator Jim Beall and Assemblymember Ash Kalra.
Challenges and a path forward
Challenges remain; the achievement gap persists, securing sufficient funding is a perennial difficulty and the move to distance learning presents a new set of obstacles for educators. Nevertheless, the ESA offers resources and a path forward. In the coming year, the ESA will continue holding professional development sessions, PLC convenings and forums online, and attendance will likely continue to increase as participants can now attend from home. Teachers will continue learning how to use performance assessments and best practices in math teaching with a focus on effective remote instruction. SVEF has been meeting with district superintendents individually, helping them to imagine their schools’ reopening and fostering dialogue between districts. “Everything we are doing now is approached through the lens of distance learning,” SVEF Chief Program Officer Denise Williams said. “How can we best partner with teachers and administrators to support them in this new school environment?” ESA’s impact points to the power of partnerships: “The success of the ESA could not have happened without the support of the eight district superintendents, Boards of Trustees, employee associations, and critical partners who believed in the power of collective impact in improving student success,” Manny Barbara said. “It brought teachers and school leaders together across the K-12 pathway, engaged in collaborative work to improve instructional practices.”
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191–215. California Department of Education (2020). DataQuest, School Year 2019-20. Retrieved July 17, 2020, from
CORE Dashboard (2019). Core Districts Dashboard, School Year 2018-19. Retrieved July 17, 2020, from
Eells, R. (2011). Meta-analysis of the relationship between collective efficacy and student achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Loyola University of Chicago. Hattie, J. (2016, July). Mindframes and Maximizers. 3rd Annual Visible Learning Conference held in Washington, DC.
Cynthia Harvey is the Communications Director, Denise Williams is Chief Programs Officer, and Manny Barbara is an Advisor for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.
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