The stories of traditional public schools that work are important to tell, especially when the U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is interested in expanding alternatives to them. She has in the past called traditional public schools “a dead end” in a stark statement about her education beliefs.
The Schools of Opportunity project started in 2014 as a pilot in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-16. Several dozen schools have been honored in the program, which assesses a range of factors (see graphic above), including how well the adults in a school building provide health and psychological support for students as well as judicious and fair discipline policies, and broad and enriched curriculum.
In the following piece, Kevin Welner, one of the founders of Schools of Opportunity, explains what it’s all about. Welner is the director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law.
He was assisted with this post by Adam York, an NEPC research associate and Schools of Opportunity project manager; Michelle Renée Valladares, NEPC associate director; and Linda Molner Kelley, former assistant dean of teacher education and partnerships, and director for outreach and engagement at the University of Colorado Boulder.
By Kevin Welner
Teens in Seaside, California work together to build a complex robot. A diverse group of young people with and without special educational needs learn through their interest in agriculture on the last working farm in Chicago’s city limits. Youth born in more than 30 different countries study together and support one another in challenging and engaging courses in Lincoln, Nebraska.
These vibrant learning opportunities are not fictional — they, and similarly exciting lessons, are happening in the eight public high schools recognized today as “Schools of Opportunity” by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.
For the past several years, the National Education Policy Center has recognized select public high schools as Schools of Opportunity. These schools are using research-based approaches as they strive to close all the opportunity gaps within their reach. They create supportive cultures and maintain high expectations while engaging all students in deep, meaningful learning. They embrace their diversity and build on the strengths of their students. They’re remarkable schools—ones that we should hold up and emulate. Yet they also would reject the idea that they or any other school can or should be asked to perform miracles. There are no miracle schools.
In this way, our Schools of Opportunity highlight two core problems that we all, as a society, must wrestle with and solve.
First, Schools of Opportunity often operate without needed assistance, and even in face of needless obstacles. They work to blunt outside pressures to focus on test-based accountability. And they creatively budget limited funds, pull in community partners, and write short-term grants.
But their successes should not hide the reality that these extraordinary schools exist in a national vacuum of limited funds and unpredictable political decisions, all making their work far more challenging than it should be. If we hope to create more Schools of Opportunity, we as a society need to create supportive states and school districts within which these schools can thrive.
Second, we must recognize that it is not okay to have child poverty rates that are among the highest in the developed world and then turn to our schools and expect them to overcome the harms that poverty inflicts on our children, families and communities. For decades, our nation has created opportunity gaps for our children. We expose children to environmental pollution, their families move from school to school because parents can’t establish stable employment or housing in our volatile, polarized economy, and many children don’t have access to sufficient food, let alone healthy food. Yet as these children must battle concentrated poverty, racism, and other societal obstacles, we expect our schools to step in and become the “great equalizer.”
These are not realistic expectations for even our best schools. In fact, research studies dating back to the 1966 Coleman Report suggest that at least two-thirds of the gaps we see in academic achievement stem from conditions arising from concentrated poverty and racial inequities, conditions that mean far too many of our children are deprived of opportunities to learn.
So while we are thrilled to recognize a new cohort of Schools of Opportunity, we think it important to voice a note of caution.
Celebrating schools that help students beat the odds is a very different thing than creating a system that changes the odds. Our federal, state and district policies need to support schools like these and encourage more schools to adopt these practices. Together we all must work to create policies and funding systems that help these and other schools do everything they can for our children.
The truth is that schools can make a real difference — but they can’t do it alone. They need our help. So as we celebrate this year’s eight extraordinary Schools of Opportunity, along with 37 recognized in previous years, we hope that they inspire all of us to do better and to create a society of opportunity.
Please join us, then, in congratulating this year’s Gold-category Schools of Opportunity:
- Broome Street Academy Charter High School in New York City. As a Community School in a partnership with an on-site youth development agency, Broome Street provides comprehensive support structures for a school population where 50% of the seats are reserved for students that are homeless, in transitional housing or involved with the Child Welfare system. Among other accomplishments, the school’s strong relational trust-building and restorative practices have significantly reduced suspension rates.
- Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in Chicago, Illinois. Located on the last working farm within Chicago’s city limits, this magnet school has an interdisciplinary college-prep and agricultural curriculum with authentic assessments of student work and internships for all students. This diverse school supports all kinds of learners, notably its considerable autistic population, with full inclusion models in academic and agricultural courses with real work on the farm.
- Denver South High School in Denver, Colorado. South has seen dramatic increases in students of color accessing AP and college level courses. Exemplary programs for emerging bilingual students include heritage classes in Spanish and Arabic and a culturally relevant curriculum for all students—including many who are resettled refugees hailing from more than 50 countries.
- Health Sciences High & Middle College in San Diego, California. This charter school offers extraordinarily rich STEM course offerings, challenging its majority low-income student body to achieve at high levels. Internships and enrichment programs connect students to community programs, and many students concurrently enroll in two-year college courses.
- Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Nebraska. Diversity and unity drive a culture of support and academic challenge in a school where everyone—including emerging bilingual students representing 30 different languages—finds a place to belong. A rich arts program, available to all, serves as a common language for Lincoln’s diverse student population.
- Seaside High School in Seaside, California. Using team-taught classes and an innovative curriculum, Seaside has also prepared a high rate of first-generation students of color for its multiple AP courses. The school seamlessly pairs career-pathway courses with rigorous college-preparation classes for every student.
And please join us as well in celebrating this year’s fantastic Silver Schools of Opportunity:
- Hammond High School in Columbia, Maryland. Hammond’s impressive curriculum is grounded in rich, project-based learning. The school has eliminated its low-track classes and significantly increased African American enrollment in its AP courses.
- William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colorado. Hinkley’s exemplary professional development opportunities for teachers foster leadership and collaboration. The school also boasts a thoughtful and successful “culture of care” and effective restorative justice practices grounded in widely shared understandings among students and staff.
In the coming weeks and months, the Answer Sheet will share more about each of these eight schools.
NEPC evaluates possible Schools of Opportunity on 10 possible criteria, with each school choosing six to address in the application. As part of the comprehensive evaluation, recognized schools go through a six-phase review process that includes a self-assessment, criterion-based and holistic reviews by school district and university experts (including past awardees), and site visits by project evaluators. Gold schools demonstrate exemplary practices on a minimum of three criteria, while Silver schools demonstrate exemplary practices on at least two criteria. Each of the eight recognized schools was also required to earn advanced designations on at least two additional criteria.
Next year’s application cycle is already open. If you know a potential School of Opportunity, please visit http://schoolsofopportunity.org/ to learn more.
Here are some stories about earlier Schools of Opportunity: