Special Report
School & District Management

Boston Solicits Public for High School Redesign Ideas

By Corey Mitchell — June 02, 2016 6 min read
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Joseph DiMartino has consulted on hundreds of high school redesign efforts—and he’s seen nearly as many abandoned after falling short of their goals.

As the former director of the Secondary School Redesign program of the Education Alliance at Brown University and the founder of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, DiMartino has had a firsthand look at the ups and downs of the national push to reinvent secondary education over the past 20 years.

“We’ve been trying to change high school since 1996,” he said. “I can point to two or three [districts] that have made dramatic change.”

Boston hopes to become another.

In the city that’s home to Boston Latin, the nation’s first high school, city and school leaders hope their push to reimagine high schools for the future can beat the odds. Mayor Martin Walsh launched the redesign plan for the 53,500-student, city-run school system in May 2015. City leaders hosted public forums, plotted timelines, and scoped out success stories in an attempt to address rising, but mediocre, graduation and college-attendance rates.

This fall, the district and city hope to reveal their shared redesign vision, one that the community helped shape. The unveiling follows dozens of work sessions that drew more than 2,000 students, parents, educators, and residents offering suggestions on how to transform the city’s high schools.

“The more [community involvement] happens, the more likely that you’ll have a successful redesign,” said DiMartino, who is not involved in Boston’s effort.

The sessions explored how schools can develop relationships with outside organizations, encourage students to take ownership of their education, and enhance that education by using Boston’s historical and cultural resources to supplement the standard classroom experience.

All the work is geared toward a simple end.

“We want people to walk into a high school and have them say it looks a lot different than it used to,” said Rahn Dorsey, the Chief of Education for the city of Boston, a cabinet-level adviser to Walsh.

But even the best-laid plans are often upended by one or more of the three T’s that DiMartino has identified: tradition, tenure, and time.

Bucking Tradition

A hallmark of high school redesign is looking at the possibilities of education in a fresh way. That can prove challenging when educators’ eyes are the only ones envisioning it.

“Having people involved in traditional high schools as the only people in the conversation really limits the options on what you can do and how you can change your school,” DiMartino said.

To try to avoid that, Boston began its redesign process by conducting public meetings and inviting dozens of organizations, colleges, and other institutions to host their own conversations. Participants expressed interest in schools using the city as a classroom; having a more deliberate focus on life skills such as financial literacy; and doing more project-based, student-led learning, Dorsey said.

“If we’re just thinking about this inside the silo of K-12, we’ll continue to lag behind and won’t have an accurate read on future trends,” he said.

In assuming that educators know what’s best for students, districts can shut down opportunities for free-flowing, two-way conversations. That’s why community involvement is playing a large role in local and national redesign efforts, DiMartino said.

“You need to think about how to influence people within the community while also being influenced by the community,” DiMartino said.

XQ: The Super School Project, a philanthropic undertaking led by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, is forging a similar path on a broader stage: It aims to jump-start a national conversation about how to rethink high schools.

As part of the initiative, XQ will give multimillion-dollar redesign grants for at least five schools.

Seeking Input

The competition kicked off with a 10-city circuit last fall that is designed to drum up excitement and tap the public for ideas and suggestions. Now, the staff is in the midst of a 16-stop, cross-country bus tour. The stops have drawn interest even in communities that are no longer in the running for the prize, largely because high school is a universal experience for most Americans, said Marlene Castro, the manager of student and community relations at XQ Institute.

“Almost everyone in this country has ideas for education, ones that they base on their own high school experience,” Castro said. “Communities hold these answers, and nothing beats an actual [face-to-face] conversation.”

Despite efforts to be inclusive in Boston, the process hasn’t come without criticism. Residents have raised concerns about how accessible the meetings are for all residents.

Jack Schneider, an assistant education professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., has emerged as a skeptic of the high school redesign initiatives underway in Boston and elsewhere. Change happens organically, Schneider said.

“Some of the best improvements in education are often unanticipated by individuals who are trying to see into the future,” he said.

A superintendent’s shelf life can play an outsized role in determining the fate of a high school redesign.

The average urban superintendent stays on the job for about 3½ years, which means leaders often don’t stick around long enough to see a redesign mature. When a school chief leaves, the ideas developed during his or her tenure are often dumped because the new boss wants to put a personal stamp on the job. The most successful school redesign that DiMartino saw happened in Pittsfield, N.H., a small, rural district with one high school where the superintendent has been in place for two decades.

In Boston, new Superintendent Tommy Chang has embraced the redesign effort that began before he arrived last July. Mayoral control of Boston’s schools may have played a role in the smooth transition because it provided some continuity. Continuing that cooperation with the local community will be paramount in Boston, a city with dozens of high schools, because families already have a slate of choice options, DiMartino said.

“Not evolving and not innovating is a threat to the survival of districts,” said Ross Wilson, the chief of staff for the Boston public schools.

Ticking Clock

Tenure isn’t the only time concern for high school redesign efforts. The process can take years to yield tangible results.

Boston’s mayor laid the groundwork for the redesign process during his January 2015 State of the City address, hinting about the need to improve pathways to college and careers for students. Federal data show that nearly a third of students in the city don’t graduate in five years.

Dorsey, the mayor’s point man on education, hopes Boston’s strategies can bear fruit in three to five years—at least at pilot schools if not the entire city.

In DiMartino’s experience, though, implementing redesign takes at least five years, and more like seven to eight if it’s going to stick. The slow-moving process can grind not only on educators, but also on the residents and students who are participating.

“It takes longer than anyone thinks,” he said.

Schneider, the Holy Cross professor, said that’s a point he’s tried to hammer home in Boston. As a student of history, he argues that meaningful, long-lasting change is more likely to be incremental, not the sort of sweeping transformation that redesign can demand.

“If there were really simple fixes out there, we would’ve tried them,” Schneider said. “There aren’t really simple solutions. It’s messy because the system is complicated.”

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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