Why High School Best Practices No Longer Need To Be Best-Kept Secrets
Originally published on Forbes.com
July 5, 2018 — Last week I attended a graduation ceremony at a local high school. In the waning sunlight, the sea of beaming faces on the field struck me with a mixture of hope and sadness. Hope because these kids seemed positively brimming with optimism, sadness because I knew the data. It was a typical American high school, so most of its graduates were not set up for success. In a country where all evidence shows that a college education is the most reliable path to a better life, only about 30% of our youth end up getting a four- or two-year degree.
But some high schools defy the numbers by consistently preparing students for what education insiders refer to as “post-secondary pathways.” Until recently, even identifying these high schools has been difficult. Now with some states collecting data on how many kids enroll in college, require remediation and return for a second year, we can identify high schools which are actually building that bridge towards successful futures.
GreatSchools’ College Success Awards does just that. Across nine states we identified 814 high schools that are doing well in preparing students for college and succeeding once they get there. We also set out to understand what these schools do that educators, policymakers and parents can learn from. We especially wanted to uncover the effective practices and policies of award-winning schools serving a high percentage of students from low-income families.
As any educator will tell you, many high schools that serve low-income communities have extra challenges. So we visited eight high-performing, award-winning schools who also serve a high percentage of students from low-income families to better understand what they are doing. These schools range wildly — urban and rural, charter and district schools, and serving diverse populations of students. As diverse as these eight schools are, many shared crucial commonalities:
It’s not college or career: it’s both. The majority of the low-income schools we identified encourage students to pursue vocational skills as well as a college prep curriculum. Exploring vocational pathways carries no stigma, and no student is tracked away from college. “I want to be a cook, but at the same time I want to be a lawyer,” explains Nyla Wells in her chef’s hat at Arabia Mountain High School. Such practices jive well with new research about adolescent brain development. Primed for exploration, novelty and risk-taking, teen brains undergo a “golden age of innovation,” and are motivated by projects which engage a sense of purpose.
Want to foster college-bound high schoolers? Start in middle school. Many of the low-income, high-performing high schools have closely connected middle schools which preach the value of college, create positive peer relationships and raise academic expectations. At Young Women’s Preparatory Academy, a single sex magnet school in Miami’s Little Havana, 6th grade students are immediately placed in the equivalent of gifted classes, regardless of academic record. By 9th grade, every girl is automatically enrolled in AP World History. The school also uses peer mentorship to inspire middle schoolers to emulate positive role models. They match middle schoolers with 9th through 11th graders for in-depth mentorship; seniors oversee the entire program. The value of starting college-bound culture in middle school tallies with neuroscience research that suggests early adolescence – a time of heightened emotions and sensitivity to peers – is a pivotal moment for developing self-image. Middle schoolers who build college aspirations will more likely choose the right classes and form friendships with other students that share this goal.
High expectations + high support. In an era where some educators say teens are experiencing record-levels of stress due to overambitious expectations and others argue low expectations keep students from reaching their potential, finding the right balance may not be obvious. At Denver School of Science and Technology: Stapleton, for example, every student is expected to be ready for a four-year college, but the school’s high expectations do not mean that all students are expected to perform and learn at the same pace—even if it takes some students an extra year or two. “I have such respect for the students that stick with it,” said Jeff Desserich DSST principal. Recalling one student who took six years to graduate high school, completed his bachelors and now is in a masters program, he added: “Even though it took him longer, he really was college ready.”
We also surveyed all high schools across the nine states to identify common practices that stood out, compared to non-winning schools. For instance, winning schools tend to offer more robust advanced classes—and they make them more accessible. Winning schools were significantly more likely to allow 9th and 10th graders to take AP classes compared to non-winning schools. Well-informed college counselors also play a crucial role. Winning schools also report higher numbers of college counselors, and college counselors are more likely to have direct access to the student information systems that record up-to-date grades and test scores. This access to a student’s progress no doubt gives counselors deeper insights than simply seeing final transcripts. Finally, while a majority of winning and non-winning schools identify at-risk students in 9th grade, winning schools embrace ongoing intervention throughout high school and were less likely to give up on students, no matter how close they were to graduating.
Each of the winning high schools has worked out their own formula for success that’s as unique as the students they serve. But collectively, they also have much to teach us. Their best practices offer ingredients for other schools to create their own winning educational recipes. Because, in the end, every high school graduate deserves more than a celebration about the end of high school, they deserve a plan for beginning the rest of their life.
 Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indianapolis, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri.
Carol Lloyd is Editorial Director for GreatSchools and an award-winning columnist and author whose writing on culture, education and family life has been published in Education Week, The New York Times Magazine, This American Life, Salon.com, and The Los Angeles Times. Her new podcast Like a Sponge explores what science says about how kids learn.