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How three schools creatively face the challenge of educating immigrant students

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 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 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. Welner was just awarded with the 2017 American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Public Communication of Education Research Award, an honor that awards scholars for communicating important education research to the public.

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 a few of the silver winners.

High schools interested in being part of the 2016-17 Schools of Opportunity can apply here through May 15.

By Kevin Welner

Students with special needs are often thought of as having less ability, being too disruptive, or being too difficult to teach. These beliefs present a clear obstacle to an asset-based approach that challenges and supports these students in achieving academic success.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the Endrew F case, recently held that “every child,” including those with disabilities, “should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” Students’ Individual Education Programs (IEPs) should be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Similarly, closing the opportunity gap for language-minority students must begin by approaching these students as emerging bilinguals and building on the language strengths they bring to school.

As described below, three of our Silver Schools of Opportunity this past year demonstrate how curriculum and instruction can meet the needs of diverse student populations. Oakland International High School, Ossining High School and Washington Technology Magnet School all have closed opportunity gaps by thoughtfully embracing their students and their communities.

Schools interested in applying for recognition this year can apply online any time before May 15th.

High School: Oakland International High School

City and State: Oakland, CA

Principals:  Carmelita Reyes & Veronica Garcia Montejano

Superintendent: Devin Dillon

Enrollment: 400

Economically disadvantaged students: 96 percent

Oakland International High School (OIHS) is the first high school in Oakland designed to meet the needs of newly arrived immigrants. It’s a small public high school created in 2007, and all of the students at OIHS are English Language Learners who have immigrated to the United States within the last four years.

Every student’s culture and first language is valued at OIHS, as demonstrated by the school’s tradition of holding what are called Community Walks. Each October, groups of students lead teachers through their communities, introducing them to the places, the agencies, and the people in their lives outside of school.

A typical walk includes a visit to a significant community establishment, such as a legal aid clinic or a community garden, followed by a big feast at a local restaurant or in a family’s home. Students teach adults how to say phrases and words in their languages. Adults are able to learn more about why and how their students arrived in Oakland and about the challenges and strengths of their communities in the Bay Area.

The Community Walks are a highlight of the year for both adults and students, bringing them closer together by putting students in leadership positions and breaking down the walls between the school and the community.

OIHS views its students’ diversity as a strength, not a weakness. For enriching students’ learning opportunities by creating a welcoming community, the National Education Policy Center is pleased to recognize Oakland International High School as a School of Opportunity.

High School: Ossining High School

City and State: Ossining, NY         

Principal:  Joshua Mandel

Superintendent: Raymond Sanchez

Enrollment: 1,468

Economically disadvantaged students: 51 percent

Ossining High School (OHS) also strives to eliminate barriers to success for its diverse student body. The school offers an array of innovative programming and comprehensive course offerings, but its programs for students with disabilities and for language-minority students stand out as exemplifying the school’s commitment to providing rich opportunities for all its students.

Consistent with the recent Supreme Court decision, the program at OHS for students with disabilities is academically challenging and very supportive. It carefully fosters an atmosphere where every student, regardless of ability, is encouraged to acquire the skills necessary to become an independent, lifelong learner.

For example, 83 percent of Ossining’s special education students are placed in either mainstream classes with additional resource room support or in “inclusion” classes co-taught by content and special education teachers. Regardless of the content area or placement on the service continuum, instruction is geared toward meeting the rigorous state standards required for graduation.

Ossining High School also provides culturally responsive pathways for its emerging bilingual students. In the Integrated Co-Teaching Model, an English as a New Language Teacher and a content area teacher co-plan, co-teach, and co-assess students as they fully participate in classes with native English speakers.

Additionally, the school’s Emergent Literacy Program provides accelerated instruction that integrates literacy and content learning for students with low literacy skills or interrupted formal education. For students 18-21 years old, a special program at OHS provides Spanish instruction of general academic subjects so that students can pass the TASC (former GED) exam for graduation.

For ensuring that all students receive the support they need to learn, NEPC recognizes Ossining High School as a School of Opportunity.

High School: Washington Technology Magnet School

City and State: St. Paul, MN          

Principal:  Mike McCollor

Superintendent: John Thein

Enrollment: 2,077 (grades 6-12)

Economically disadvantaged students: 93 percent

Washington Technology Magnet School, located in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a comprehensive magnet secondary school with a science, mathematics and technology focus. Washington Technology has a uniquely diverse student body, with significant Karen and Hmong populations from Southeast Asia, among others.

Fifty-nine percent of Washington Technology students are English Language Learners. The school uses a co-teaching model, with both English Language and content teachers providing these students with the instruction that they need. In fact, many students who attend Washington Technology had no formal schooling before arriving in the United States as teenagers. These students work towards content mastery and graduation until they reach the age of 21.

While Washington Technology works to help students become proficient in English, students’ native cultures and languages are supported and valued. All students have the opportunity to enroll in Hmong and Karen language and culture classes, and a Hmong dance class is also available during the extended school day. Washington Technology encourages parental involvement, so both Karen and Hmong parent groups are available as well as a six-week “parent academy” held each fall in several languages.

Washington Technology Magnet School exemplifies a school that values its students’ cultural and language backgrounds while providing the support students need to succeed academically. As such, Washington Technology Magnet School highly deserves its recognition as a School of Opportunity.
Here are earlier stories about this year’s winning Schools of Opportunity:

Academics are only part of the education this school offers its diverse student body

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

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’