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White House High School Summit Highlights Work of States, Districts

By Catherine Gewertz — September 12, 2016 4 min read
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The White House convened its second annual summit on “next generation” high schools Monday not by announcing millions in new funding, as it did last year, but by highlighting the progress states and districts have made in transforming secondary schools.

Testimony to high schools’ power to change lives came from a 16-year-old student who experienced it: Joshua Robinson. He told the story of a difficult life, with periods of homelessness and parental abuse, and multiple school expulsions for fighting. Now in a supportive foster home in Virginia, Joshua said he’s rediscovered school and is excited about it. He chalked that change up to a project in the Albemarle school district called Team 19, which blends core subjects into interdisciplinary project-based study.

The story of Highline Public Schools, in Washington state, was another showcased by the White House today. Susan Enfield, the superintendent of that district, told the attendees that five years ago, when she was interviewing for the job, she met with groups of high school students and asked what they wanted for their schools.

The teenagers were anything but shy; They wanted more Advanced Placement classes, protection of their sports programs—since that was what kept some students from dropping out—and support for their dreams of accomplishment, even though they came from modest backgrounds, she said.

Enfield said she knew the district had set its expectations too low for its students. “There is a massive pity party happening for our kids and we need to shut it down,” she said.

So her team set ambitious new goals, including 90-percent-plus graduation and Algebra I completion rates. They used a regional Race to the Top grant to offer the SAT during the school day for free to every student, to eliminate a barrier to college application. They changed their approach to discipline, cutting out-of-school suspension rates by more than 75 percent. They’ve added more AP and computer science classes, and ramped up offerings of internships, job-shadowing, and mentorships, to help students “change they way they see their future,” Enfield said.

White House Resources for High School Improvement

Last year, at the first high school summit, the White House announced more than $375 million in new investments in high schools from the public and private sectors. This year, its emphasis was on sharing the progress made with those funds, and releasing resources that can guide projects to revamp high school.

The Expanded Learning Middle School Initiative, for instance, is “on track” to raising $620 million to provide hands-on learning to 1.3 million middle schoolers by 2020, the White House progress report said. Jobs for the Future pledged to bring dual-enrollment programs to 10,000 more students through new work with the U.S. Department of Education, and last spring, the department announced a pilot program that will let students use Pell grants to pay for dual-enrollment programs at 44 institutions.

But the White House also pointed to new work getting under way, too, highlighting the plans of six states and 20 school districts to improve their high schools. Pennsylvania, for instance, is putting a particular focus on starting career planning as early as elementary school, strengthening its social-emotional learning, and expanding dual-enrollment programs. Ohio is expanding its College Credit Plus program, which helps students earn college credit in high school, creating more stand-alone STEM high schools, and encouraging districts to offer credit for experiential learning outside the classroom.

The Highline district has a new project to remake two of its four high schools, emphasizing the input and partnership of students, families, teachers, principals, and community members in those redesigns. To improve its graduation rate, the Miami-Dade district is zeroing in on helping rising 9th graders develop the behaviors and skills to make a smooth transition into and through their freshman year.

In the private-sector, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University will release a “roadmap” synthesizing what research has found to be effective in boosting graduation rates. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, together with Facebook, will release an expanded version of inspirED, an online resource center that aims to help high school students and teachers to work together to build positive climates in their schools. XQ: The Super School Project, run by Laurene Powell Jobs, will announce the winners on Wednesday of its contest to win millions in grants to pursue innovative high school programs.

Among the resources the White House released as part of the summit Monday are a study of six evidence-based strategies for high school improvement, and a study of the most common features of early-warning systems that aim to keep at-risk teenagers from failing in high school. The White House plans to issue a dozen other briefs on other high-school-improvement topics this fall. It also plans to release a guide to funding streams that can help states and districts as they work to improve their high schools.

It has created a new web page to host these and other high school resources from its Next Generation High Schools initiative.

For more about White House initiatives on high school, see:

White House Convenes Summit on ‘Next Generation High Schools

White House Fact Sheet on Second Annual Summit on Next Generation High Schools

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.