Supportive Culture at University High School in Tucson Translates to Success

Tucson, AZ | Submitted by Amy Cislak

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University High School in Tucson has the unique distinction of being named a national Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. Not once… but twice. The 1,100 students in grades 9-12 are not all already high-performing youth, as is often assumed. Instead, the school represents a cross-section of the Tucson area, with one in three students qualifying for free and reduced lunch and half coming from minority populations.

Part of University High’s reputation stems from its status as an exam high school, which means that students must apply and test to be admitted. The rigorous curriculum and high expectations can create pressure for both students and staff, but the school has created a number of programs to help combat the stress and to aid student learning.

Because students come to University High from all over the region, leadership knew that it would be especially important to provide support, both socially and academically. And the school doesn’t waste any time in laying that groundwork. As soon as a new student is admitted, they are paired with an older student who will serve as their mentor. They’re also assigned a counselor, who will work closely with them over the next four years.

To ensure that the students are comfortable entering their first year of high school, all freshman join together for a two-week academy in the summer. The half-day sessions are fun and interactive, allowing students to get to know one another and get to know the campus.
As students progress through their academic journey, the school relies heavily on their counselors and student support team to help keep students on track. This is especially important for the 35 percent of youth who will be the first in their families to attend college. In addition to the district staffed counselors and support team members, the UHS Parents’ Association raised funds to share in paying the salary of a full time writing support specialist who assists all seniors with their college and scholarship application essays in addition to providing extensive interview preparation. Workshops for financial aid, scholarships, college life as well as mental health are provided all year long for parents and students. The College and Career Center hosts over 150 college visits a year in addition to guest speakers and test prep workshops. The center also serves over 200 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students who are on free/reduced lunch or just need a snack to get through the day.

From an academic standpoint, teachers and counselors work closely with students. Failure is not part of their vocabulary, and teachers invest many hours to monitor student results, share best practices and plan the most effective lessons possible. Free tutoring is even available for students who desire one-on-one instruction. The school also enlists parental support, to ensure that learning is continuing in the home.

Since the school was founded 40 years ago, faculty and staff have worked tirelessly to create a culture of mutual support between students. It’s a place where the cool kids are smart, kind and helpful. Students celebrate each other’s successes and aid learning in their peers. This safe environment allows pupils to take academics risks and learn by their mistakes, rather than being bullied or belittled for them. University High has even incorporated mindfulness and yoga to help students manage stress in a healthy way.

All of these efforts have combined to create a highly successful school, where they lose only 3 percent of students every year. The school first received a Blue Ribbon award in 2005 and again in 2016. What’s more, 100 percent of students passed the math portion of AzMERIT last year, and nine in ten passed in English language arts.

The school is regularly ranked nationally, and boasted the highest growth rate in AIMS testing. And there’s no question why – last year 100 percent of students graduated and were admitted to more than 200 schools, including all of the Ivy League universities. The College Board honored 35 University High students as National Merit Scholars and 41 as Hispanic Scholars, the most of any school in the country.

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