Tucked away in a large comprehensive high school east of downtown Tucson is one of the best schools in the country.
Led by Amy Cislak, a dynamic principal with a passion for upending the status quo, University High School is changing the national narrative on what a public exam high school can look like… and achieve.
Nearly every student at the ‘A’-rated magnet school passed the state’s 2017 AzMERIT assessment, putting University High School in the top 1 percent of all schools in Arizona.
Nationally, magnet schools that require an exam for entrance have a stigma of being an exclusive school for families that can afford to live in the neighborhood.
Not at University High School.
“We are the most diverse public exam high school in the country. We really are serving all students. We’re proud of the strides we’ve made to mimic what Pima County looks like,” said Cislak.
Those strides have been made through a renewed effort to connect with students across Tucson Unified School District administering University High School’s entrance exam to eighth-graders at all 57 of its middle schools and providing direct outreach to families. The school is now bursting at the seams, and the student body reflects the demographics of its community.
“She’s done a great job changing the culture and the way the school is perceived by the community, making UHS more open and inclusive,” said Jackie Norton, President and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Arizona, who has worked with Cislak since she was a Rodel Aspiring Principal in 2012. “As a result, they have high achieving students from all parts of the community who will in turn go back to all parts of the community after graduation.”
Expectations and rigor are high, but so is the instruction, said Vince Yanez, Helios Education Foundation Senior Vice President, Arizona Community Engagement.
“We’re talking about a school that is truly one of the best schools in the nation. When you actually go to the school and see the level of rigor in the classrooms and quality of instruction by teachers and quality of leadership on campus, you’ll understand,” said Yanez who has spent two decades working in Arizona’s education community.
Research shows students who take at least one Advanced Placement (AP) class are 40 percent more likely to graduate from high school. At University High School, all students take AP, and students whose first language is not English are not only passing AP exams, but excelling, Cislak said.
“I love UHS because it’s a challenge to me, and not a challenge that’s unapproachable, it’s a challenge in which I’m able to do something every day that’s helping me reach my goal to go into medicine,” said Anisha Chatterjee, a 17-year-old senior at University High School.
The 1,200-student school is at capacity and has a growing waitlist. Cislak said the future for University High School is bright. She is working on a potential partnership with the University of Arizona and has plans to create a feeder magnet middle school.
“University High School is not amazing because we are ranked. UHS is amazing because of factors that don’t go into rankings,” she said. “We never give up on students. It’s a place where every single student can and will be successful.”