From Out of the Shadows to a Model School: La Sierra Charter Military Academy Develops a Culture of College & Career for ALL Students

It wasn’t too long ago when students had to make an appointment at the career center to take a career interest survey. Back then, only those who were considering their future had the benefit of career counseling. Today’s focus for college and career-readiness, however, requires a new approach for being prepared for the future, and La Sierra Charter Military was awarded a demonstration grant from California State University’s California Academic Partnership Program (CSU CAPP). CAPP is a program administered by the California State University in cooperation with the University of California, California Community Colleges, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. La Sierra was awarded the grant for its success in college and career readiness and will now disseminate its best practices to schools throughout the state and country.

Opened in 2000, La Sierra had a mission that focused on drawing students countywide to meet graduation requirements in a structured, alternative environment via vocational education. Today, the school has evolved and emerged at the forefront in education. For students, the bar has been raised from simply reaching a high school diploma to striving for college and beyond. The 2014-15 year saw, for the first time in La Sierra history, less than 50 percent of graduating students opting for military careers; more students are headed for college and careers. Setting a new student mindset to aim beyond a high school diploma has been the school’s goal, and it’s reflected in an increasing graduation trend that surpasses the California rate.

Research from The National Center on Secondary Education and Transition completed in 2000 indicates that poverty rate, education level, and family structure are clearly tied to truancy and dropout rates. These factors can present significant barriers to college and career success. Data indicates that 75 percent of students at La Sierra Charter Military Academy are faced with these same pre-existing stress factors, which, as the statistics indicate, make them highly probable to be unsuccessful beyond high school. Contrary to these statistics and after many data-driven discussions, the staff and student leadership team at La Sierra made a decision to defy this research and change mindsets with consistency and intention. Administrator and Principal Mrs. Zermeño states, “We are talking about college and career with everyone and creating a college and career atmosphere for kids, day in and day out. In all that we do, from the way we dress to the completed agenda in our backpacks, we are creating a new mindset for every child.”

Today, beginning in seventh grade, La Sierra is being intentional and consistent while expecting all students to be exposed to college and career opportunities. The philosophy at La Sierra is that setting career goals must begin early on and be applied with consistency. “If you want your children to have a successful future in a career of their choosing, you must start setting those goals at home and early on,” said Zermeño. “We want kids to be ready regardless of which path they choose when they graduate. Our students will be prepared for plan A and B.”

In La Sierra’s efforts to change student mindsets, consistency has been the key. Every Monday, as part of the school’s “Monday Matters” program, students are exposed to professionals in the community that share their stories and their experiences. La Sierra has partnered with several agencies and professionals from the community to play a role in their weekly plan for the 2015-16 school year. Most recently, members of several emergency response agencies, ranging from the Tulare Police Department to the California Department of Forestry, shared their personal experiences with the cadets. “This has been such an amazing experience because it helps students see the big picture and enhances and defines the development of La Sierra’s newest college pathway into emergency response teams,” said Mrs. Howard, Parent PTO Advisory President.

Another intentional design for Mondays at La Sierra is the “Monday Success” program. Students are literally planning and reflecting on their own future by exploring careers, preparing resumes, and developing a six-year portfolio. Each grade level curriculum is designed to strategically build on itself as the years pass to include transcript education, A-G College Board approved education and awareness, research of colleges and their financial requirements, and research of military careers and other post secondary options. Department leads Debi Braswell and Alex Marroquin have developed the curriculum together with their departments, customized for the students of La Sierra. Together with La Sierra’s leadership team, the evolution of this curriculum helps build the culture of the school. The curriculum also includes Google-driven California Career Zone, California Career Center, staff-developed, data-driven curriculum, basic college ready skills, project based learning, and a great accountability component that requires students to reflect monthly on their grades, professionalism, and attendance with personal feedback from their mentor teachers. “When I was in high school, no one ever really helped me see what it meant to have a career or go-to college; I didn’t know what that meant. No one ever exposed me to the difference between working in the fields versus college life or a career. It is imperative that we provide awareness and exposure so that students can make the best decisions for their future,” expressed Mr. Stephen Reid, College and Career Counselor.

La Sierra has included a Safe and Healthy Schools Initiative into their graduate outcomes, recognizing the importance of addressing the social and emotional needs of every student. Presentations by local community members such as the Lions Clubs, Kiwanis Visalia, and Tulare County Office of Education Program, are strategically wrapped into their college and career readiness program. Topics addressed include: the importance of healthy social skills, life skills, the global economy and its impact, and community service. To date, the school has completed over 4,600 documented hours of community service, which enhances student portfolios and resumes.

Community members also play a great role in La Sierra’s annual senior exit interviews. Students are required to complete their six-year portfolio ending with an exit interview. Seniors come prepared in a suit and tie or professional attire to meet with citizens from the community who generously take time to interview the students and evaluate their portfolio. La Sierra invites community members to assist in these interviews every May. Senior Advisor Ronni Aguilar said, “This is a real California Standards project that showcases who the students are and the skills that they have developed over their time at La Sierra. It’s a great way for students to prepare for their future and interact with the community in a real way.”

Recently, La Sierra has seen amazing results: a 40 percent increase of parent participation in the partnership for increasing the college and career culture. The Parent Education Awareness of College and Career Excellence (P.E.A.C.C.E.), led by parent coordinators Gabrel Dorado and Linda Salmeron, provide parents with the same curriculum students receive, including support for undocumented students, training on how to complete FAFSAs, scholarship information, and even the basics of keeping kids prepared for college. Parents have embraced this effort and are encouraging and teaching each other how to break down those barriers. English learner parent member Mrs. Muro encourages parents with sincerity about the importance of their childrens’ futures and how to survive life’s daily stressors. P.E.A.C.C.E Coordinator Linda Salmeron said, “We are analyzing and breaking down barriers that have long kept students and families away from college; teaching our families that anything is possible, once they are informed and connected.”

One of the key components in this effort of preparing for life beyond high school is helping students to see the big picture: everything they do now affects their future. This message is loud and clear at parent conferences, back to school night, in meetings, and even in the attendance office. “If a child comes in late, we counsel them about tardiness and how that affects the workforce. If they had a job, they would be written up and/or fired,” said Attendance Clerk Annette Bermudez. “By talking about the workforce, college, and career throughout each day, it increases the likelihood of college and career becoming a reality for our students.”

One of the greatest partnerships La Sierra has developed is that of the CSU CAPP. In 2013-14, the school was selected as one of only two charter schools in California to participate in the multi-year grant to improve student preparation for post-secondary education opportunities from the California State University Chancellor’s Office. The CAPP program has been the impetus behind the school’s post-secondary college and career-going atmosphere. Since the CAPP grant was awarded, the school has increased its community capacity by 80 percent and increased its A-G certified courses from zero to 21 College Board approved courses now available for students who attend CSU and UC colleges. Other positive outcomes indicate an increase in the graduation rate, a 30 percent increase in graduates going on directly to college, a 100 percent completion rate for career certifications in various fields, an increase in students directly transferring to college courses without any remediation, and a 100 percent pass rate for students attending College of the Sequoias courses on the La Sierra campus.

Additional partnerships in this initiative include: Tulare County Office of Education CHOICES Prevention Programs, Educational Resource Services consultants for College and Career Readiness, La Sierra Parent Teacher Advisory, La Sierra CAPP Team, La Sierra Student Leadership, College of the Sequoias, and Fresno State University.

“We are extremely proud of the gains La Sierra continues to make,” said Tulare County Superintendent of Schools Jim Vidak. “The transformation of La Sierra’s culture over the past few years has been phenomenal. All that was great about the school’s military traditions and emphasis on physical fitness, respectful behavior, and community service has been augmented by broad and comprehensive student preparation for college and career.”

La Sierra is a tuition-free public charter school operating under the auspices of Tulare County Office of Education since 2000. Tours are held monthly. If interested in attending La Sierra, contact the main office at 733-6963 or visit their website at