College & Workforce Readiness

High School Redesign Gets Presidential Lift

By Caralee J. Adams — April 16, 2013 8 min read
From left, Annie Kostrubanic, Elise Terner, and Ben Rich enjoy their time together while editing a podcast for a Spanish honors class at Beverly High in Massachusetts. School officials asked students to play a big role in conceiving and carrying out new initiatives.
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A flurry of good news appeared on the high school front this winter. Graduation rates were at their highest mark in nearly 40 years, record numbers of students were taking and passing Advanced Placement exams, and more high schools than ever were offering college credit through dual-enrollment programs.

On top of all that, President Barack Obama applauded high school redesign efforts in his State of the Union address and encouraged districts to look to successful models for inspiration. Last week, he followed up with a request in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal for a new, $300 million competitive-grant program.

Recognition is widespread that high schools need to change to engage students and prepare them for the workforce of the future. That push goes back decades, but now momentum is accelerating, and talk is not of reform, but redesign.

“What the president’s remarks show me is that progress is being made and there are new models for high school that are emerging and producing results. The federal government is saying let’s take advantage of that and step in and help,” said Bob Wise, the president of the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which advocates high school improvement.

Junior Marisa Jaynes, right, helps Meghan Cafferty, also a junior, during an Algebra 2 class. Data indicate that innovations the Massachusetts school undertook have led to improvements in achievement.

While all that attention is welcome, including at the federal level, some in the education community worry whether the expectations for change come with enough resources and flexibility to allow schools to tailor the redesigns to their communities. Others think the emphasis on the STEM subjects is too narrow and bigger policy shifts toward competency-based learning need to occur before real change can happen.

Still, experts encourage schools to look at evidence-based approaches and emerging research on what works at the secondary level.

“There is a realization that our high schools were designed for another time and era,” said Joe DiMartino, the founder of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, based in West Warwick, R.I., and the author of Personalizing the High School Experience for Each Student. But, he added, “making changes to high schools has been proven very difficult. Tradition is dying hard.”

Sean Gallagher, the principal of Beverly High School, just north of Boston, says what American schools have in their favor over other countries with more centralized systems is the ability to be creative, and that should be embraced when schools reinvent themselves. Administrators may operate under similar premises, but when dealing with unique students, parents, and communities, change is going to look different from school to school.

“You need to craft it to make it your own,” Mr. Gallagher said of the initiatives and models for high school redesign. “It would be great if there were just one easy thing to do—then everyone would be doing it.”

Too Much STEM?

The president’s fiscal 2014 budget request aims through the competitive grant to help high schools better prepare students for postsecondary education and the workplace and to focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The grants are envisioned as partnerships between districts and nonprofit groups, higher education, or business. Districts that serve high-poverty students and rural school systems would be given priority.

A Trio of Models

High School redesign can take many different approaches. Among them:

Preuss School

University of California, San Diego

Enrollment: 820 • Students Getting Free or Reduced-Price Lunch: 100%

At Preuss School, a charter school on the campus of the University of California, San Diego, students meet with the same cohort and teacher in grades 6-12 in a regular advisory class that is held every other day for about 95 minutes. It includes extra academic support, tutoring, and character development.

“This is a safe place for a student to speak up,” said Principal Scott Barton. The advisory teacher can be another trusted adult to help a student map his or her path through school and be a point person to coordinate meetings of all parties if there is an issue to be resolved, he added.

The single mission at Preuss is to prepare students of color from low-income families for college. In fact, only children whose parents have not graduated from a four-year college are admitted.

The “detracking curriculum” holds the same expectations for all students, Mr. Barton said. The school has longer days (8:55 a.m.-4 p.m.), a longer year (198 days vs. the state requirement of 180), and 95-minute classes, which combined add up to an extra year of instruction for students who start at Preuss in the 6th grade.

Ninety-five percent of the school’s graduates were admitted to four-year colleges last year—the same year Preuss was recognized by the National Association of Secondary School Principals as a “Breakthrough School.”

Beverly High School

Beverly, Mass.

Enrollment: 1,300 • Students Getting Free or Reduced-Price Lunch: 24%

Working closely with students to elicit feedback on everything from cellphone policies to freshman orientation has helped Beverly High School improve significantly in the past seven years, said Principal Sean Gallagher. “We are constantly trying to put ourselves in the student’s seat—into the mindset of how students are thinking,” he said.

A council of student leaders was formed to involve students in school initiatives, and that has led to a sense of empowerment and connectedness. While the state had a 3.5 percent average dropout rate in 2006, it was 4.5 percent at Beverly. The school has since cut that rate to 1.7 percent; Massachusetts’ rate has fallen as well, but not as far, to 2.5 percent.

Responding to suggestions from students about the difficulty of transitioning into high school, administrators placed freshmen at Beverly High in teams—as is common in middle school—called freshman academies, and upperclassmen helped develop a more intensive orientation program.

The first year after the academies were instituted in 2011-12, failure rates for 9th graders decreased by 27 percent; freshman behavior referrals dropped by 37 percent, and attendance rose from 95 percent to 97 percent, said Mr. Gallagher.

To personalize learning and support a new standards-based learning approach, Beverly High launched a 1-to-1 laptop program two years ago. “It’s a great equalizer for all students,” Mr. Gallagher said. Extra laptops can be checked out by the few students whose parents aren’t participating in a lease-to-own program.

The new competency-based grading and laptop delivery of curriculum forced teachers to collaborate more closely, which has been another positive in the school, the principal added.

Pittsfield Middle High School

Pittsfield, N.H.

Enrollment: 275 • Students Getting Free or Reduced-Price Lunch: 46%

When Pittsfield Middle High School began its redesign in 2008, Superintendent John Freeman invited business leaders and parents to a series of Saturday morning forums to get their input. “They wanted the school to be responsive to individual students, personalized, and hands-on,” said Mr. Freeman, who became the new district leader that year. “They wanted us to have kids graduate with a plan for what they would do next.”

With funding from three grants, including a major federal school improvement grant and one from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Pittsfield approached change on several fronts simultaneously: adding student advisories, emphasizing college and career readiness, offering credit for learning activities outside of school, and developing project-based learning.

New Hampshire began to offer credit based on competency over seat time in 2008, and schools started phasing in the changes. The switch required a great deal of professional development and a transformation of the grading and reporting system, said Mr. Freeman, but keeping the community in the loop helped.

The school held an open house at a local park, with a pig roast, and set up computers on a folding table to give visitors a chance to log on and see what the new system looked like, he said.

Since the redesign of the middle high school, Mr. Freeman said, students have a greater level of engagement, which can be challenging to quantify. But the test scores are clear: Pittsfield has gone from being among the five lowest-performing high schools in the state to near the top in math, and reading is also improving.

—Caralee Adams

The National Association of Secondary School Principals commended the president for highlighting high schools in the budget, but the Reston, Va.-based organization is dismayed by the use of a proposed competitive-grant approach over formula funding because it “widens the gap between those districts with and without resources.”

The organization also expressed concern about a focus on the STEM subjects, without a similar emphasis on literacy in secondary schools. “While we fully endorse STEM education, we fear that a failure to support the development of foundational literacy skills will condemn any other initiative to failure,” said Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti in a statement.

Mr. Wise said he is encouraged that President Obama is sending a message about the need for alternative models.

“I think it’s worthwhile to have some competitive dollars out there because that’s how you encourage people to look at innovation,” he said. “Formulas tend to support what you’ve been doing. You need both.”

Other parts of the budget plan, including funds for school turnaround grants and STEM education, have the potential to benefit high school redesign as well, added Mr. DiMartino.

Testing Barriers

Several models for innovative high schools are popping up across the country, alongside traditional ones. But the assessment policies and practices of the education system haven’t adapted to accommodate major structural change, Mr. DiMartino of the Center for Secondary School Redesign said.

“One thing that bothers me about a federal approach is that when you think of personalizing a school, and then you assess [students] all on the same test, that doesn’t actually allow for them to use their enthusiasm,” he said.

For schools to truly be able to change, there needs to be a move away from seat time and testing to new approaches to engage students, he said, and to competency-based learning that uses a variety of assessment instruments, such as student exhibitions of their learning.

Efforts to reinvent high schools date back decades. One of those was the NASSP’s 1996 release of the “Breaking Ranks” framework for school improvement and an updated version of the initiative in 2003. It outlined three core areas that must be addressed for student performance to improve: collaborative leadership; personalization of the school environment; and curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Some schools have adopted those strategies. At the NASSP’s annual conference, those that have been successful showcase how a personalized approach to learning can have positive effects on students.

Much has changed in the world, and new research is showing what’s effective, but education has been slow to respond to that research and technology, Mr. DiMartino said. “We need to rethink high school altogether,” he said. “I don’t think there is a model that will work in every community, but there are some basic tenets.”

Common Themes

Many agree on some common principles that are providing direction for high schools as they map out what change will look like for students.

• Personal connections and engagement: There has been a move away from large traditional high schools to smaller personalized ones (or at least teams within a big school) where students can feel a sense of belonging.

Administrators are finding when they make an effort to seek input from students, the students often are more connected to the school and less likely to drop out. Through advisory classes or cohort groupings, redesign often includes an emphasis on building close relationships so students know a caring adult in the building.

• Leveraging technology and data for individualized learning: Personalization in learning, through the use of technology, means students can move at their own pace and feel a sense of empowerment in their education. “Technology is a game changer for high schools,” said Mr. Wise. With real-time data and online resources, teachers can customize the curriculum to make it more relevant for students.

• Rigor: To help students prepare for the challenges of college and the workplace, high school redesign often emphasizes rigor and academic supports to help all students succeed. That may mean ramping up Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. The common standards will require deeper learning and holding high school students to higher standards for college and career readiness.

• Extended learning opportunities: High school students can get excited about school when they see the relevance of what they are learning work in the real world. All students at the School Without Walls in the District of Columbia, for example, are required to do an unpaid internship and 100 hours of community service. Most earn college credits through a dual-enrollment program with George Washington University.

“It’s the power of place,” Sheila Mills Harris, the director of the GW Early College Program, said of bringing students on campus for classes. “High student students are ready for it. … They are looking for more of a challenge, to expand their knowledge, to delve into areas they are truly interested in.”

William Corrin, the deputy director for K-12 education policy with MDRC, a New York City-based research organization, said some schools can manage to transform on their own, but it usually takes support from partner organizations or grants. “There are multiple pathways to get there,” he said. “The priority for schools is to think about how to put in evidence-based approaches.”

While the federal focus on redesign places a sense of urgency to see results quickly, Mr. Corrin cautions that successful redesign takes time. “We live in a world where there is pressure to see outcomes for kids change in a year,” he said. “The needs are pressing, but reform doesn’t happen overnight, … it requires three or four years. It’s a combination of time and patience.”

Expectations have to be raised to get results, and businesses are pushing for high school improvement to pick up the pace, Mr. Wise said.

“I’m one of the most bullish in a town of political bears. I think some improvement is taking place already,” he said, citing the increase in graduation rates. “It’s not going to leap forward if we don’t continue to support new models, innovation, and breaking the mold on how we’ve done things over the last 200 years.

“I see lot of different attitudes shifting markedly across the education spectrum, and folks are doing things they wouldn’t have done a decade ago,” he said. “A lot of that is because of new research; finally practice is bearing out, and policy is beginning to follow successful practice.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2013 edition of Education Week as High School Redesign Gets Presidential Lift


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