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More than test scores: ‘Schools of Opportunity’ to recognize high schools that create full learning experiences for every student

Newly confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has spent decades advocating for alternatives to traditional public education, once calling the nation’s public school system a “dead end.” That’s news to teachers, administrators and staff members at many public schools who work hard to create learning environments that reach every student — and it is these high schools that can become part of the new “Schools of Opportunity” project cycle.

The project was started a few years ago by educators who sought to highlight public high schools that work to close opportunity gaps through research-proven practices and not standardized test scores, which are more a measure of socioeconomic status than anything else.

The project assesses a number of factors about schools, including how well they provide health and psychological support for students, judicious and fair discipline policies, and broad and enriched curriculum. Schools submit applications explaining why they should be recognized. Nominations are due by May 1, and winners will be announced by Jan. 15, 2018.

The project started in 2014 as a pilot in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-16, with gold and silver winners coming from states including California, Georgia, Maryland, New York and Oregon. It was created by 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 the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education. Burris is spending all of her time running the network, and Adam York, a research associate at the policy center, is the new Schools of Opportunity project manager.

Here’s a piece about the new project cycle by Welner and York.

The 20 schools that won 2016 Schools of Opportunity awards — and why they were selected

By Kevin Welner and Adam York

The “Schools of Opportunity” project that we’ve been highlighting here at The Answer Sheet is now launching its third year. High schools around the country can now begin applying for recognition.

Over the last two years, the National Education Policy Center’s project has recognized U.S. public high schools for illustrating rich possibilities for creating well-rounded and exciting learning experiences for all students and for supporting holistic growth with thoughtful work toward safe and welcoming school climates. We hope the readers of The Answer Sheet have found the profiles of the recognized schools to be valuable in highlighting powerful visions of public schooling.

For the 2017 recognition cycle, the project has updated criteria, including a focus on two key factors impacting student opportunities. First, Schools of Opportunity must strive to ensure that all students have access to rich, challenging and supported opportunities to learn. This means that the school’s best opportunities cannot be exclusive or rationed.

For this reason, we will recognize a school as a “School of Opportunity” only if it declines to restrict or stratify student access to those best opportunities. Second, we seek to highlight schools with strong and welcoming cultures. Therefore, we will only recognize schools if they reject “zero tolerance” policies and other discipline policies that unnecessarily exclude students from opportunities to learn.

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

In addition, schools are asked to select four additional criteria, from a list of eight, to best demonstrate how they are working to close the opportunity gap. This set of criteria goes well beyond standardized tests to assess a much broader understanding of school quality. A national team of expert reviewers spend several months reviewing each application alongside the research-based criteria.

The recognized schools are identified for the specific practices they used to increase educational opportunity and access. For example, 2016 Gold recipient Rainier Beach High School demonstrated what it takes to cultivate a safe and responsive space for students and their families. Among other approaches, the school holds monthly “Community Cafes” where teachers deliver sample lessons and help parents understand how to help their students be successful with the challenging International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Gold recipient Leland and Gray Middle and High School also focused on developing trusting and meaningful relationships, and it used detracking to accelerate learning across the board while taking care to build in support classes to increase success in the more challenging classes now attended by all the school’s students.

Recipients have told us that being part of this select group has supported expanded conversations with partners in their own districts and beyond. The recognition has sparked connections where schools were able to share their practices and successes with new audiences.

Principal Mary Andrecolich-Montesano-Diaz, at Gold recipient Rochester International Academy, reflected on the meaning of the recognition at her school: “The School of Opportunity recognition gives all of us at RIA the affirmation that my staff so richly deserves, and we are very grateful. We are also very happy that because of this recognition, what we do every day at RIA will be shared with others.”

All application information, including an outline of the project process, a list of our past expert reviewers, and the online application form are available at our new website:

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