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New effort seeks to review high schools on more than test scores

A new “Schools of Opportunity” project designed by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder aims to recognize high schools for a broad range of efforts to help students succeed, rather than just test scores.

“This project is about rewarding schools for doing the right things, even if they do not enroll the nation’s top students,” said Kevin Welner, director of the policy center. “It’s also about highlighting the work of schools that are energetically closing the opportunity gap by engaging in research-based practices designed to make sure that all students have rich opportunities to succeed.”

Welner also said that most “best high school ” lists are dominated by schools in affluent areas or that have some form of selective admissions process. “Many excellent schools are overlooked because they are serving a different population,” he said.

The new project is being led by Welner and Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y, and a former New York State High School Principal of the Year.

“Current programs aimed at identifying the nation’s best high schools include many high-quality schools,” Burris said in a news release announcing the project. “But the approach they use tends to reward schools that are affluent and/or those that enroll a selective group of students. It is time we recognize schools that do outstanding work with a wider range of students.”

Initially, high schools in Colorado and New York are being invited to participate in the project. State efforts will be evaluated by a team of educators and schools will recognized as “gold” or “silver.” The project hopes to expand to schools nationwide in 2015.

Participating schools will be reviewed on such practices as effective student and faculty support systems, community outreach, health and psychological support, judicious and fair discipline policies, little or no tracking, and high-quality teacher induction and mentoring. (Learn more about the practices and how to apply on the project’s website.)

“The first step in changing the conversation on school quality requires us to acknowledge that achievement gaps are a predictable and inevitable consequence of opportunity-to-learn gaps, which arise in large part because of factors outside of the control of schools,” Burris said. “However, even as schools are affected by larger societal forces, schools and educators can make decisions that either widen or close opportunity gaps.”

Welner said, “When schools and communities focus resources and efforts on closing the opportunity gaps, they should be recognized, supported and applauded. They should also serve as models for those who wish to engage in true school improvement.”

Burris and Welner elaborated on the project in this column published on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet.