CA District Fosters Academic Growth, Student Leadership, Through Digital Learning

A new interactive video profile from the Alliance for Excellent Education shows how Cajon Valley Union School District (Cajon Valley USD) in California has paired digital learning with increased support for teachers and students to improve student outcomes. The profile, Cajon Valley Union School District: Changing the Culture of Learning to Empower Students, is the second in a series of interactive video profiles demonstrating how leading school districts use digital learning to improve teaching and learning.

Cajon Valley USD is a small, urban, diverse K–8 school district serving 16,000 students in the greater San Diego, California metropolitan area. Just a few years ago, it was challenged by ethnic differences, poverty, inequity between schools, and low achievement. Today, academic achievement is on the rise—test scores on the California Standards Test increased by 24 percentage points in science and 13 percentage points in math; students are leaders of learning; and the district has received multiple awards and recognition for its efforts, including a 2011 Innovation in Education “Achieve” award from the local Classroom of the Future Foundation and an Apple Distinguished Program award in 2012 for its Enhancing Instruction Through Education program.

In addition to highlighting gains at the district level, the profile also focuses on dramatic improvements achieved by Cajon Valley Middle School (CVMS) where more than 80 percent of the student body is socioeconomically disadvantaged and the majority is non-white. As part of the district’s strategic plan for increasing student engagement and outcomes, CVMS approved a three-fold transformation initiative to improve both teaching and learning: (1) changing the culture of the school; (2) emphasizing twenty-first-century skills and access to twenty-first-century technology twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; and (3) shifting from students as consumers of content to students as creators of content. To complement the plan, CVMS received a new building and additional technology.

To change the school’s culture, CVMS focused on developing positive character traits in its students. Teachers underwent extensive professional development and training to help students realize their potential while students received training in leadership. The school prioritizes one character trait every week; to promote this trait, students create digital content that is then broadcast daily in the school. Between school years 2009–10 and 2011–12, CVMS experienced a dramatic decline in behavior problems linked to these foundational lessons; suspension rates dropped by 11 percent and fights between students decreased from 300 to 3.

“When I came to the school three years ago, we set out with a goal to decide what we could be the best in the world at, and bringing technology into the hands of our students was one of those areas, but we found an even larger, more encompassing goal and that was to train student leaders to make a difference in our community,” said Don Hohimer, CVMS principal.

CVMS aspires to a 1:1 ratio of students to digital devices. Already well on its way to meeting this goal, students use handheld digital technology along with laptops to create their own content. To better meet the learning needs of all its students, the school prioritizes writing and creativity and uses a wide range of strategies, including mobile learning, an innovative creative writing program, increased use of data on student performance, and increased opportunities for students to create digital media.

“Cajon Valley Middle School is a school to watch,” Hohimer said. “We’ve got great kids, great teachers, and when you put those two together, we’re getting great results.”

The full Cajon Valley USD profile is available at