(This is the sixth in a series of posts about schools named as winners in the 2015-2016 Schools of Opportunity project. You can find the first post here and the second here. the third here and the fourth here and the fifth one here. There are links to all at the bottom of this post.)

If you have paid attention to the school reform debate in recent years, 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, launched a few years ago by educators who sought 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. It is important to note that each school found success in ways that met the needs of their own communities.

This week’s write-up is about Schools of Opportunity winner South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., where Schools of Opportunity co-founder Burris was a principal for years. While running the school, she was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. She has written extensively about school reform on this blog. She co-authored this piece about her old school (with Welner). though she did not participate in the evaluation of it for the Schools of Opportunity project.

By Kevin Welner and Carol Burris

High School: South Side High School
City and State: Rockville Centre, New York
Principal: John Murphy
Superintendent: William H. Johnson
Enrollment: 1,106
Economically disadvantaged students: 16 percent

About a sixth of the students at South Side High School are economically disadvantaged, and about a quarter are black or Latino. What makes this suburban high school located in New York’s Rockville Centre remarkable is how fully this diversity is reflected in all academics and all extracurricular activities, from theatrical and musical productions to athletics and club events.

Most importantly, the school’s classrooms are fully integrated. South Side is an “IB for all” public high school, where detracking and universal acceleration in grades 9-12 have opened the gates for all students to take the best curriculum the school has to offer. By doing so, the socioeconomic and racial stratification we find in so many diverse high schools have disappeared, and learning gaps have narrowed remarkably.

In the mid 1990’s, all students at the feeder middle school began taking the same accelerated mathematics course sequence leading to algebra for all in Grade 8. At the same time, detracking began in the high school, with tracks being phased out over time.

South Side ensured that it “leveled up” as it detracked, never lowering expectations for any students, while providing intense systems of support for students who struggled. All students now take the same enriched curriculum — the former honors program.

This year, 51 percent of South Side graduates completed the full requirements for the International Baccalaureate Diploma. All students, including special education students, take IB English and History of the Americas in eleventh grade. For the 2014-15 school year, 88 percent of all graduates took one or more IB or Advanced Placement exam, which includes 70 percent of all graduates who qualified for free or reduced lunch, 72 percent of all black and Hispanic students, and 60 percent percent of students with disabilities.

Teacher-led professional development is an important contributor to the success at South Side. Teachers create their own portfolio of professional development workshops, and they assume leadership positions for building-wide initiatives.

This year, for example, a full-day professional development workshop on instructional collaboration across disciplines culminated in the creation of a teacher research team, which will analyze the lessons and data culled from lesson study to plan professional development for the coming year, even publishing a research paper on their findings.

The Rockville Centre community, students and faculty agree that the best curriculum that the school has to offer is the best curriculum for all, and it is willing to dedicate resources and efforts to make success happen.

As Principal John Murphy told us, “We are in a perpetual state of improvement, yet we have a guide star. Our approach to course access, curriculum, and professional development consistently place diversity and collaboration as the keys to success.”

That alignment of belief and curriculum has made South Side a true gold School of Opportunity.