On the surface, the new Northfield High School slated to open in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood next year might seem as traditional as can be — a large, comprehensive high school drawing students from the surrounding neighborhood.
But the school’s new principal, Avi Tropper, also has an audacious and unusual ambition for the school: to prove that all students — no matter their prior academic history — can thrive under the demanding International Baccalaureate course of study that’s typically targeted only to high-achievers.
Many other high schools have “de-tracked,” meaning they’ve placed all students in higher-level courses instead of tracking them into classes of varying difficulty based on their past academic performance. A few have implemented “IB for all,” in which every student spends ninth and tenth grades in rigorous preparatory classes and then transitions into the IB Diploma Program as a junior.
But Northfield may be the first school in the country to try “IB for all” with so high a proportion of low-income students.
Tropper, 34, plans to recruit at least a third of his student body from the lower-income neighborhoods of Far Northeast Denver, and an estimated 40 to 50 percent of the school’s students will likely be from low-income families, as measured by eligibility for federally subsidized school lunches.
“What Avi is trying to do will be challenging, and to be blunt it should be,” said Kevin Welner, a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who has studied de-tracking efforts nationwide. “It should be hard.”
But, said Welner, there may be a moral imperative to try.
“The reason we have so much tracking is that people say, ‘de-tracking looks too hard. I am not going de-track,’” Welner said. “But when you put kids in low track classes you give up on them.”
Denver has already seen its share of resistance to the idea of making selective academic programs more inclusive. Last year, the district signaled its intention to open its well-known, 30-year-old IB program at George Washington High School, to students in its general-track program who have historically been barred from taking the more demanding courses. The move drew fierce protests from some parents, who fear that opening the program to a broader pool of students will dilute its rigor. Changes take effect next school year.
But Tropper is confident that his model will work, and he bristles at the suggestion that a student body with more low-income kids will be tougher to get over a high bar.
“I don’t believe that free- and reduced-lunch status determines whether a student can learn,” Tropper said during a recent interview. “At some level I just don’t accept the question. Underlying the question is a question I have thought a lot about, which is when you implement a program that is rigorous and challenging school-wide, how do you support every single student through it?”
The answer, Tropper said, is relatively straightforward. Design a system where teams of teachers work closely with the same small group of students over four years. Use proven, engaging curriculum at ninth and tenth grades that ties seamlessly into the 11th and 12th IB Diploma Program. Provide a variety of extra supports for struggling students. And, perhaps most important, focus as much on the psychological well-being of students as on academics.
“Developing the ‘whole person’ is “an important part of high school, of working with adolescents,” Tropper said. “It is a time of exploration, a time of self-definition, a time to figure out who am I, what do I want to do with my life, what do I value, what’s important? Sometimes schools don’t do a good job of working with students as they explore these questions. We are focused on that.”
Will all that be enough to make Northfield work for all students?
Perhaps, but if the school truly intends to work with students at widely varying levels of academic preparation, then Tropper is taking on a huge challenge, said Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank.
“If your reality is some kids doing math at a fifth- or sixth-grade level, and you are trying to run an IB program, it will take an enormous amount of energy to get those kids up to grade level, much less to an IB level,” Hess said. “That time and energy will come at expense of other kids, most likely the more prepared kids.”
Northfield will launch with some advantages, Hess said. First, the fact that the school will open with only ninth-graders makes it possible to establish a strong school culture with the founding class. Also, hiring Tropper a year before the school opens gives the principal a chance to plan, build a program, and recruit an aligned and fired-up teaching staff.
Given those advantages, Hess said, It seems likely Northfield will get off to a strong start.
Then, “as you add grades, add teachers, add kids, it just gets harder to keep the web as tightly wound,” he said. “It’s easy to imagine a story of one to two years of great success but then to see things starting to get more challenging.”
Despite Hess’ cautions, Tropper and his plans have fans among educators who have implemented “IB for all” in their schools.
“Avi’s is a wonderful experiment,” said Carol Burris, who has gradually rolled out an “IB for all” program at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y. over the past several years.
Although her school has a much lower proportion of low-income students than Northfield — about 14 percent — Burris said the way Denver Public Schools and Tropper are thinking about the school’s student composition gives it a real shot at succeeding.
“His school has a nice natural alignment of an attendance area that is predominantly upper-middle income, with lower-income kids choicing in because they have bought into the challenge and want the challenge,” Burris said. “I am so excited for him. He can count on me and the few other pioneers of ‘IB for all’ to give him support.”
Eric Hieser, who has run the Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, Mass. for 10 years, said one key to Northfield’s success will be in carefully defining what the principal, staff, and district consider success to be.
Hieser said his school (where fewer than 10 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches) does not measure itself based on how many students pass IB exams or earn the prestigious IB diploma. Rather, he said, staff focuses on helping each student achieve at his or her highest potential. Passing IB exams and getting college credit is not nearly as important as challenging oneself and putting forth maximum effort, he said.
“You take IB (classes) so you can move on and be successful, develop analytical skills that prompt you to question everything,” he said. “If you hustle, you will be better served for having been in IB, whether you pass exams or not, than going through a 11th or 12th grade history class that has no accountability to it.”
Tropper plans to help develop these critical and analytical thinking skills in part by giving students a major say in how their school operates. Students will play key roles in designing many aspects of the school’s culture, including its dress code and discipline policies. He has enlisted the services of Project VOYCE, a Denver nonprofit, to train students in advocating for their own empowerment.
Empowering students comes with risks, but Tropper said the payoffs are potentially huge.
“Sometimes I get questions about this: ‘well, students might make mistakes.’ I like to point out that adult government makes plenty of mistakes as well,” he said. “What happens in high school is there is a space and environment of support where yes, we might make some mistakes, but we can support each other and move beyond that. That is critical to success for a high school.”