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 Crater Renaissance Academy of Arts and Sciences
City and State in Central Point, Oregon. This was written by Welner.
By Kevin Welner
High School: Crater Renaissance Academy of Arts and Sciences
City and State: Central Point, OR
Principal: Adrienne Hillman
Superintendent: Samantha Steele
Economically disadvantaged students: 64 percent
Schools that fully understand the opportunity gap realize that it is an accumulation. Most students on the wrong end of the gap have hit obstacle after obstacle, and it is the accrual of resulting gaps that creates the overall opportunity gap. Schools, then, are faced with the need to address those many obstacles all together, rather than picking and choosing. They must create a school with high expectations, a healthy culture, and the supports that teachers and students need.
Crater Renaissance Academy of Arts and Sciences in Oregon has taken on that challenge. This school is steeped in a culture of what its educators call “warm demands.” The principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools have provided Crater Renaissance (CRA) with a set of guidelines that support the implementation of a progressive and intellectually rich education.
But what really makes the school tick is the open-heartedness and good spirit of the people at the school who care for the intellectual, emotional and physical health of all students.
The academic press at the school begins with a commitment to fostering a college-going culture and ensuring that all classes are college prep. Academic lab classes, including reading and math labs, are designed to support students with special needs and students who simply need additional learning supports. These student support classes are available every period of the day.
Importantly, this reflects careful deliberation from the school’s educators and leaders; CRA used to be part of a comprehensive high school, where tracking was used to ration the school’s best learning opportunities for only a select elite.
As with CRA’s students, teachers at the school are also given needed assistance. A district-supported mentorship program supports all first- and second-year teachers new to the district, and the school’s instructional coach oversees the acculturation of all new staff members. With an “open door policy,” any staff member can drop into any other class. The school also uses a one-hour-late-start every Wednesday, with about half that time used for professional development.
CRA also carefully creates and maintains a healthy school culture. Some efforts are aimed at preventing bullying, some at effective discipline interventions, and some at general support and collaboration.
As an example, a social equity grid was created by students after viewing the documentary “Bully,” and all students reflect on it routinely. The grid is essentially a chart that helps students negotiate behaviors they could encounter during their school day. It uses student language to guide peers in effective methods to intervene when appropriate, and it acknowledges and names behaviors that contribute to bullying and harassment. More generally, the school has put in place very clear institutional guidelines for how to be an ally in reducing instances of bullying and harassment.
The school also adopted Restorative Justice approaches to discipline back in 2009. Again, the approach is thoughtful, using RJ in appropriate circumstances but also making sparing use of in- and out-of-school suspensions, while always ensuring that the disciplined students are supported in their academic studies.
Finally, CRA works hard to provide services to support multiple aspects of student health. As one example, when the Oregon Healthy Teen Survey revealed that many CRA students were sitting in class hungry, the school made healthy snacks available at no cost. The district’s food service now brings a mobile food cart directly to the main office every morning offering “grab and go” breakfast or nutritious snacks.
The school also leverages its small size to provide emotional support for students through monthly “student service team” meetings between students and staff. And the campus’ LaClinica Health Center provides students with an inviting space to receive both physical and emotional health care.
“Our staff believes there are non-negotiables when it comes to our kids,” said School Principal Adrienne Hillman. “One of these non-negotiables is that we all expect all of the school’s students to be prepared for college or further education after high school. Anything less than holding that expectation means we are surrendering to the opportunity gaps that can undermine the students’ life paths.”
Keeping student health needs front and center, providing a healthy culture based on acceptance, respect, care, kindness, and creating a challenging and supporting learning environment are three of the reasons that Crater Renaissance Academy is a Gold School of Opportunity.
Visit the Crater Renaissance Academy of Arts and Sciences website here.