At LUCHA elementary, a small public school in east San Jose, parents are not just welcome – they are deeply engaged in supporting their children’s education. That is little surprise given that it was parents who fought for the creation of the school 11 years ago. Those efforts paid off – as of 2012-13, LUCHA was identified as a “rising star,” one of a small number of Silicon Valley schools that are beating the odds for low-income students.

LUCHA Science Class

A School Championed by Parents

In the 1990s, Alum Rock School District was one of the lowest- performing districts in all of Silicon Valley. In 2000, People Acting in Community Together (PACT) started organizing frustrated parents in East San Jose who wanted more high-quality public schools. Parents pushed the district to create new autonomous schools and succeeded in achieving the creation of three schools – LUCHA, Renaissance, and Adelante. All three continue to be some of the highest performing schools in the region.

“We designed our ideal school,” says LUCHA Principal Kristin Burt, who was part of a team of parents and teachers 11 years ago that worked to create and launch the school. In preparation, they visited small schools in New York City to see what’s worked elsewhere.

The school has several elements specifically designed to support the high-need students it serves, including a longer school day. The day starts at 8 and runs to 1:30 for kindergartners, 3:05 in grades 1 to 3 and 3:30 in grades 4 and 5. The longer day makes it possible to offer extra help for English Learners and for students falling behind, as well as small group instruction.

LUCHA is a district school bound by the teachers’ union contract – with an agreement that teachers will work a longer school day, as well as make home visits and spend more time training to improve their craft. When LUCHA and Alum Rock’s other “small schools of choice” were created, they were designed to be autonomous. They’ve since lost some of their autonomy, says Burt. However, LUCHA has kept control of its curriculum, which uses projects to engage students and includes field trips.

“It’s important to have everyone believe in our philosophy,” says Burt. Teachers must be willing to go “above and beyond” the contract.” However, if a district teacher wants to teach at LUCHA, and is willing to accept the extra responsibilities, Burt can’t hire someone else with less seniority.

Engaging Families

“Parents feel they have a voice here. They’re held accountable for doing their part to help their children succeed.” – Principal Kristin Burt, LUCHA school in San Jose

LUCHA has only 250 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. That helps create a strong sense of community, says Burt. “I know every student – and I know their parents.”

Class sizes are capped at 21 students in K-3 and 25 in grades four and five. Teachers know their students and their families well, says Burt. “This is a place where everyone knows everyone.”

Currently, eighty-five percent of students at LUCHA come from Latino families and 9 percent are Asian. Some parents are college educated, but others haven’t completed high school.

“Parents feel they have a voice here,” says Burt. “They’re held accountable for doing their part to help their children succeed.”

Teachers visit their students’ homes at the start of the school year. “It’s hugely helpful,” says Burt. “They can understand what’s going on in the family, see how parents want to participate and build a relationships. We don’t go with an agenda or tell the parents what they should do. We emphasize that parents are the primary teachers. We listen to them.”

About half of her teachers speak Spanish. Those who don’t may go with colleague who speaks the language or with Burt or with a bilingual parent who’s willing to translate. Some just go alone and do their best to communicate. “They can grab the photo album and point,” says Burt. “It’s powerful to show your vulnerability.”

All parents are expected to volunteer for 30 hours each school year. When students – known as “leaders” – get report cards, so do parents. The parent report shows the hours they’ve volunteered at school or at home. Parents also get credit for doing educational activities with their child, such as visiting the Tech Museum.

“We’re super flexible because some of our parents are working full-time, but if they’re not meeting the commitment, we ask, ‘how can we help you do better next year?'” says Burt.

Respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work are the school’s core values and expectations for students’ behavior are explicit and consistent schoolwide, with teachers using the same behavior management system. Each month, the student, parent and staff “leader of the month” is honored at the Core Value Assembly.

In every room, a sign reminds students that “this class is college bound.”

LUCHA – the name means “struggle” in Spanish – encourages students to believe they can improve their abilities if they work hard. In a fifth-grade class, a chart compares a “fixed” to a “growth” mindset (as outlined in the book “Mindsets,” by researcher Carol Zweck).

“I give up” is contrasted with “I’ll do it.”

“I can’t do it” becomes “I’ll keep trying.”

That’s a message well-matched to a school whose name called “struggle” and whose story shows just how much can be accomplished by educators and families working hard together.

This series of articles highlights Silicon Valley public schools that are beating the odds for low-income students – serving a majority of high-need students and achieving high levels of performance. While high-performing schools vary in their approach, there are some common components across many of these schools. These include being very thoughtful and purposeful about how time is spent throughout the day, fostering a culture of rigor, using student data strategically to inform instruction, being selective in hiring the right team, coaching and supporting teaching staff to constantly improve and engaging families. 


LUCHA (Learning in an Urban Community with High Achievement)

Autonomous District School

Alum Rock School District

San Jose, CA

Opened in 2004


Total number of students: 229



API: 820


3rd Grade – Proficient and Above

English Language Arts 46%

Math 76%



Latino 85%

Asian 9%

African American 2%

White 1%


English Learner 62%

Low-income 83%

Students with Disabilities 5.4%