With more than six million public school students, California educates more children than any other state in the nation. Since 2010, CORE, a non-profit collaborative of eight of the state’s large school districts, has worked to ensure more of those students stay on track for graduation and postsecondary success by fostering meaningful learning, data sharing, and collaboration.

As part of these efforts, CORE is working with 35 high schools across the state to transform the ninth-grade experience.

“The goal of the Breakthrough Success Community is to ensure ninth graders leave ninth grade most prepared to succeed in postsecondary outcomes,” says Juli Coleman, CORE’s chief of improvement for school networks. “Ninth grade is the make-or-break year. How students leave ninth grade is largely predictive of what will happen in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade.”

Using the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s Breakthrough Collaborative model as a springboard, the Success Community follows an improvement science methodology to help schools identify where their students are academically and socially, reflect on current practices, and track outcomes of new strategies.

“Often the solutions are known but translating educational research into implementation on the ground is more challenging,” Coleman says. “So, what are the systems of support, the systems of grading, how are relationships built, what does the transition look like from the 8th to 9th grade?”

Using data partner EdAnalytics’ predictive models and eighth-grade student data, schools identify each student’s “lane” (post-secondary competitive, post-secondary promising, post-secondary potential, vulnerable, or highly vulnerable). The network focuses on two primary improvement metrics: decrease in students in the “vulnerable” or “highly vulnerable” lanes at the end of the school year; and “movement rate” (how many students move into a better lane during the year).

CORE used research to identify five drivers of ninth-grade success:

~ School adult teams supporting defined student cohorts

~ A supportive eighth-to-ninth grade transition

~ Strong adult-student relationships

~ Master scheduling giving teacher teams time to meet

~ Grading practices that offer students opportunities to catch up, make up, and retake

The eighth-to-ninth grade transition and grading practices received early attention as schools selected areas of focus for improvement cycles. Many already offered summer bridge or ninth-grade orientation, but since highly vulnerable students are less likely to attend, schools focus on increasing those students’ participation by making orientation relational and engaging rather than merely informational.

Grading reforms vary from in-school assignment make-up days and test retakes to “50% minimum” grading, designed so one missed assignment would not irrevocably scuttle a student’s chances for success. Coleman says that the pandemic’s disruptions have led educators to be more open to exploring different types of grading. Make-up days and test retakes have now become standard practice in most schools.

Yet Success Community schools recognize that the other drivers’ impact relies on one key component: strong adult-student relationships.

“Because there are so many students in crisis, the argument of why relationships are so important and why you need to spend time building relationships is not hard anymore,” Coleman says. “Teachers one hundred percent get that and are willing to try new things.”

The Success Community uses the Search Institute’s criteria for “developmental relationships,” those that:

~ Express care

~ Challenge growth

~ Provide support

~ Share power

~ Expand possibilities

CORE worked with the Search Institute to design a survey to gauge the quality of adult-student relationships. Examining students’ survey responses, teacher teams are often surprised at students’ perceptions of relationships. For example, many students appreciate increased engagement, regardless of length or depth: “small interactions lead to big connections.” Based on these responses, teachers develop new relationship-building strategies to use in class.

One helpful strategy is the “2×10” (featured in CORE’s PAS national conference presentation): a teacher talks with a particularly hard-to-reach student on topics, other than academics or behavior, two minutes a day for two weeks (ten days)—and privately journals daily impressions. The result? Teachers learn about themselves and about who students are behind sometimes hostile facades.

CORE’s Success Community shows what can happen when schools, districts, and nonprofit organizations work together to tackle common challenges. Having seen success with its current participating schools, CORE is looking to expand its Success Community further. To learn more about how CORE is driving school improvement, visit

Arizona State University
Building Continuous Improvement in the CORE Districts

The CORE Districts were established in 2010, when Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco collaborated with the State of California in an unprecedented attempt to secure federal funding under Race to the Top.

Although the state’s grant application was denied, the districts’ collaboration led to them eventually becoming the only local educational agencies in the nation to secure a federal No Child Left Behind waiver.

From 2013 to 2016 under the waiver, the districts worked to build capabilities of educators, established a shared data system; held themselves publicly accountable for reporting school progress across multiple academic and non-academic indicators; identified and supported schools in need of assistance; and shared success across districts. Their ongoing work to build educators’ improvement capabilities, share data and to develop network strategies so that schools and districts can learn from each other is nationally recognized.

Today, an unwavering belief in equity and access for all students continues to drive the CORE Districts’ work, which is evident in the lessons shared within and across districts and schools, and with state and federal policymakers.

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