By Kevin Welner, Carol Burris and Michelle Renée Valladares
What does it really look like to create opportunities for all students to learn? Today we are announcing 20 schools across the nation recognized as 2016 Schools of Opportunity — the first time the designation has been awarded nationwide. Led by researchers and school leaders at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Education Policy Center (NEPC), this recognition provides a research-based answer to the mismatch between existing awards that recognize schools as “the best” because of their high-test scores and the schools that are actually engaging in research-proven practices.
Closing the opportunity gap requires enormous thought and effort, reforming what schools do to address the unique needs of each community while always expecting and supporting engaging and challenging learning for every student. Compare, for example, two of our new Schools of Opportunity, both located in Northern California: Oakland International High School and Hillsdale High School.
Oakland International High School enrolls students who recently (within three years of enrollment) immigrated to the United States and who are learning English. Ninety-six percent of the 400 students are economically disadvantaged. Many of the youth enrolled at this school are refugees fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries, and almost a quarter are unaccompanied minors. The school responds by providing each student with a full range of services to meet their unique needs—from learning a new language, to advancing academic knowledge, to supporting their physical and mental health.
Nearby in San Mateo, California is another recognized school. Hillsdale High is a comprehensive public high school enrolling 1,400 students, 16 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. Over the past 15 years, Hillsdale has worked in partnership with Stanford University’s School of Education to re-envision what a public high school can be. Hillsdale used a teacher-led Smaller Learning Community model to dramatically reshape the culture of the school—connecting “house” cohorts of students with teams of teachers and advisors who work with students over two years, allowing them to give all students the same challenging curriculum in heterogeneous classes in many courses.
Oakland and Hillsdale are clearly very different high schools. What they share with each other and with the other 18 new Schools of Opportunity is a common passion to close gaps in opportunity for all of the students who walk through their doors. By focusing on practices rather than test scores, the Schools of Opportunity project is able to hold these excellent schools up as exemplars.
A core finding from decades of research, dating back to the 1966 Coleman study, is that our test-scores and other measures of students’ academic outcomes cannot and should not be equated to school quality. Only about 20 percent—and certainly no more than a third—of the variation we see among students’ test scores can be attributed to differences between schools. Resources within the family and neighborhood appear to play a much greater role. So a ranking system based on outcomes such as test scores rewards schools serving more affluent students.
As an antidote and a proof point, NEPC created the Schools of Opportunity recognition. We decided that it was time to reward high schools for practices designed to close opportunity gaps, regardless of student demographics and scores. We hope to encourage the practices that lead naturally to better results.
Schools that applied for recognition submitted information about six different education-opportunity practices that they are successfully implementing. They needed to show, for example how they create and maintain healthy school culture; broaden and enrich school curriculum; use a variety of assessments designed to respond to student needs; and support teachers as professionals. Then the applications went through four levels of screening, including rubric-based ratings and in-person evaluation visits to the potential “gold” schools. The result for 2016 included eight Gold Schools of Opportunity and 12 Silver Schools of Opportunity.
The eight Gold Schools of Opportunity in 2016 are:
Crater Renaissance Academy, Central Point, Oregon
Hillsdale High School, San Mateo, California
Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School, Townshend, Vermont
Rainier Beach High School, Seattle, Washington
Revere High School, Revere, Massachusetts
Rochester International Academy, Rochester, New York
South Side High School, Rockville Centre, New York
William Smith High School, Aurora, Colorado
The 12 high schools that earned a Silver Schools of Opportunity designation in 2016 are:
Boston Arts Academy, Boston, Massachusetts
Cedar Shoals High School, Athens, Georgia
Clarke Central High School, Athens, Georgia
East Rockaway High School, East Rockaway, New York
New Vista High, Boulder, Colorado
Northwest High School, Germantown, Maryland
Oakland International High, Oakland, California
Ossining High School, Ossining, New York
Quilcene High School, Quilcene, Washington
Stillman Valley High School, Stillman Valley, Illinois
Urbana High School, Urbana, Illinois
Washington Technology Magnet School, St. Paul, Minnesota
In the upcoming weeks, we will describe these schools, using them to illustrate and highlight the practices that schools throughout the country can adopt in order to close opportunity gaps.
These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas; they are practices that schools are currently using and hope to share, in order to improve education across the country. By learning from teachers, school leaders, parents and students who are successfully living equitable education change in an education system that exists in an increasingly inequitable society, we want to demonstrate that these efforts are both possible and valued.
To learn more about the schools, including descriptions for each, and the project, visit opportunitygap.org.
The Schools of Opportunity project is supported by the Ford Foundation and the National Education Association Foundation. The call for nominations for the 2017 Schools of Opportunity recognitions will launch in November 2016 and evaluations will take place in the spring. Nomination material will be available at opportunitygap.org.