Catching Up with Dr. Raja: How a Comprehensive High School in Sacramento is Creating Success


Create Success by Kadhir Rajagopal I first got a chance to speak with high school algebra teacher and ASCD author Kadhir Rajagopal after his session on creating success in the urban classroom at ASCD’s 2011 Annual Conference in San Francisco. (Session coverage in Conference Daily offers a look at his classroom philosophy.)

Rajagopal stood just offstage, surrounded by the very students whom he helped overcome a history of failure in math. They had joined him to tell personal stories of how CREATE, a culturally responsive model for urban achievement that “Dr. Raja” had developed and perfected, had unlocked their ability to master content in class and inspired them to take accountability for their own success. And succeed they did…

Nearly two years later, I caught up with Rajagopal for an Inservice interview.

When you and I last spoke, CREATE was really taking off at your high school. Could you tell me more about that work?

In August 2011, I started the CREATE Academy with the goal of uplifting the most challenging students at Grant Union High School to college. I chose 10 teachers who had exhibited a real desire to help kids and fight for their success. I made sure that the students enrolled in the academy were the most challenging population at Grant. I randomly selected 150 students who in the 8th grade had earned below a 2.0 GPA. The incoming 9th grade class in the CREATE Academy had an average GPA of 0.6. Hence, all educators would accept that the CREATE Academy was reaching students who were written off as “at risk” or as “failures” and not dealing with students who were already motivated or successful. The goal of the academy was to empower the students to reach a 3.0 GPA in their classes and get accepted into a four-year college.

What kind of results did you see?

The CREATE Academy students rose to success in 2011‒2012 during the first year. The average GPA for the students was 2.5 at the end of the 2nd semester in 2012. Forty percent of the students earned a 3.0 GPA. The CREATE Academy students also outperformed their peers who were not in the CREATE Academy on state assessments in science, English, and math.

University of California at Davis also conducted a study of the academy. The report produced by UC Davis concluded that students in the CREATE Academy outperformed and learned at higher levels compared to their peers who were not in the CREATE Academy. UC Davis and the Twin Rivers Unified School District encouraged Grant High School to spread the success of the CREATE Academy throughout the school.

Did you see a change in teachers who began to implement the CREATE model at your school?

A great teacher must possess an emotional connection with the students and fight for kids even when they do not learn or [when they] lack the sense of self-discipline and responsibility necessary to succeed. Teachers participating in CREATE are slowly transforming their mind-set and assuming responsibility for their students’ success. I have asked all of my teachers to call all parents of students who are earning a D or F in their class.

A well-trained teaching robot can teach perfectly well but with no emotions. The heart of the teacher is the most undervalued element of a teacher’s success in reaching his or her kids. Kids do not care how much you know until [they know] how much you care about them. A robot could mechanically set baby objectives, check for understanding by calling on all kids, and then have an exit price assignment. But what if eight kids fail on the exit price assignment? What if four kids are absent on the day of the test? What if three kids forget to do a project and turn it in?

What have you discovered through your work to implement CREATE schoolwide?

In leading a schoolwide revolution, the administrator is very important. The CREATE Academy cannot be replicated throughout the school in terms of its principles of success if the leadership does not aggressively support this change.

Are there any big takeaways you’d like to share with educators who want to replicate your model for achievement in the urban classroom?

After almost two years of implementing the CREATE Academy model at Grant High School, I am convinced that urban education has a lot of hope. It is very possible to take any inner city or rural low-income school in America and transform [it] into a four-year college factory where at least 75 percent or more of the students get accepted into a four-year institution. Imagine if schools in South Chicago, South Philadelphia, or East Los Angeles sent 75 percent of their students to a four-year college.

The CREATE Academy has uplifted many students from below a 1.0 GPA to a 2.5 GPA and above. If every teacher is made to believe in the spirit of fighting for kids and if every teacher refuses to accept failure, students will thrive.

Teachers must be willing to make phone calls home and make it painful for kids to fail and make it rewarding to succeed. Students will gravitate towards pleasure and attempt to stay away from pain. Hence it is the teacher’s responsibility to attach pain to failure and lack of effort and pleasure to success and therefore motivate students to perform at their highest potential. The CREATE instructional model is a tool that each teacher needs to adapt to his or her own needs. There may be only three to four strategies that a teacher may add to his or her arsenal. The goal is not that teachers use all of the CREATE strategies. The goal is for kids to learn and succeed.

Learn more about Dr. Raja’s ASCD book, Create Success! Unlocking the Potential of Urban Students or purchase a paperback or e-book copy in the ASCD Online Store.