America’s Urban Schools Are Full of Promise!


We frequently read about urban schools that are improving achievement and accomplishing remarkable results. Often urban schools are besieged and befuddled by the same problems that have been solved in other schools with similar challenges. Too often, improvement efforts are random, shallow,
and based more on individual inclinations than systemic structures that can sustain and replicate reform.

Frequently, university researchers have neither the incentives nor the opportunity to engage in the complex work of understanding the real problems of urban schools or understanding the nuances behind the successes of other urban systems. As well, university efforts to improve preparation programs for the educators and leaders who work in urban schools are generally handicapped by a lack of understanding of the problems of urban schools and the potential solutions to those problems.

The transformation of our nation’s urban schools is too important and too complex to depend upon fads, quick-fix policies, or one-size-fits-all programs that cannot address the widely varying contexts of our cities.

Transformation requires sustained, dedicated engagement focused upon the real problems of practice that plague urban districts. It requires support grounded in high-quality research that illuminates the context-sensitive variables that influence success. It requires unwavering focus on real results that signal real changes in the academic lives of children.

The National Center for Urban School Transformation is designed to meet this challenge and provide such support.

Our History

NCUST started in 2005 as the vision of then-President of San Diego State University (SDSU), Stephen Weber and then-Dean of the SDSU College of Education, Lionel “Skip” Meno.  Both men envisioned SDSU playing a constructive role in improving urban education throughout the nation.  With a generous $2.4 million gift from QUALCOMM, Inc. they established NCUST in 2005.  Joseph F. Johnson, Jr. was hired to serve as the Center’s first executive director.

Immediately, the new Center established the National Excellence in Urban Education Award Program as a strategy to identify and begin to study some of the nation’s most successful urban schools.  The first five schools were awarded in May 2006 at the Center’s first symposium.  These first award winning schools and their successors nurtured the NCUST team’s conviction that all urban schools could achieve excellent learning results.

Studies of these outstanding urban schools led to many conference presentations and several early publications including articles in Educational Leadership and the Journal for the Education of Students Placed At Risk.  In 2012, Eye on Education published Teaching Practices from America’s Best Urban Schools: A Guide for School and Classroom Leaders, the first book based on the Center’s findings.  These studies also led the SDSU Department of Educational Leadership to refine its leadership preparation programs in ways that better prepared candidates to pursue the policies and practices found in high-achieving urban schools.

NCUST has developed partnerships with districts eager to establish outstanding urban schools. We are currently working with the San Diego Unified School District, Iftin Charter Schools, EJE Academies, Alvord Unified School District and River Springs Charter Schools in California, Houston Independent School District and Bryan Independent School District in Texas and the Phoenix Elementary School District and Isaac Elementary School District in Arizona. NCUST coaches help district leaders, principals, and teacher leaders in our partner districts emulate some of the best practices found in schools that NCUST has awarded and studied.  Each of the districts are generating significant improvements in academic achievement.


The Center continues to identify and learn from the nation’s best urban schools.  The lessons learned continue to be shared broadly through presentations, webinars, dissertations, other print publications, and the Center’s website.  As well, the lessons learned continue to shape the Center’s efforts to engage with and support urban districts that are determined to establish outstanding urban schools.

Our Team