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Voices: Asking the wrong question about turnaround

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., veteran educator turned consultant, argues that schools serving sixth- through 12th-graders might be a good approach to transforming the quality of secondary education. But they won’t appear by magic.

Can you turn around a high school? What if that is the wrong question?

Perhaps it’s too late – given the limited skills and motivation of many high school freshmen, given the lack of success many have experienced during the first two-thirds of their education, given the steep climb ahead in the four years remaining if they are to be “college-ready.” Picture grades 9-12 as the third period of a hockey game:

Perhaps “turning around a high school” is like asking: Can you win a hockey game when you enter the third period behind 4-0?

Or picture the 9-12 years as the fourth quarter in football.

Perhaps it’s just too much to expect. It does happen, but rarely.  Almost a miracle.  The turnaround, to work, must begin sooner. (Example from a season now past. Bronco fans -forget Saturday. Recall a happier day – Oct. 15, Monday Night Football. Behind 24-0, the Broncos come storming back in the third quarter against San Diego. To extend the metaphor, can we call the third quarter … middle school?)

Can your team win the game if you are 30 points behind as the final 15 minutes begin?

As a ninth grade high school math teacher at Abraham Lincoln told me 20 years ago, what do you expect us to do with freshmen who had a GPA of 1.1 in middle school – students who were just passed along through the system?

That teacher’s comment still rings true when we see how ninth-graders at Lincoln and several other local high schools scored on the state TCAP in reading and math last March. The far majority of ninth-graders were not proficient in reading (58-70 percent) or math (more than 84 percent).

This concern must be one factor behind the move (or should I say trend?) to create 6-12 schools. Denver School of Science and Technology started as a high school and has since added a 6-8 program. STRIVE Prep (formerly Denver West Prep) did the reverse, beginning as a 6-8 school and now opening high schools.

The Denver School of the Arts is an older, highly-regarded 6-12 program. It is not an unusual structure in many of our finest private schools. Kent Denver Academy, among the most prestigious schools in the state, serves about 660 students in grades 6-12. It should make any of us empathize with the high school principals and teachers who are asked to address the deficits of their incoming students. A large percentage might be English as Second Language learners. In schools like Aurora Central, many are refugees just settling into America. And it ought to weigh into how we think of the best ways to turn around our low-performing high schools.

Rationale for 6-12 schools

The idea behind this structure is not rocket science: how much more likely are we to help our students succeed in high school if we can also work with them during those crucial middle school years? Many rightly celebrate STRIVE’s ability to bring a sixth grade student, who arrives with third and fourth grade reading or math skills (or both), to perform at grade level by the time he or she graduates from eighth grade. No doubt STRIVE, DSST and similar 6-12 programs will continue to have students who are “catching up” in ninth and 10th grade. But now their ninth grade classes can actually offer a high school curriculum rather than one that addresses skills that ought to be learned in sixth or seventh grade.

We have good reason, then, to support this trend. It was impressive to see how the Far Northeast effort found it critical to look not just at Montbello High, but at the entire K-12 system. As a result, in replacing and phasing out the high school and Rachel Noel Middle, two of the new schools plan to serve grades 6-12: Noel Community Arts and Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello. Similarly, the new academies replacing West High – both West Generation and West Leadership – while they opened this past fall at the middle school level, plan to grow to be 6-12 schools. We hear the Lincoln Collaborative is also looking at its entire feeder pattern.

But a note of caution.

One can point to too many struggling 6-12 and 7-12 schools as well: CDE lowered the ranking on the School Performance Framework this year for Bruce Randolph (6-12), Early College of Arvada (6-12), and Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts (7-12), to the second lowest category: Priority Improvement. In Denver, PS #1 (6-12) struggled for years and was finally closed.  Redesigning our secondary schools is about much more than a new grade configuration. We all know that.

Not all trends are good

This is just a reminder that educators can jump on trends with surprising ease. In the 1990’s, when I worked with a number of high schools willing to restructure, one magic answer (yes, I’m being unfair here, but you get the point) was block scheduling.  High schools that were expected to rethink their operations latched on to a new schedule as if it were The Solution. Students would meet with one teacher for 90 minutes every other day rather than half that time daily. The plan was to create more opportunities for collaboration between departments with these longer classes. (I visited the team-taught course in American literature and history at Horizon High). The goal? More time for in-depth discussions and a less hectic day of four classes – not eight – for that 16-year-old.

Oh, the high schools seemed to say, ‘We can do that!’

Unfortunately, it made little difference. It became a change many teachers could get behind. There was the appearance of restructuring, but did the teaching and learning improve?  When teachers saw students three days one week (MWF) and only two days the next (TTH), did they know their students any better and build stronger relationships?  If class sizes remained large, were there any more opportunities for the seminars, for the deeper engagement by students in discussions – or was there just more teacher talk – and/or more homework done in class than at home?

I merely suggest that as we seek ways to better serve high school students we not presume the 6-12 structure is more than it is.  It is why plans for Manual High to add a middle school and the Girls Athletic Leadership School to expand to 6-12 raise concerns. Neither school has proved it is serving its current population at such a high level that it has its own program figured out well enough yet. In contrast, DSST and STRIVE were slow to replicate and expand – working several years to get it right at one level, in one building, first. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

One step at a time.

To fix it, own it

Perhaps as Alex Ooms wrote here recently (“High school savior syndrome,” EdNews Colorado – Jan. 6, 2012), governance and ownership are at the heart of the matter. Owning the problem – no longer pointing fingers elsewhere – makes a difference. The problem today is that each school can point to the successive failures of previous schools, thereby preventing accountability in the system.

The move for both STRIVE and DSST to 6-12 programs was to increase accountability to their central mission of getting kids prepared to succeed in college. Despite good academic results, neither school felt like they had enough time with students and each wanted to try to solve this problem themselves rather than blaming the lack of accountability in a system that remains unlikely to change.

Successful 6-12 schools will not appear by magic. They require a more fundamental rethinking behind a secondary school’s culture and purpose. The 6-12 design – the chance to stay with students over a longer time so that they are known well by that community of educators with common expectations – makes sense.

But of course, all by itself, it is not enough.

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