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Curriculum matters: How these four schools engage all students in learning

(This is the eighth 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, the fifth one here, the sixth here, and the seventh 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. Here’s a post on four silver winners.

By Kevin Welner

What students experience day-in and day-out is largely determined by a school’s curriculum. In some schools, curriculum is delivered in a dry or superficial way, or the best curriculum is reserved for an elite group, as if learning is a zero-sum game. For Schools of Opportunity, however, a broad and enriched curriculum is delivered to students throughout the school. The following four Silver Schools of Opportunity all are exemplars, illustrating different ways that universally engaging curriculum can be provided, closing opportunity gaps.

Clarke Central High School shows how extended learning time can be grown in a way that is enriching as well as supporting. Similarly, Boston Arts Academy and Stillman Valley High School exemplify how challenging curriculum can extend beyond what we usually think of as the academic core. And East Rockaway Junior Senior High School illustrates how early supports can open up a broad college preparatory curriculum for more and more students. All four of these schools are wonderful examples of how Schools of Opportunity adopt policies and practices that respond to students’ unique interests in ways that refuse to sacrifice academic press.

Here they are:

High School: Boston Arts Academy
City and State: Boston, MA
Headmaster: Anne R. Clark
Superintendent: Tommy Chang
Enrollment: 440
Economically disadvantaged students: 60 percent

Boston Arts Academy (BAA) is Boston’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts. Unlike most public schools for the arts, students with all levels of prior experience — from beginner to expert — are welcomed. Its mission is to leverage interest in the arts to provide a strong academic program that builds self-confidence along with talent.

As a full-inclusion school, BAA is committed to serving the needs of all students. Forty percent of students speak English as a second language. In order to make the program work, BAA has a lengthened school day and students spend evenings and weekends preparing for upcoming performances and exhibitions. This year, 97 percent of BAA seniors were accepted to college, and an average of 94 percent are accepted annually, most of whom are the first in their families to do so.

Headmaster Anne R. Clark explains, “The arts have the power to transform lives. For many students, including students who struggle academically or suffer from social/emotional issues, the arts are a pathway to success. The arts develop creativity, critical thinking skills, self-discipline, perseverance, and the ability to work collaboratively. At BAA, we push students to take creative risks and to use the arts to advocate for causes they believe in.”

For its innovative approach to curriculum and student support, Boston Arts Academy deserves recognition as a School of Opportunity.

High School: East Rockaway Junior Senior High School
City and State: East Rockaway, N.Y.
Principal: Joseph Spero
Superintendent: Lisa Ruiz
Enrollment: 554 (376 HS, 178 JHS)
Economically disadvantaged students: 26 percent

East Rockaway Junior Senior High School is located in the small, tight-knit village of East Rockaway, New York. Two years ago, the faculty and administration at East Rockaway recognized the need for a cultural shift in order to provide its students with the necessary opportunities and requisite skills needed to compete in a quickly changing college and career landscape.

Taking advantage of the school’s extended grade range, and in an effort to improve instruction for all students, the school implemented the “Honors by Achievement Program.” Grade 7 students are grouped together in heterogeneous English and social studies classes, with all students given the opportunity to earn an honors designation through their classroom performance. The program continues through Grades 8 and 9 so that students continue to receive support as the curriculum becomes more complex.

For Grades 10-12, the school has expanded its Advanced Placement and college-level course offerings in an effort to encourage all students to challenge themselves with a more rigorous curriculum.

According to Principal Joe Spero, “At East Rockaway, the most important thing our kids can learn is the value of hard work. Everyone can ‘get smart.’”

For breaking down barriers to challenging classes allowing all students to achieve, East Rockaway Junior Senior High School is recognized as a School of Opportunity.

High School: Clarke Central High School
City and State: Athens, Georgia
Principal: Marie Yuran
Superintendent: Philip Lanoue
Enrollment: 1,558
Economically disadvantaged students: 64 percent

Located in the center of Athens, Georgia, Clarke Central High School has established exemplary programs that extend or enrich learning time for all students based on need. Each Wednesday, all students receive enrichment or remediation based on their needs during “Glad-time,” named after the school’s Gladiator mascot. In addition, Zero Period, Eighth Period, Afterschool and Saturday School options enable students to advance or catch up in coursework.

Clarke Central also extends learning through the Clarke County School District’s Innovative Digital Learning Environments initiative. All high school students are issued a Personal Learning Device for use at school and home. All students also have access to the internet through a robust, reliable and fast wifi network in the school and through a variety of community partnerships that have helped close the digital divide.

“As we worked to successfully implement our Glad-time program, the school leadership team sought student feedback. This feedback led to the inclusion of enrichment activities, which over time has resulted in increased student engagement throughout the school day,” said Principal Marie Yuran.

From a variety of enrichment opportunities to innovative digital learning, Clarke Central High School is at the forefront of ensuring creative and engaging classroom environments for all, which is why it deserves to be recognized as a School of Opportunity.

High School: Stillman Valley High School
City/State: Stillman Valley, Illinois
Principal: Leslie Showers
Superintendent: P.J. Caposey
Enrollment: 580
Economically disadvantaged students: 32 percent

Stillman Valley High School (SVHS) offers an impressive array of academic and elective courses as well as activities and experiences that broaden and enrich students’ learning and opportunities. Curriculum offerings extend from multiple agriculture/horticulture classes to industrial technology to college preparatory and numerous Advanced Placement and Dual Credit offerings.

The school does not use “gate-keeping” policies to restrict access to challenging courses, and all classes — whether designated as academic and career-based—meet the needs of learners with diverse goals without compromising rigor or quality of academic performance, an important value of the Schools of Opportunity project.

The stated goal of the school is to have each student leave ready for college or career. While this terminology is common in schools today, SVHS is doing it — and quite effectively — by providing clear career pathways and programs of study for students to receive a workplace certification or credential, or to earn college credit. Despite the school’s small size and despite severe budget cuts in recent years, SVHS prioritized its commitment to preserve a curriculum designed, as the superintendent describes it, “to help all students reach their next level.”

Stillman Valley High School is clearly committed to closing the opportunity gap for all students, which is why it deserves to be recognized as a School of Opportunity.

 Here are earlier stories about winning schools:

This school isn’t just about academics. The emotional and physical health of kids matters too.

To help kids succeed, this rural school gets help from unusual sources. Dentists, for example.

This high-poverty school succeeds by focusing on adventure, the arts and project-based learning

How one school created a ‘safe, comfortable place’ for students and teachers

This school was on the brink of closure. Here’s how it saved itself.

Most students here are refugees — and they speak 16 uncommon languages. How this school makes it work.

Why this high school works: ‘We are in a perpetual state of improvement’