College & Workforce Readiness

Pennsylvania High School Project Stresses Rigor, Support

By Catherine Gewertz — July 25, 2006 4 min read
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Riding a wave of national concern about high schools, Pennsylvania has expanded a pilot program that seeks to boost academic rigor for high school students and create clearer connections to college and work through a revamped counseling system.

Pennsylvania began Project 720 in the fall of 2004. State officials chose the name—the typical number of days in a student’s high school career—to lend a sense of urgency to the program.

The first year of the pilot included 41 high schools whose districts applied to become part of the program. Seventy-five schools participated in 2005-06. The state’s 2006-07 budget expands annual funding to $8 million, from $4.7 million the previous year. State officials expect the hike to enable as many as 30 more schools to take part in the rapidly growing initiative’s third year.

Project 720

OVERVIEW:

Pennsylvania began Project 720 in fall 2004 as a pilot program to encourage more academic rigor and support for students, as well as a stronger focus on connections between high school and college. Forty-one high schools signed up for that year; 75 schools participated in 2005-06. State officials expect as many as 30 more schools to join as a result of the state’s fiscal 2007 budget, which nearly doubles annual funding for the program to $8 million.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell has backed Project 720. State officials chose the name—the typical number of days in a high school career—to lend urgency to the program.
—Carolyn Kaster/AP

SOURCE: Education Week

Project 720 is a central piece of Pennsylvania’s push for high school improvement, which has been a priority for Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat now seeking re-election, since he took office in 2003. Included in that work has been the expansion of dual-enrollment programs, in which districts and colleges form partnerships to allow teenagers to earn high school and college credit simultaneously.

Developed in conjunction with the American Diploma Project, a collaborative national effort to improve high school, Project 720 has yielded early results that state officials consider promising. In participating schools, 1,000 more 9th graders enrolled in algebra, and 2,600 more students got personalized career and college counseling than had done so the previous year. Participating schools also offered 15 percent more Advanced Placement classes than did high schools on average statewide. Data collection is not yet at the point where state officials can say whether the program has affected college-going or graduation rates at the Project 720 schools.

The initiative has many elements that schools must implement over three years. Those features are grouped around the key goals of making coursework tougher and more relevant to students’ lives, and forging clearer routes to postsecondary life. To enable that work, the project asks schools to convert to small-school arrangements, and implement personalized counseling for students. Project 720 schools are at differing stages of putting the various pieces in place.

Linking the Steps

All schools in the project must use a college-preparatory curriculum and require students to take four years each of English and math, including Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and geometry; three years each of science, including biology and chemistry; three years of social studies; and two of foreign language. They must adjust their curricula to align with postsecondary requirements, and provide extra instruction to students who need the help.

In addition, teachers must be trained in new techniques that emphasize project-based learning, and counselors must develop the skills to focus on helping students identify school and work goals and the steps necessary to reach them so they can use that information in planning their high school time.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Gerald L. Zahorchak said the state wants to do a better job of preparing all students for college and work. To do so, adults must help students see the explicit connections between what they do in high school and what comes after, he said. Students are unlikely to gain that awareness, he said, unless they have strong relationships at school with adults who know and advise them.

James E. Barker, the superintendent of the 13,000-student Erie city school district, which has participated in Project 720 from the start, said that adopting the project’s course requirements has meant redeploying staff, such as the phasing-out of some remedial-level teachers in favor of those who teach higher-level courses.

Life Plans

Erie students sit down with counselors and parents early in their high school careers and design “life plans” that identify what they want to do and how they can reach those goals. Mr. Barker believes that the strategy helps explain why school staff members report that students are more engaged in their work and see it as more relevant to “real life.”

“When you do life planning, and you say you want to be a cosmetologist, that’s fine. We offer that. But we take it further,” he said. “We help them see the need for higher-level work. We say, ‘Oh, what about when you own the business? What about when you want to grow it?’ When they see the larger possibilities, they make the connections to take those more rigorous courses to be ready for that.”

Angela Hernandez-Marshall, the project director for high school reform at the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, said that many states are working hard to improve high school, but that Pennsylvania’s effort is unusual because it has made a special effort to include rural schools in the Project 720 pilot, and because the initiative, rather than focusing just on curriculum or governance structure, includes such a broad array of pieces.

“They are one of the few states really hitting many of the very difficult pieces, across the spectrum, of what we talk about as high school reform,” she said.

Adria Steinberg, a vice president of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based advocacy group that focuses on education and workforce issues, said she would like to see the project “close the loop” by adding requirements that help participating schools improve their graduation rates, such as requiring schools to use key indicators to track students likely to drop out.

A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as Pennsylvania High School Project Stresses Rigor, Support

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