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Tolleson high school among the top 20 best schools in nation, according to report

Posted at 7:01 PM, May 17, 2017

One of the top schools in the nation opened its doors to ABC15 this week, sharing its formula for success with other Arizona schools.

According to U.S. News & World Report,  Tolleson's University High School is the 21st best public high school in the country and the seventh best in Arizona.  BASIS charter schools take most of the state's top slots. However, University high is different because it's part of a regular district.

"We are funded just like every other public high school," Academic Dean Susan Thompson said.

Administrators say they also don't cherry pick the highest-achievers. Students with average grades and test scores are also encouraged to enroll. Most students are minorities. Two-thirds qualify for free or reduced lunch. One-third of the 2017 graduates come from homes where English was not the primary language.

"I feel a lot of pride because our school isn't a rich school; we don't have brand-new equipment for everything," senior Natalie Navarro said.  She says the school instills "corazon" and "ganas," meaning "We have heart and we want to learn."  

Dean Susan Thompson says they use a "Stand and Deliver" philosophy, based loosely on the 1988 film about an inspirational teacher in a troubled Los Angeles school. University High School uses a three-pronged approach by getting students, teachers and parents to commit to the school's high expectations.

"We believe that all students can reach this success," regardless of their background or intelligence, Thompson told ABC15.  

"If you want to work hard we will get you there," Thompson said.  She added retention rates have been a concern, so extra interventions are provided to students to prevent "tapping out."

To work at University High, teachers must be equally committed to success. 

"They stay extra tutoring hours; they offer every kind of help imaginable," Navarro said.

The school also provides training seminars for parents, showing them how to support their kids through hours of nightly homework, stress and failures.

"You can still get a good education in Arizona, except you have to work for it, and you have to look for it," freshman Victoria Cisneros said. 

University High School enrolls about 500 students and it's located on the campus of Tolleson High School. Students have access to a full range of sports, electives and activities. Administrators say their model could be replicated in many other Arizona school districts with existing budgets and staff.

"I want all of us to have faith in our students, our teachers and administrators in the public school system," Thompson said.