Transforming High Schools

Nationally there are few high performing, open enrollment, urban high schools. We clearly need a new approach. Michigan Future has been working on the issue for nearly a decade. Here is how we think about what matters in creating high quality high schools. Its at the core of our new accelerator strategy.

Its drawn from our experience in helping create University High School in Ferndale. A public school, represented by the MEA, serving nearly all African American students, most from the City of Detroit. And my reflections on the characteristics of the other schools in a small high school learning network we have co-convened with the Skillman Foundation.

They all have a preponderance of their student on a path to graduate and go college, but are stuck at around 16-17 on the ACT (for those who have 11th graders). Much better than Detroit’s (and other urban district’s) comprehensive high schools and probably better (at least in terms of graduation and college attendance) than most blue collar suburban high schools, but still nowhere near the goal of all students entering college without remediation.

These are the characteristics we have come to believe allow high schools to deliver quality teaching and learning.

1. A school culture (primarily among the educators) committed to (and held accountable for) all students enrolling and succeeding in college. This is preeminent. Don’t get the culture right and nothing else matters!

2. Smaller numbers of students

3. Project based learning

4. Teaching and learning built on rigor, relevance and relationships

5. Partnerships with higher education and/or employers ideally involving teaching and learning on college campuses and places of employment as well as in school. (The school as a hub for teaching and learning, not a center.)

6. Responsive to the broad needs of each student. Organizing the school day around the needs of the whole child, not just teaching content.

7. To help students succeed in college, before graduation counseling to help students enroll in and finance college and once in college a college success advisor.

8. Continuous improvement. Driven by their commitment to all kids succeeding in college, constantly adjusting teaching and learning to improve student achievement.

To create these characteristics requires a dramatic change in the job of educators. The building administrators, counselors, and particularly the teachers have responsibilities far beyond what happens in the traditional high school. And because culture matters so much, stable staff matters a lot too. This model of teaching and learning, I’m convinced, will be far less effective with a constant turnover of educators.

To us the strategic question is how do you organize schools in a way that allows for these characteristics to be created. In too many cases central offices (both public and charter), unions, Boards and others prevent schools from creating these conditions. And old culture–which is really hard to change–at the school level is a huge barrier as well.

The accelerator’s strategy is to create new high schools (public, charter or private). They can be designed from day one around these characteristics. If you are trying to transform existing high schools the task is way harder. But to be successful, its essential we develop a strategy that gets systems to allow for these kind of schools.

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