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Teachers often aren’t treated as professionals — but they are at these two schools

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. Linda Molner Kelley, a former assistant dean of teacher education and Partnerships and Director for Outreach and Engagement at the University of Colorado Boulder, is now a co-director, with Welner, of the Schools of Opportunity project.

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 some of the silver winners.

By Kevin Welner and Linda Molner Kelley

Teachers are the backbone of any school, but it is not unusual to hear them lament the lack of support and opportunities they receive as they shoulder the responsibility for student success. This is because we rarely treat teachers like other professionals who, as an integral part of their work, receive regular opportunities to participate in specialized learning to enhance their repertoires as they stay on top of the newest developments in their fields.

Although we know that ongoing job-embedded professional development opportunities for new and experienced teachers pay big dividends for kids’ learning and teacher retention, programs targeting teacher growth and improvement are often the first to be eliminated in times of budget cuts.

Fortunately, there are schools that invest in their teachers by providing them with the opportunities and resources they need to grow as professionals at all stages of their careers. Urbana High School and Northwest High School are two such Schools of Opportunity — not only for their students, but also for their teachers.

(Photo provided by Urbana High School)

High School:  Urbana High School

City/State: Urbana, Illinois

Principal: Matthew Stark

Superintendent: Donald Owen

Enrollment: 1,070

Economically disadvantaged: 60 percent

One of the important ways that Urbana High School distinguishes itself is by offering its teachers, both experienced and novice, a variety of innovative staff development options.

With district support, teachers choose from varied and interesting professional development opportunities such as book study groups, topic inquiry groups, online technology, teacher workshops through Google Classroom, and equity-focused programs such as a course entitled Leading for Racial Equity. Additional targeted support at conferences and trainings enhances teachers’ skills in other specialized areas.

By offering a comprehensive two-year induction program designed to support its novice teachers, the district sets an example for other schools and districts — where one barely adequate year of new teacher support is typically the norm.

The school itself provides impressive, “embedded” professional development resources to its staff that encourage communities of practice within the school. This is facilitated by an early release once a week so that department and teaching teams have valuable time to plan and collaborate.

Three part-time instructional coaches further assist teachers with their teaching and learning goals, and a professional development team within the school works with department chairs and administration to develop responsive, relevant professional development programs at the school.

“Urbana High School believes that investing in our staff’s professional growth has a direct relationship to helping all of our students reach their individual goals,” Principal Matthew Stark said.

For honoring its teachers as professionals, Urbana High School has earned recognition as a School of Opportunity.


(Photo provided by Northwest High School)

High School: Northwest High School

City/State: Germantown, MD

Principal: James D’Andrea

Superintendent: Dr. Jack Smith

Enrollment: 2,262

Economically disadvantaged: 28 percent

At Northwest High School, “all for one and one for all” is more than a motto; it is how this school approaches the learning, development and equity-focused treatment of students and staff.

Northwest differentiates its staff development programs and opportunities for teachers depending on their needs and levels of experience. In many instances, department chairs work with administrators and a staff development teacher to create and facilitate job-embedded “micro” level professional learning tailored to the unique needs of the teachers in their respective departments.

Professional Learning Communities within the school include course-alike teacher teams with common planning time as well as full-day meetings to examine student work, plan lessons, and create student assessments. To help each other succeed, peer teacher mentors work with new and experienced teachers to identify strengths and areas of growth that they can work on together.

Professional development at Northwest also targets equity issues. The school has implemented a 20-member Staff Equity Cohort engaged in ongoing professional inquiry to examine biases and inequities in teachers’ beliefs and school policies and structures. Cohort members serve as leaders in their departments and foster dialogue about opportunity gaps and equitable instructional practices.

By focusing on developing culturally proficient, equity-literate teacher leaders that increase rigorous educational opportunities for all students, Northwest High School has distinguished itself as a School of Opportunity.

Here are earlier stories about this year’s winning Schools of Opportunity:

There are better ways than suspension to discipline kids. Here are two schools doing just that.

How three schools creatively face the challenge of educating immigrant students

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’