What Does a Reinvented High School Model for 2016 Look Like?

(Written by Don Soifer, cross posted from the Lexington Institute)

The excitement around this month’s “XQ: The Super School Project” announcement created a contagious buzz around ten highly innovative high school models across the country. The ten winning schools were each awarded $10 million to execute their forward-facing visions for what a high school education should offer its students in 2016.

When philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs created the XQ Project a year ago, she explained to Jennifer Medina of The New York Times, “There is a huge gap between what students want for their future and what their schools are offering.”

To be certain, the case for reinventing — or rethinking – American public schools is not a new one. The foundational 1983 A Nation At Risk report sought “to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways.” The 1994 National Education Commission on Time and Learning’s primary recommendation was to “reinvent schools around learning, not time.”

To undertake the business of creating new models of learning, Jobs recruited dynamic reform veteran Russlynn Ali, who described that, “we want to make high schools back into the great equalizers they were meant to be.” They set out to provide tools and resources for educators to change high schools, assembling an accomplished team of advisors to help design and evaluate.

It would be hard to imagine a school model that better embodies the ambitious goals of that undertaking than Washington Leadership Academy, a public charter school in the Nation’s Capital, one of the ten winners.

The school’s spirited founding chairman Seth Andrew, whose accomplishments in urban education brought him to Washington as the federal Department of Education’s first Superintendent-in-Residence, developed the model with input from a wide swath of experts with experience teaching underserved student populations. Rather than perpetuate the old “factory model” where teachers direct whole-group instruction toward the middles of classrooms of diverse learners, his team was committed to leveraging technology to support teachers in providing personalized instruction to meet students “where they are” to accelerate academic growth.

The successful proposal to “combine proven best practices from successful high school models across the country with innovative and technology-rich educational strategies,” was approved by the DC Public Charter School Board last year. The board’s approval noted the team’s sober assessment of indicators like graduation and proficiency rates in DC’s two largest wards, where students beginning high school faced even steeper odds of graduating college in less than six years than the citywide rate of only 8 percent. The school’s model identifies skills and habits needed for success in college and lives of public leadership, incorporating each into its mission and model. School founders Andrew and Stacy Kane are quick to acknowledge the help that put their school in position for a successful opening this summer. Washington, DC’s robust philanthropy community, and particularly the CityBridge Foundation, recognized merit in the team and its plan early on, providing resources and ongoing supports.

The school worked intensively with community leaders, including nonprofit Building Hope lending the real estate and project development expertise that allowed it to open its building on time. And Washington’s strong charter school law, equitable funding and capable charter school authorizer all helped enable the new high school to launch effectively (Disclaimer: I serve on the authorizing board, but couldn’t be prouder of the work of its team of experts in this work).

Why is all of this important? Reinventing the high school experience to meet 21st century challenges is as essential as it is daunting, and it requires broad commitment from diverse stakeholders able to inspire success serving those student populations who need them most. The ultimate success of investments like the XQ challenge, and other exciting new opportunities like Invent from the New Schools Venture Fund, will come down the road, when the creators of the new models, and newer projects they in turn inspire, stand back and evaluate their progress.

Each of the XQ prize winners brought new injections of academic rigor, educational innovation and accomplished track records to the high school educational landscapes in their communities. Teenagers and their families in Washington, DC, Houston, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Grand Rapids, Los Angeles and the other winning cities will all benefit from the resources and recognition that accompany the prize to scale to serve more students when they prove ready. The contest received 700 applicants with new or redesigned school models of their own (which inspired Jobs to double the prize money and number of winners from what she had originally announced).

Some of these are already producing important impacts: Monument Academy, an XQ finalist also in Washington, DC, is now in its second year exclusively serving children involved in the foster care system with robust developmental and academic supports, generating broad interest around the country for its pioneering work.

Urban school challenges factored heavily in the winning school designs. A common theme the judges found in these models was helping underserved students, growing up isolated from the professional and academic opportunities in the communities around them, develop the skills and tools to bridge the barriers to gain meaningful access.

Whether high schools are small or large, urban or rural, the challenges their students will face in the highly-competitive economic climate of the next century will require them to be better prepared than their parents or older siblings needed to be. High school seniors in the United States have barely moved on measures of preparedness in the last twenty years. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, fewer than two in five of them demonstrate grade level skills in reading. More than one in four score “below basic” in reading – meaning they are unprepared to find information in a document or make connections between simple concepts in two different texts.

Reinventing schools may not be a new idea. But it is a timely one.

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