Staff Reporter 

Luis Cruz addresses Cheney staff on reaching students


August 30, 2018

Shannen Talbot

Dr. Luis Cruz has travelled all over the world speaking about education reform. On Aug. 23 he met with Cheney School District staff members and led a presentation detailing the challenges facing teachers today.

Not even a fire alarm and a brief evacuation could keep the teachers of the Cheney School District from switching roles and becoming students for the day on Aug. 23.

The district welcomed renowned educator Dr. Luis Cruz to the Eastern Washington University campus to give a lecture and personalized instruction to teachers and staff members on how to boost graduation rates and reach students across the economic and cultural spectrum.

"We're not just teachers," Cruz said to an auditorium of attentive district employees. "We're part of an elite team dedicated to the arduous task of helping children break free from the cycle of poverty."

Cruz served as the principal of Baldwin Park High School east of Los Angeles for about 10 years, from 2002-2012. During that time, his school made up of primarily low-income Latino students made astonishing academic gains and the graduation rate skyrocketed from 74 percent to 92 percent. Even in his absence, the graduation rate has gone up to 96.3 percent in recent years.

His work earned him and a committee of teacher leaders California's prestigious Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association for significantly closing the achievement gap between the general student population and students learning English as a second language. Cruz has also won several community leadership awards, such as New Teacher of the Year, Teacher of the Year and Administrator of the Year.

Since then, Cruz has been on the front lines of education reform, encouraging radical changes to school policies and procedures in order to improve student learning and speaking to districts about how to improve their graduation rates.

"Our public school system was never designed for the kids you serve. It was never designed for a global economy; it was designed for an agricultural and industrial economy," Cruz said.

Superintendent Rob Roettger opened the day with an update on the Professional Learning Community event the district hosted two weeks ago.

"We know that you have the most profound impact on student learning, and so this is important work," Roettger told staff.

Roettger emphasized that about 17 percent of students in the Cheney district are not graduating, meaning they have very little in the way of future opportunity. Cheney's graduation rate is just under 83 percent, and Roettger said that out of 350 students from last year's senior class, about 70 were not on track to graduate.

"When kids fail to get a job, they fall into other cycles – incarceration, drug abuse, spousal abuse," Cruz told attendees. "That then continues the cycle of poverty through another generation."

Following Cruz's opening lecture, teachers and staff broke out into several groups, including secondary and elementary instructor groups that Cruz was able to engage with individually and advise with specific strategies to improve student learning and help their students excel.

Cruz's methods and experience certainly could be applied in the West Plains. Nearly half of Cheney's student population is part of the free and reduced lunch program and qualifies as low-income.

Through an anonymous poll, Cheney teachers revealed that most of them think they're currently working at a school where learning only takes place if the student is able and willing to take advantage of opportunities to learn within the school. A majority added that they want to work at a school where all students can learn and the staff does whatever it takes to help students achieve.

The district also has a rising population of "English Language Learners" (ELL) students. These are students who are not currently proficient English speakers - or as Cruz calls them, halfway to bilingual.

Cruz suggested making several adjustments to the standard ELL program, including using visual displays in lesson plans, not changing or altering the pronunciation of students' names and utilizing academic sentence frames, a "fill in the blank" style of learning that helps students get a handle on the patterns and vocabulary needed to express concepts, ideas and thinking in English.

He also had recommendations for how to help all students learn at high levels.

Cruz advocates for eliminating policies that don't make sense, like suspending students for truancy, and took aim at long-held educational practices, like using seniority to dictate who teaches which classes.

He also encouraged building tutoring into the daily class schedule instead of holding it after school when students may have other obligations and responsibilities, dissected the difference between a "healthy" and "toxic" school culture and told teachers to think about the difference between equal and equitable in education.

"We don't need equal. We need equitable. When you treat kids equally, some kids are going to be left out of the equation," Cruz said.

Cruz noted that the public school system was not originally created to help ELL students and students with special needs, so the focus of the district should be on addressing the cause of inequity and removing systemic barriers to achievement.

Director of Student Support Services Dr. Robin Andrus is new to the district and has heard Cruz speak before. She said she appreciates the commitment of all the teachers that made time to be there.

"What I love is that (these talks) give everybody the same language to talk about issues we're dealing with. It's great that everyone is so engaged," she said. "How do we remove a systemic barrier - that's a really complex question. The work is hard, but to see teachers really embracing these lessons is amazing."

But historically, not all educators have been on-board with Cruz's unusual ideas and drastic changes.

Cruz emphasizes that the biggest resistance he gets when making systematic changes in the school system is not from students – but from adults.

"The districts that have success are doing so because they do the work and stay on the grind," Roettger said in his opening comments. "That's why many districts don't continue to do this. Because it's difficult, because it's hard."

Cruz told teachers that they could only call themselves effective educators if they were able to produce evidence of learning, quoting Edward Deming and saying, "In God we trust. All others need data."

Having data to back up its teaching methods would clearly show the district what best practices are for learning in its schools, Cruz said.

"When people know what best practices are, but are not implementing them, that is malpractice. We would not allow a doctor to continue their malpractice," Cruz said.

The district will be focusing on gaining that data and implementing Cruz's teaching in the coming year, Roettger told staff members.

"This work is simple but not easy," Roettger said in his opening comments. "We'll be paying close attention to that end product, which means graduation, options and opportunities for all students."

Shannen Talbot can be reached at


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