When Bill Brand arrived in Santa Paula in 1996, 11 seniors at the town's only public high school had applied to four-year universities. The school offered just one Advanced Placement class. And more than half of the student body was enrolled in remedial courses.
This year, 125 students have applied to four-year schools, AP courses number 14 and all students are studying a curriculum designed to prepare them for college.
When Brand, 59, retires from the Santa Paula Union High School District in July after seven years as superintendent, this will be his legacy. As an energetic new leader of the 1,600-student district, he pushed early on for major changes -- some of which were hard for many to swallow. Then, his supporters say, he never stopped pushing to help the students achieve.
"I think he's gone way over our expectations," said school board president Robert Salas, who helped hired Brand from a school district in Escondido, where he was assistant superintendent. "We had good teachers, a good board and a great community, but we needed someone who knew the mechanics of how to achieve what we were seeking: stronger discipline and a better curriculum. Bill is not afraid to take risks."
Indeed, one of Brand's first proposals as superintendent -- to eliminate all remedial courses and revamp them into more rigorous college-prep classes -- triggered intense controversy. Students in the mostly Latino, blue-collar community protested, some teachers left the school and the employees union threatened to file a grievance.
But the school board followed Brand's lead and adopted the change for the 1997 school year.
In that first year, Brand said, student grades did not plummet, as some predicted: 42% of the high school students earned a B average and 78% a C in the more difficult classes. The dropout rate also did not increase significantly and remains below 1%.
"We had some resistance, because change is always difficult," Brand said. "But the result shows that with powerful teaching, you can be successful."
However, not everyone has applauded the change. Some say the more rigorous curriculum has pushed students out of the high school and into alternative programs or caused them to lose interest in school altogether.
Many teachers believe the push toward four-year universities is more about public relations than it is about individual students, said Margaret Booker, a world history teacher and president of the Santa Paula teachers union.
She said she will advocate reinstituting some vocational programs -- such as wood shop and office management, scrapped under Brand's tenure -- for students not interested in college.
"We need to show the kids there are lots of options, and we need a superintendent who will focus on that," Booker said. "We also need real communication between the district and the teachers -- not just directives."
Although some in the district have not appreciated Brand's leadership style, others call him a visionary.
Santa Paula High Principal Tony Gaitan said Brand has had a great effect on the school, citing the award-winning Agriculture Academy program that Brand helped launch, his successful campaign to save the town's only public swimming pool and the partnership he forged with the new Cal State Channel Islands.
"He's been an outstanding mentor, and very supportive of us," Gaitan said. "The position will be replaced, but Dr. Brand will be hard to replace."
Luis Villegas, superintendent of the Santa Paula Elementary School District, agreed.
"Bill has brought a higher level of expectation to the school and the community," Villegas said. "It wasn't easy."
A teacher and administrator for 38 years, Brand said taking on tough issues has always been part of his philosophy. And despite the controversy about some of his decisions in Santa Paula, Brand said he is proud of the way he managed the district.
"Our responsibility is to be sure no student falls out of the system because we didn't support them, regardless of their backgrounds," Brand said.