By Emily Liebtag and Tom Vander Ark

Across the Houston Independent School District (HISD), there are high schools that range in focus from law enforcement to language. HISD high schools are 1:1, and aim at preparing students to be global graduates. We recently visited two of the high schools in the district and found there to be another focus: providing students with learning experiences that will provide them with career options and exposure.

Energy Institute High School (@EnergyIHS) is creating opportunities for students to engage with businesses, corporate partners and leaders in the field of energy. As one of the only energy-focused schools in the nation, these students will truly graduate with a unique skill set. The project-based school incorporates core subject areas into projects that tie into energy. Within the next year, students and staff will move across the street to a new facility. They currently are making great use of a facility that was previously an elementary school.

students at a houston school working on projects and computers

Students have a great deal of ownership and agency in their learning at Energy. We talked to a group that was working on a project where they were using heat energy and different metals to create jewelry that represented their culture, interests and background. As seen below, students infused energy into everything they do. They are even thinking beyond energy and engineering issues of today, and considering driving questions about life in the future.

Heights High School, a comprehensive high school in Houston of almost 2,400 students, has a different approach. They provide students with academies to choose from to attend throughout their four years, all of which are focused on a particular career path or trade. Their programs include a Computer Magnet Academy, Health Science Academy, Business Academy, Engineering and Design Academy and Transportation Academy. The school also is an IB school, so students can simultaneously earn certificates in a trade and an IB diploma.

Automotive Transportation Academy at Heights High School

Dr. Connie Berger (@HeightsHighSch) said that making students feel as though they belong to an individual academy within such a large school has helped improve student engagement, dropout rates and student success after high school. It’s clear that her sustained leadership (over 10 years at the school) and team support is making Heights a great place to teach & learn.
Students at Heights High School

A sign with welcome written in a variety of languages

Both at Energy and at Heights students have opportunities to work with partners in the field and get real-world experience. Many students have internships with partners and work on projects to help create solutions to problems those partners have.

These visits were in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation. Almost 300 community members from Kansas City have visited schools around the country thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation as part of the Kansas City Great Schools initiative (check out #KCGreatSchools and also see their blog), which was designed to expose “community members to cities with concentrations of high-performing public schools serving a similar population of students as those in Kansas City’s public schools.” Participants got a chance to see design-built schools and those still on a journey–each with their own unique structure, culture and curriculum.

School visits can be a powerful part of a professional learning plan and a critical part of a school transformation effort. It expands your sense of what’s possible and informs the path forward. We’re planning fall school visits—contact [email protected] if you’re interested.

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