This is the second in a series of posts about schools that were named as honorees in the 2015-16 Schools of Opportunity project. You can find the first one here.

If you listen to the school reform debate these days, you would be forgiven for thinking that public schools across the board are failing students and that schools that are struggling can only improve if they fire all of their staff, become a charter school or let the state take them over. It’s just not so.

This is clear in a project called the Schools of Opportunity, which was launched a few years ago by educators who wanted to highlight public high schools that actively seek to close opportunity gaps through 11 research-proven practices and not standardized test scores (which are more a measure of socioeconomic status than anything else).

The project assesses how well schools provide health and psychological support for students, judicious and fair discipline policies, high-quality teacher mentoring programs, outreach to the community, effective student and faculty support systems, and broad and enriched curriculum. Schools submit applications explaining why they believe their school should be recognized.

The project started in 2014 as a pilot program in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-2016, with gold and silver winners coming from states including Maryland, Georgia, California and Oregon. It is the brainchild of Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law; and Carol Burris, a former award-winning principal in New York who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education.

Twenty schools were named as honorees for the 2015-16 school year — eight gold winners and 12 silver — and you can see the list here. This is the first of a series of posts I will publish that highlight why each of the schools was chosen to be honored. It is important to note that each school found success in ways that met the needs of their own communities.

Here is a post about Hillsdale High School in California, a 2016 Gold medal School of Opportunity:

By Kevin Welner and Carol Burris

High School: Hillsdale High School
City and State: San Mateo, CA
Principal: Jeff Gilbert
Superintendent: Kevin Skelly
Enrollment: 1,400
Economically disadvantaged students: 16 percent

For the past 15 years, Hillsdale High School has worked in partnership with Stanford University’s School of Education and other groups such as the nonprofit National Equity Project to develop small learning communities that are challenging, engaging and equitable. That work has paid great dividends for the Hillsdale students.

Hillsdale High is a comprehensive public school of nearly 1,400 students in San Mateo, California, located 20 miles south of San Francisco. It used a teacher-led Smaller Learning Community (SLC) model to dramatically reshape and then sustain the culture of the school. The work of the SLC at Hillsdale is rooted in the belief that deep, sustained learning is a social activity, and that schools must thoughtfully and intentionally create structures that facilitate powerful relationships with the students they serve.

For example, Hillsdale’s faculty designed an ambitious school-wide “Graduate Profile” by analyzing student work and deliberating about best educational practices. The resulting Profile defines a set of outcomes that is now taught and assessed by all teachers at all levels. Subsequent professional development focused on facilitating curriculum, instruction and assessments that connect to the Graduate Profile.

Teachers also created school-wide rubrics that establish criteria for the Profile, and they develop and revise project tasks that allow students to meet the criteria. Performance on portfolio tasks and on final graduate defenses provides data about student achievement and areas of concern.

Hillsdale’s SLC model also connects “house” cohorts of students with teams of teachers and advisors who work with students over two years. Students are grouped heterogeneously in English, social studies, science, physical education and advisory in the 9th and 10th grades — a non-tracked practice that has allowed students to know and value each other across lines that often divide schools.

Hillsdale was in the 99th percentile for school climate among California schools in 2014. This reinforced a 2013 self-study Student Survey, where 90 percent of students agreed that at least one teacher on campus knew them well, and 92 percent said they feel part of a community at Hillsdale. Further, 93 percent of Hillsdale parents agreed that “Hillsdale is a safe, comfortable place for my student.”

A strong, student-centered culture that is fostered by a strong system of teacher learning is just one of the reasons that Hillsdale was selected as a gold School of Opportunity.