Special Report
School & District Management

What Happened When a District Decided to ‘Mess With High School’

By Alyson Klein — March 27, 2023 12 min read
Jared Ebersole teaches students how to build a skateboard at Synergy at Mineola High School in Mineola, N.Y., March 13, 2023.
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The first thing visitors notice about Synergy at Mineola High School is what does not happen here: changing classrooms when a bell rings, earning traditional letter grades, toiling on homework, sticking to fixed schedules for each student.

Instead, on a Tuesday morning in late February, school looked like this: Students grabbed breakfast at Synergy’s monthly “diner” featuring social worker Suzy Moeller in a red apron, serving up waffles and fruit salad. Then they headed to the main classroom—a wide open space in the building that until recently housed a bank—pulled out devices, and started doing classwork. Lessons had been uploaded into the cloud by Synergy’s teachers, who spend most of their day in the classroom ready to help when students get stuck.

A big screen displayed the subject each student was working on and for roughly how long. Instead of desks in rows, students sat on couches and at expansive drafting or high top tables. There were two all-gender restrooms, put in at the behest of students.

The whole setup feels more tech startup than high school classroom. And in many ways, it is.

Synergy—for now, an alternative offshoot of the only high school in this nearly 3,000-student Long Island district—is the brainchild of Michael Nagler, the superintendent of the Mineola school district. He designed the model with his school-hating, computer science whiz teenage son in mind.

Though his son attends school in a neighboring district, Nagler knows plenty of Mineola students who love learning but find aspects of high school—lack of autonomy, bullying, stuck in a class with 30 other students—stifling and overwhelming.

So the Mineola team turned the district’s credit-recovery program, which had generally served kids in danger of not graduating, into a school that strives to give students far more say over when and how they learn, combined with career exploration, hands-on experiences, and mental health supports.

Adrian Pollak, a sophomore with green spray-painted hair, is thriving as a self-described Synergy “guinea pig” in the program’s first year.

“I couldn’t focus at all” in traditional classrooms, Adrian said. “I didn’t feel safe or competent enough to ask for help when I needed it. I do like this a lot better. I like that there’s a tiny bit of independence, more than you would have at the high school for sure.”

For now, Synergy’s roughly 30 students are, like Adrian, those for whom traditional high school wasn’t a good fit. But the district’s long-term play isn’t for a specialized micro-school for a few dozen kids. Nagler and his staff see Synergy as a model for the future of high school, in Mineola and maybe far beyond.

They believe that many students—even those with solid grades and few behavior issues—aren’t well served by spending 40 minutes in one subject, then another, with little regard for their strengths, weaknesses, and interests.

Jared Ebersole teaches students how to build a skateboard at Synergy at Mineola High School in Mineola, NY, March 13, 2023.

“I have six hours and 55 minutes with my high school kids,” said Nagler, a New York state superintendent of the year. “That’s a lot of time. They should be able to do whatever they want to do. But we’re still stuck with a system that you can only work in 40-minute blocks. Some kids need more, some kids need less. How do you do that? Technology should make that very easy. That should not be a big deal.”

If high school indeed needs a shake-up, districts across the country are better positioned to experiment than ever before. Far more now have 1-to-1 computing environments and swift broadband connections, thanks to billions in federal pandemic-relief dollars. Educators have had a chance to see the possibilities of a different kind of school in action.

No one dares touch the structure of high school. And basically, that's what we're messing with, the structure of high school. And the people that typically gravitate toward it are people that had difficulty in high school and are actively looking for an alternative, right? But that's not who it's designed for. It's designed for every kid.

This school is ‘about what works for you’

Nagler and his staff are quick to point out the contrast between Synergy and the chaotic asynchronous virtual learning that dominated the pandemic’s early days.

“I think a lot of people get the impression like, ‘Oh, this is just online learning. This is COVID,’” said social worker Moeller. “It’s not. It’s teaching kids how to learn. There are people [all over] this building, and we’re teaching the learners: ‘This is where you go to when you need help. You don’t get frozen. This is where you go to when you need to sit on the couch and like vent or problem-solve. You’re not alone.’ And that’s very different.”

At Synergy, most of the schedule is taken up by “WIN” time, which stands for What I Need, another signal that students have much more control over how they use their time and how they learn than they would in a typical high school.

Students check in every morning with a mentor teacher and outline their plan for the day: What subject first? Where to finish up? How many lessons to progress through? While each teacher has designated office hours, students can ask just about any staffer for one-on-one help or work in a small group with concepts they’re struggling over. Later, during a daily “checkout,” mentors go over whether students accomplished their plan and help pinpoint roadblocks.

Students can take extra time with material that’s difficult for them. They can also do a deep dive into a passion if they keep up with their other classes.

“Synergy is all about individualizing schooling,” said Becca Brisson Earley, 15. “If a kid has ADHD or anxiety, they’re gonna learn differently. That’s really what the school is about, what works for you.”

Some of Synergy’s students have learning differences. Others struggle with significant mental health concerns. Some flat-out refused to attend school in previous years.

The supports extend beyond the teachers. There’s Moeller, whose office is just off the main classroom. She has regular appointments with students who need consistent counselor contact, but her office is open to any Synergy kid.

“It’s a reset,” Becca said. “I know that I can go into that office, share whatever I need to share, and I can come out OK.”

The school also gives students a break from traditional academics, in part through a workshop, also attached to the main classroom, where Synergy students help a local entrepreneur test out his newest project: teaching children the principles of physics and pulley systems through building skateboards. The students are testing and perfecting his curriculum, while mastering science standards in a hands-on environment.

“Not only are they learning how to put this motor and pulley system together, but they’re learning about what pulleys do,” said Whittney Smith, the district’s director of instructional technology, assessment, and Synergy.

Jared Ebersole teaches students how to build a skateboard at Synergy at Mineola High School in Mineola, New York, March 13, 2023.

The program plans to hook every student up with a work-based learning experience. One already has a gig at a local law firm. Synergy is on the lookout for a place where Adrian can explore a passion for snakes. Becca wants to teach her fellow students about a therapeutic technique she learned from Moeller.

Becca, who wants to be a social worker someday, envisions her future students having a rough day and saying to themselves “‘I’m gonna go talk to Becca, that’s what I need right now,’” the way she does with Moeller.

Synergy’s teachers keep her focused on that aspiration, she said. “They’re really good at reminding me what my end goal is. My goal isn’t to pass the regents,” New York’s subject-matter standardized tests, Becca said. “My goal is to pass the regents so I can get to social work” and help other kids.

Synergy’s embrace of significant student autonomy paired with mental health and work-based learning is unusual in K-12 schools, said Amanda Morin, an educator and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

“It’s rare to have all of those pieces together like this,” Morin said, based on a reporter’s description of the program. “What fascinates me about this setup is the wraparound support of it. In my mind, that’s the ideal, giving kids all of these different ways to look at learning.”

When learners aren’t doing what they’re capable of doing

But not every student is flourishing. A cadre of about four lean on couches in the back of the open classroom, never seeming to get on task, unless teachers peel them off and sit with them one-on-one.

Later, during a “seminar” with six students in a smaller classroom about the motivations behind European imperialism, one history buff student rattles off a detailed explanation of how colonization fueled the economies of countries like Spain and Great Britain, while appealing to their sense of racial and cultural superiority. It’s hard to imagine this student as his teachers described him last year: flailing academically, avoiding class participation, devoid of confidence.

Another student, though, has her head on the table, an earbud dangling out of one ear. She refuses to budge, even when Melissa Eurich, the social studies teacher with whom she’s built a rapport, prods her with gentle questions.

Still, this student and others at Synergy have shown significant improvement in behavior and attendance, even if they are not performing where they need to academically, Synergy’s staff members emphasize.

Moeller recalled how another girl recently almost came to blows with one of her classmates, then backed down. Later, she told Moeller that last year she would have lost it, but that this year, she didn’t want to get into trouble—a sign of real progress, Moeller said.

“When we look at their history, they are thriving,” Moeller said. “Are they thriving to what we believe are their capabilities? No. The hard part of teaching autonomy and independence is what do we do when the learners aren’t doing what we know they’re capable of doing?”

Sometimes, the team steps in and gives more direction. For instance, if a kid says they’ll get through a certain number of lessons and doesn’t come close, teachers will say something like: “We gave you a choice, and three days in a row, you made a really lousy one. So today, we’re doing small-group work” in order to help the student focus, Moeller said.

When a student consistently falls off track, the team meets with families to develop a plan. That can help students when there is a strong support network at home, but it’s much less effective for those whose home environments are troubled.

“We’re telling them, ‘You can learn differently,’ and it’s a shock,” said Garry Desire, a district instructional leader who helped design Synergy. “Some of them are lacking the executive-functioning” skills to help them succeed, he said. “For the kids who already have that, though, this is working great.”

‘You launch before you’re perfect’

Creating asynchronous lessons, then serving as on-demand tutors means a big workload for Synergy’s teachers. Previously, Eurich taught at a demanding New York City charter school where she spent at least eight hours a week lesson planning. At Synergy, it’s more like 12.

“It feels like a startup, right?” Eurich said. “When you first start a startup, you’re not gonna have all the things you need exactly in place to make it work. I think the biggest struggle in digitizing instruction is for it to be engaging.”

Nagler and district leaders readily agree that the quality of the online lessons that students complete in class need work.

“We definitely need to make lessons more robust, more interesting,” Smith said. “And put more multimedia in there.” The district will spend part of the summer, for instance, tagging videos teachers can use to build their lessons.

The team also envisions seminars like the one Eurich taught on imperialism as voluntary classes built around engaging topics, such as the lasting impact of slavery on America’s Black population or how disease spreads during a pandemic. But for now, they’re run more like mini classes, filling in the content gaps of the online-only courses and getting the academic peer interaction that is hard to deliver outside a physical classroom.

Jared Ebersole teaches students how to build a skateboard at Synergy at Mineola High School in Mineola, New York, March 13, 2023.

Nagler knew that the model needed work before the school year began. But he felt strongly that the district shouldn’t wait to get started.

“You launch before you’re perfect,” Nagler said. “And if you have a culture that believes in mistakes and a culture that believes in iteration, then you’re unstoppable.”

‘It’s designed for every kid’

The next phase for Synergy is a potentially big one: Instead of just inviting students that counselors, teachers, and school leaders feel would benefit from the approach, the district will open the school to any student who wants in. Staffers created introductory videos and plan to allow prospective students to spend time at Synergy before making a decision. They’ll talk extensively about the school’s mission with parents.

“The biggest struggle will be convincing people that it’s equal” to a traditional high school, Nagler said. Still, he believes the move could add about 20 more students to Synergy. He sees the mentorship piece as central to the model and believes that can easily be scaled to meet higher demand for the progam.

There’s another imperative behind the rethink, said Jennifer Maichin, a district instructional leader who also worked on Synergy’s design. Like other districts, Mineola knows it is preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, in an era when knowledge is a smartphone click away.

To compete in that world, “we’re giving them the competencies of resilience, being able to manage their own time and navigate obstacles and take initiative when things aren’t going their way,” Maichin said. “You’re gonna be an independent learner, but we’re gonna guide you on how to do that.”

Some current students, Adrian included, worry the planned growth will make Synergy more like the traditional environments where they struggled.

“They’re very protective of it,” Nagler conceded. “Certain kids think they found their home, and they’re afraid it may change.”

But Nagler doesn’t think that will be the case. “If we get bigger, I’m just going to have more teachers. The connections they have will still be the same.”

Nagler estimates the ‘tipping point’—when the number of students opting for Synergy’s model eclipses those choosing traditional high school—will come in about five years, when students who have been part of another Mineola innovation—competency-based grading—are entering high school. Some on his staff, however, expect it will take longer.

Either way, Nagler believes the district will get there.

“No one dares touch the structure of high school,” Nagler said. “And basically, that’s what we’re messing with, the structure of high school. And the people that typically gravitate toward it are people that had difficulty in high school and are actively looking for an alternative, right? But that’s not who it’s designed for. It’s designed for every kid.”

Coverage of the intersection of social-emotional learning, technology, and student well-being is supported in part by a grant from the Susan Crown Exchange, at www.scefdn.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Happened When a District Decided to ‘Mess with High School’

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