Skip to content Skip to navigation

Windows on Conversions Case Study: Hillsdale High School


and Greg Lance


Hillsdale High School, located 20 miles south of San Francisco in San Mateo, California, stands within a vast tract of urban and suburban communities. Though majestic redwoods and scenic coastlines are less than an hour away, Hillsdale's sprawling campus is situated within a suburban neighborhood just a few blocks from El Camino Real, the 60-mile stretch of road that serves as the commercial backbone of the San Francisco Peninsula. Housing costs across the region are famously high, but neighborhood variations in home values generally correlate with the reputations of local schools and the diversity of their populations. Hillsdale serves students from a variety of neighborhoods: "flatland" apartments located near the horseracing track and interstate freeway, middle-class homes west of the train tracks, and middle- and upper-class homes in the hills above the school.

Hillsdale's student population is more ethnically and economically diverse than the neighborhood in which it is situated: 51 percent of students are people of color and 42 percent speak a language other than English at home, most often Spanish. Hillsdale is also the neighborhood school for residents of several group homes serving adolescents who have been removed from their families or placed in the foster care system, adding to the diversity of the school's student population. Because of the long-held views about Hillsdale's student population and the school's lower-than-average test scores, wealthy families often take advantage of the district's open enrollment policy to send their children to other high schools in the San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD).

Though Hillsdale is now known for innovation, its reputation in the 1980s and early '90s was that of a traditional high school. It was the only school in the district to have a closed campus and, since the dean was a former marine sergeant, some viewed it as a good place to send "tough to handle" children. There has always been a significant working-class base to the school's population. Approximately half of Hillsdale's students do not have a parent with a college education, and Hillsdale teachers often struggle to motivate students to pursue additional education after high school.

In this extraordinarily diverse context, Hillsdale has begun to transform itself into a school whose aim is to motivate and educate all of its students to high levels of achievement and to ensure that the choice of attending a four-year college is available to all graduates. Hillsdale's redesign is notable for its commitment to shared leadership, democratic decisionmaking and collaboration. There has also been a growing awareness of how school structures can be changed to meet instructional needs rather than acting as an impermeable barrier to reform. Throughout the 1990s Hillsdale's innovations were those of a large school attempting to act small. The limitations and frustrations of this approach were the impetus for the school's current redesign into SLCs.

Design Overview

In summer 2005, Hillsdale entered the final year of a three-year process of converting from a single, comprehensive high school serving approximately 1,200 students to three relatively autonomous, vertically aligned smaller learning communities serving 400 students each. Each SLC — Florence, Kyoto and Marrakech, named after Medieval centers of learning consistent with Hillsdale's knight mascot — has a Junior Institute for the 9th and 10th grades, and a Senior Institute for 11th and 12th grades.

Hillsdale has been phasing in one grade level per year, beginning with the freshman class in 2003-04. All freshman and sophomore students in the Junior Institute (except for beginning English speakers and special day class students) are currently taking their four academic core classes (English, social studies, math and science) from a team of teachers who share a collaboration period in addition to each teacher's individual preparation period. Special education and English language development teachers also serve their students within the house system, except for those teaching beginning English speakers and special needs students in special day classes. All teachers in the three houses also have an advisory of 25 students. Math, English and social studies teachers loop with students in their classes and advisory for two years. Hillsdale has reduced class size, added the collaboration period and hired additional teachers through a reallocation of staffing, additional district support and temporary funding through a federal SLC grant.

In the Senior Institute, which is being implemented during the 2005-06 school year, all juniors take their core classes (math, physics, social science and English) with teams of four teachers who have a shared common collaboration period in addition to their individual preparation periods. In each house, the four core teachers also serve as advisors to the junior cohort, and teach an advisory period focused on portfolio work and college preparation. Advisors, English and social studies teachers and, to the degree possible and appropriate, math and science teachers will loop with students into their senior year. Though electives, physical education and health teachers are outside of the house structure, they are attached to or affiliated with houses to help them connect and plan with core teachers. Hillsdale is implementing a seven-period day in 2005-06, though students generally will still take six periods of classes, in order to better facilitate access to electives. It is hoped that this schedule will ultimately give the four core academic teachers autonomy over their time within a daily four-hour block.

Hillsdale has used its structural changes to foster teacher collaboration across subject areas, chip away at student tracking and use performance-based assessments to help all students achieve at high levels. While the process of reform has been relatively long-term, Hillsdale has made significant changes to the school's structure and allocation of resources in order to deliver on its vision of a more personalized, equitable and rigorous education for all its students. These changes have yielded positive and powerful outcomes. The school has eliminated low track science classes and now enrolls all students in 9th grade biology and 10th grade chemistry. As a result, 100% of African American and Latino 9th grade students were enrolled in biology during 2003-04 compared to only 18% in 2002-03. Overall, Hillsdale enrolls a far greater percentage of African American and Latino students in biology and chemistry classes than do other schools in the district. In addition, its performance on District Common Assessments (DCAs) is nearly equal to that of schools that enroll only high-track students in these courses.