All A’s

ENGLISH TEACHER NATASHA WHITE discusses Julius Caesar with her students for their acting assignment May 1 at University High School in Tolleson. University High School was the 21st ranked high school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. View photo Chris Caraveo
ENGLISH TEACHER NATASHA WHITE discusses Julius Caesar with her students for their acting assignment May 1 at University High School in Tolleson. University High School was the 21st ranked high school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. View photo Chris Caraveo

University High School ranked No. 21 in nation

While BASIS schools dominate a national ranking of best high schools, one campus in Tolleson continues to produce quality students.

And they are from within the community.

The U.S. News & World Report released its rankings of the best high schools in the country, with University High School in Tolleson sitting at No. 21.

We’re extremely excited and very proud to have gone from 36 to 21,” said Academic Dean Susan Thompson. “If you’re in the top 100, that’s the top of the game, top echelon. We’re really glad to stay within the top 50.”

University High, which has ranked as high as No. 8, is located on the Tolleson Union High School campus.

The data used in the rankings comes from the 2014-15 school year.

U.S. News teamed up with North Carolina-based RTI International, a global nonprofit social science research firm, to rank more than 20,000 eligible high schools using a four-step process. The first step determined whether a school’s students performed better than statistically expected for students in that school’s state. The next step looked at how a school’s disadvantaged students — including black, Hispanic and low-income students — compared to the state average for least-advantaged students. Step 3 required schools to meet or surpass a benchmark for their graduation rate. Schools only passed if their rounded graduation rate was 75 percent or greater.

The 3,109 schools meeting the first three steps became eligible to be judged on college-readiness performance using Advanced Placement test data. From there, 500 schools received gold medals and ranked via a tie-breaker based on the percentage of seniors at a school taking AP exams and the percentage of seniors who passed at least four exams.

There were five Arizona BASIS schools in the Top 7. Despite the same name, unaffiliated University High School in Tucson came in at No. 15, leaving the Tolleson school the highest ranking Valley campus not under the BASIS flag.

Thompson and Joseph Ortiz, director of public relations and marketing for the Tolleson Union High School District, stressed the fact the school has succeeded on a national level with students within the Tolleson community.

These are the neighborhood kids,” Thompson said. “We do have some students who come from out of district but they’re still our neighborhood children. We don’t generally have kids that travel from an affluent area.”

Entrance into University High, unlike BASIS’ lottery system, involves looking at students who score proficient or above on the AzMERIT, and then write an essay on why they want to be at University High.

Thompson credits the start of University High to the district board 10 years ago supporting the need to bring in students from the far reaches of the district.

As well as allowing a school to exist that is generally outside of the box in thinking when you start talking about comprehensive high schools,” she continued.

As a result, Thompson said other schools in the district have followed University High and improved their AP programs.

In our comprehensive schools, we have a much larger group of kids that you have to service,” Thompson said. “They don’t have that availability to keep everybody following that same program of study. And that’s great. At least those kids are getting access now to all the same AP curriculum that our kids have. But they can pick and choose. Some of those kids absolutely need that variability.”

Whereas at University High, students are expected to take the AP Calculus and Literature test. Thompson believes all students can learn each subject. The school offers 11 AP courses throughout a student’s four years.

However, the focus at University High is on process over product, putting hard work over just being smart.

We work with the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens and we’re trying to build that executive function for students alongside learning their content area,” Thompson said.

Thompson started what she calls Parents University for incoming University High students. It offers parents spring workshops on topics such as stress management, growth mindset and grit.

So before they even start as freshmen, I already know the entire freshman class of parents for next year,” she said.

Thompson recalled a student who qualified for financial aid at Country Day, which requires $24,000 in tuition. But after the parent attended Parents University, Thompson said the parent wanted her child in Tolleson, calling University High “real and honest.”

With 19 teachers and 524 students, the school offers an intimate learning experience while also allowing students access to everything one would expect out of a high school. University High students take elective courses and participate in clubs and sports at Tolleson Union High.

Teachers have tutoring every day and meet afterward with students to determine which methods work.

My teachers have to sacrifice a lot,” Thompson said. “If you’re a teacher here at U High, you’re an all-in teacher, and I have high expectations of them as well. It’s a privilege to be able to come to this school. It’s a privilege to teach at this school.”

English teacher Natasha White holds tutoring from 3 to 4 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then she meets with students from 4 to 6 p.m., one hour each with juniors and seniors.

It’s to ensure everybody is on the same page and making sure these kids aren’t losing a skill set that they’ll need in the following year,” she said. “It’s worth it when you see what these kids do. When you hear that as seniors, they’re going to places like Pomona on full rides, they’re going to George Washington on full rides, you realize you’re making an impact.”

Last year, all 88 graduated with a post-secondary plan of community college, four-year college, military or trade school. Graduates received about $4.5 million in scholarships, Ortiz said.

Moving up in the national rankings adds to White’s pride in teaching at the school.

We’re not always recognized for what we do because you see all the BASIS schools, and that’s a key title,” White said. “And you see University High and you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve heard of them,’ but BASIS, look where they’re at and then you realize we have a lot of underdog things with us.”

Visit the online version of this story at for links to the U.S. News rankings methodology and list of the best high schools in the nation.


Chris Caraveo can be reached at

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