This is a profile of a charter school in Wisconsin named the Clark Street Community School, and this piece is the second of seven I will publish about the newest honorees of an annual project called “Schools of Opportunity.” (Charter schools are privately operated but publicly funded.)
The project, which started in 2014 as a pilot in two states and went national in 2015-16, recognizes publicly funded high schools that work to create learning environments to reach every student and close achievement and opportunity gaps that harm students from historically disadvantaged groups.
It is based at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and has honored several dozen schools by assessing them on factors including how well the adults in a school building provide health and psychological support for students as well as judicious and fair discipline policies, and broad and enriched curriculums. Student standardized test scores are not part of the assessments. Schools submit applications explaining why they should be recognized.
As a previous post on this blog about the project’s honorees said: “These schools do not cherry-pick students using selective admissions or ‘push-out’ practices that falsely inflate test scores and graduation rates by eliminating anyone who struggles with behavior or academics. Nor can these schools assume that their students enjoy privileges such as book-filled homes, often-costly summer enrichment experiences, or college savings accounts — or even housing and food security.”
The 2019-20 application cycle is open, and if you know a potential School of Opportunity, visit SchoolsOfOpportunity.org to learn more.
This profile was written by Kevin Welner, a founder of the Schools of Opportunity project, the director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor specializing in educational policy and law.
By Kevin Welner
There are a lot of things that Clark Street Community School doesn’t have.
This high school doesn’t have freshmen, for one — or sophomores, juniors or seniors. Students progress at their own pace through the curriculum without being labeled by grade level or by age.
The school also doesn’t have separate classes for honor students or remedial students or for students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Programs, who comprise more than one-third of the enrollment. Inclusion is not the exception but the rule. And it doesn’t have letter grades.
Instead, the Middleton, Wis., charter school uses portfolios, performances and rubrics that provide feedback designed to help the school’s 100 students learn and grow.
Consider, for example, a student who submitted a brief, undeveloped, and error-riddled essay on “dementia villages,” an idea that originated in Holland and is slowly spreading to other countries. In these communities, people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s live out their lives in enclosed neighborhoods rather than hospital-like nursing homes. The teacher did not simply assign a “D” to the poorly written paper and move on. Instead, the paper progressed through three drafts, each accompanied by feedback guided by a two-page rubric. Although the third draft was still imperfect, it was miles ahead of the student-author’s first attempt.
In a blog post on the school’s website, parent Amy Jester wrote about a student who titled his end-of-semester presentation, “How have I grown?” — informing the audience of parents, teachers and students that he’d never been asked that question before arriving at Clark Street.
“When he said that, I realized that in my high school, college, and (too many) years of grad school I’d never been asked that, either,” Jester reflected. “How might we all be different if we took the time to stop and reflect on our ongoing learning experiences? What if we all were accountable for our own development several times a year? … I am glad that there is a place where a hundred kids get to find out. I wish there were more.”
Clark Street’s lack of grade levels, tracking, grades and other hallmarks of the traditional high school experience is all by design.
The school aims to disrupt these and other taken-for-granted educational norms, in a quest to better serve its students by eliminating practices that disadvantage and disengage many young people. As a choice school, Clark Street is also careful to address access — to deliberately serve a highly diverse population of students. It has been highly successful in recruiting historically under-served students and families, particularly those seeking a non-traditional learning environment.
Consider another example. Although students learn traditional academic content such as math, they do so in a way that is meant to reach students where they are and help them make continual progress. In courses throughout the curriculum, instructors use a math modeling approach that encourages students to apply multiple methods to review and interpret results, solicit feedback, implement revisions, draw conclusions, and propose follow-up questions.
The school also uses daily math workshops with teachers providing mini-lessons to small groups learning, in part, from an online curriculum. Math content is even provided within interdisciplinary seminars with teen-friendly titles like “Zombie Apocalypse,” “Rocket Science” and “Lawn Games,” which situate quantitative skills in engaging and relevant contexts by, for example, teaching quadratic equations via rocket building, or probability via games of cornhole.
This multifaceted approach provides students with multiple entry points into the curriculum rather than presenting a concept once, assigning a grade, and moving on regardless of whether the student has understood the concept or truly engaged with the material.
“I like feeling like I have control over what I’m learning and when," said Syl Bishop, a third-year student. "At Clark Street I always feel like I have options, and the resources to execute whichever choices I make.”
Clark Street also has a strong focus on culture-building. School starts each day with a morning meeting designed to create a welcoming community and to allow time for mindfulness. A social-emotional learning curriculum includes lessons on distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal skills.
The school’s community agreement, created collaboratively by students and staff, includes commonly found norms such as “resolve conflicts peacefully” and “get to school/class on time.” It’s the process and buy-in that make Clark Street work. When appropriate, students who violate these norms gather with those affected by their actions to identify the harm done and devise solutions. Community members who commit serious infractions (e.g., bringing weapons to school) can face suspension or expulsion, but the school did not need to use either discipline method in either 2016-17, 2017-18, or 2018-19.
Clark Street describes itself as a “laboratory for innovative education.” As such, the school works closely with the University of Wisconsin-Madison to develop programs and evaluate its approaches to learning. In fact, it was the university’s Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis Department that originally nominated Clark Street for the Schools of Opportunity recognition.
The school’s innovations appear to be working. Between 2012 and 2017, the school’s five-year graduation rate increased from 25 percent to 82 percent while its dropout rate declined from 13 percent to 1 percent. And just as promisingly, by the time they are ready to graduate, Clark Street students report higher levels of both engagement and hopefulness than their peers in the larger district and the nation as a whole.
“CSCS helps students become more self-aware learners, allowing them to pursue higher education with a strong understanding of the conditions they need in order to succeed, as well as the tools to advocate for those learning needs,” said Zoe Wei Wyse, a Clark Street graduate and current student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
Here are some other school profiles in the Schools of Opportunity series: