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Guiding Principles for High School Transformation

By Eric Braxton on Feb 12, 2009 12:40 PM

Strategic design chart from Education Resource Strategies study.

If we are to get serious about transforming neighborhood high schools, how do we get started? Education Resource Strategies did an excellent study looking at the common elements of highly effective small schools. In specific, they found that these schools all have an instructional vision that drives decision making in all facets of the school and that effective schools require some flexibility from normal school district procedures and union contracts. Based on their research and the work being led by the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change, here are some proposed guiding principles for high school transformation. I would be glad to get people’s thoughts on what is missing here and what you would change.

  1. Shared Vision and Plan. 
    Redesigned schools must engage stakeholders and staff in a planning process that results in the creation of a shared vision, mission, and educational plan for each school. The school must develop an instructional vision based on shared assumptions about teaching and learning. Staffing, schedule, budget, and professional development plans must be developed to support the instructional vision. The creation of such a plan requires dedication of time and resources before new schools open. Implementation requires that teachers have adequate and well-planned and facilitated time to deliberate on teaching and learning together during the school day. This is the kind of planning that the Science Leadership Academy did with great success, but when Kensington was broken into three small schools it did not get any resources or time for planning.

  2. Personalization.
    Students will be more likely to succeed in an environment where staff know every student and no student slips through the cracks. For this reason, large schools should be broken into clusters of small schools of no more than 100 students per grade on a campus of shared, key facilities such as library, athletic facilities, etc. The campus should still serve the same total population as the original school. Small schools create a community atmosphere and have been shown to dramatically reduce violence and increase graduation rates while making it easier for instructional reform to impact the classroom.

  3. Flexibility and Accountability. 
    Transforming low-performing high schools requires giving them flexibility from standard School District procedures and empowering them to make mission driven decisions about staffing, schedule, budget, and curriculum. These schools, however, should remain public schools under the management and accountability structure of the School District of Philadelphia. In particular, these schools need the freedom to hire a staff that is on board with the school’s mission. This raises issues with the teachers’ contract. 

  4. Equity. 
    The goal of these conversions is not to create special programs that draw in the most talented students, but rather to ensure high quality education to students in our neighborhood high schools. Redesigned comprehensive high schools should continue to serve the same catchment area and total population of students that they have always served without any special admission requirements. In addition, school operations should be funded using the same funding formula as other high schools. 

  5. Community Engagement
    Top down efforts at school redesign have been far less successful than those that engage stakeholders from the beginning. For change to work, a school’s students, parents, community members, and teachers must have buy-in. The best way to achieve buy-in is to involve these stakeholders in creating the plan for redesigning the school and involve them in the governance of the school as it moves forward. In addition, neighborhood schools should be a central hub for a community. The community should benefit from the resources that exist in the school and the school should benefit from the resources that exist in the community. 

  6. High Quality Teaching and Learning. 
    The fundamental purpose of redesigning high schools is to create schools that foster high quality teaching and learning. These schools must ensure that all students are engaged in a learning process that is rigorous, relevant, and prepares them for both college and the workforce of the 21st century. 

Clearly our high schools are in need of major change. These principles are intended to spark discussion on the parameters of that change. There are many other points that could be made. I am curious about other people’s ideas on elements that should be included in a plan to transform our high schools.

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Comments (3)

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on February 12, 2009 8:06 pm

These “guiding principles” make a lot of sense. I agree that restructuring large neighborhood schools into smaller ones will help raise the quality of education in Philadelphia. But we must make sure that these “guiding principles” are truly holistic. When it comes to community engagement, students, parents, and community members must have a buy-in and become stakeholders, but they must also be willing to do their part to make the system work. Studies show that the achievement gap between the suburban middle-class and the urban underprivileged starts even before kindergarten. More importantly, research indicates that a child’s cognitive development is greatly influenced by the type of interaction they have with mom and dad. The amount and kind of language a child hears in infancy has a strong correlation to their IQ later in life. Also, discipline has a major impact on a child’s intelligence. Hearing a large number of prohibitions and discouragements has a negative effect on IQ, whereas hearing more affirmations and encouragements has a positive effect on learning. In other words, parents must PARENT, and set positive examples for their children. And the community must do its part to provide a safe, positive, and loving environment for children to grow up in. Parents and community must be held to the same high standard as teachers and schools (no excuses!). If everyone pulls their own weight, we can achieve anything.

Submitted by Eric Braxton on February 13, 2009 10:33 am

I completely agree that schools, by themselves, cannot make up for the detrimental effects of poverty. Our attempts to improve schools must be connected to attempts to strengthen our communities by ensuring that people have decent jobs, health care, child care, and all the rest. Schools and school success do not exist in a vacuum. Schools are part of their communities and will change with their communities. So I agree that we need a holistic approach. That's why I think it is so important to engage communities in creating the plan for these schools. By engaging in that process, the community becomes educated about what it takes to educate our young people, while at the same time ensuring that the changes in the school are accountable to the community.

At the same time, I get concerned when I hear educators say, "there is nothing we can do to teach these kids because they don't have the right home training." I'm not saying that is what the previous commenter said, but I have heard many teachers say this. I think these low expectations for students, combined with a high school model that just doesn't work, is one of the the largest causes of low student achievement. The fact is that there are many schools where high poverty students are being successful.

So while I agree that we must take a holistic approach, lets not use student poverty as an excuse for lower expectations. I agree, "no excuses".

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