This interview is one in a series spotlighting principals, teachers and parents of Southeast Los Angeles schools, and their thoughts on how schools can better support Latino students in Southeast Los Angeles (SELA). 

One of the proudest moments for South Gate Principal Leo Gonzalez was when his school made huge gains in English this past year.

South Gate Senior High is one of several high schools in Southeast Los Angeles beating the statewide average in preparing Latino students for four-year colleges and universities. 

This was a key finding in Innovate Public School’s new report, SELA Rising: Fighting for Educational Justice for Latino Students in Southeast Los Angeles, in partnership with the University of Southern California and Alliance for a Better Community (ABC).

“At Innovate Public Schools, we believe that data is a powerful tool and when schools are data-driven, they are better able to respond to the needs of each and every student,” shares Jennifer Perla, Senior Manager of Research and Policy at Innovate Public Schools. “South Gate Senior High is showing what is possible when you build a data-driven culture”.

More than 6 out of 10 Latino students at South Gate Senior High are on grade level in English and 6 out of 10 Latino graduates are eligible to apply to a UC/CSU, outperforming all students in other schools statewide. Still, only 4 out of 10 students statewide are UC/CSU eligible. 

This past year, the school also achieved tremendous growth in English. According to LAUSD’s recently released academic growth data, students at South Gate Senior High grew an average of 74 scale points on the English Language Arts assessment, which is 20 points higher than the district average.

The principal and teachers at South Gate Senior High have worked hard over the past couple of years to make these gains possible for their students.  

Growing up and attending public schools in Southeast LA, from elementary to high school, Principal Gonzalez relates to his students, many of whom are Latino and come from low-income households. 

“In high school, my dream was to go to USC. I went in to see the college counselor at Bell High School, and as I was waiting in her room, I eagerly grabbed one of the USC brochures on her desk. She walked in and yelled at me for touching her materials. It made me feel so small. I never walked in there again for the rest of my four years at Bell. It was one of my English teachers that eventually encouraged and helped me apply to college.”

Now Gonzalez is the one encouraging his students and their parents to dream big and to not be afraid of leaving home to go to college further away. 

We asked Gonzalez about his approach to school leadership and how he encourages teachers, students, and parents to set high expectations and goals. 

You’ve been a principal at South Gate High School for a year and have helped the school make significant gains in that one year. What was your approach to leadership as a new leader to the school? 

When I first came in it was a lot of observing. As a transformational leader, a lot of it is looking at what is happening and investigating. There was a drop in English Language Arts proficiency results the year before I started. I wanted to know what happened, so I asked around but because no one was focused on looking at data, no one had an answer. My goal was to turn this around and build a culture of using data together as a team to monitor progress. Another priority for me was to enhance the rigor of instruction in English Language Arts and ensure we were implementing standards based curriculum across the board.

What practices make your school particularly successful in serving low-income students of color?

I think what was key for us was 1) providing planning [time] for teachers to collaborate and work together, and 2) becoming more data-driven. We introduced interim benchmark assessments so that we could monitor progress and make adjustments along the way. The whole team is now invested in data as a tool for improvement. Teachers use data proactively to better serve students and engage students in the data as well. For example, all teachers have a data wall in their classroom that shows how the class is doing. The data displayed ranges from attendance data to 5-week grades. The goal was for everyone to be looking for and seeking out new data. 

What has been your proudest moment in your work with this school?

I have two proud moments. 

The first happened this past year when the test results came in, and we realized we went from 53% of our students on grade level in English to 64%. That was a huge jump. It was a proud moment for all of us. Celebrating successes is key at South Gate High School. One of the things I am most proud of is when teachers and students realize what they were able to achieve. This is what closing the achievement gap looks like–having high expectations for all kids and celebrating their accomplishments. 

This year, we also became an inclusion school. There is no Special Day Program (SPD). All students go to the same general education classes and learn the same content and skills. Because there are few models to show principals how to do this work, we had to create a new model with classes being co-taught by a general education teacher and a special education teacher. All students have benefitted from this model. We were about to lose a couple of teachers based on enrollment, but because we were able to show the importance of co-teachers, we were able to keep all teaching positions. You can’t disrupt the learning environment for kids that have benefitted from and gotten used to this model. 

Click here to access our  Innovate Public Schools official report SELA Rising: Fighting for Education Justice for Latino Students in Southeast Los Angeles. 

Editor’s Note: This interview with Principal Leo Gonzalez was edited for clarity.