Transforming High Schools: 8 Strategies for EdLeaders

After a discussion around the #FutureofLearning, a district leader responsible for a group of big urban high schools asked, “Where to start?”

Transforming urban high schools is enormously challenging. We’ve been involved with about 800 improvement attempts over the last 20 years. We’ve observed that the most successful efforts start with community conversations about the goals of a high school education. Here’s 8 strategies for EdLeaders:

Aims: start with a community conversation about what grads should know.

This year we did a lap around the country hosting community conversations about the future of work (see our #AskAboutAI series). We ask three simple questions: What’s happening? What does it mean? How to prepare?

Conversations like these are a great way to boost community learning about the rapidly changing world of work and it informs deliberations about what graduates should know and be able to do.

Be intentional about soliciting stakeholder participation. Like Marion City Schools, have the chamber of commerce or local EdFund co-host meetings. Engage business, nonprofit and social service partners. Hold meetings at schools; feed people and have students perform to boost attendance.

Profile of a Graduate is a great resource from EdLeader21, now part of Battelle for kids (listen to a podcast with Ken Kay) and MyWays from NGLC is a great new framework (see a comparison of outcome frameworks).

LX: build a shared vision of learner experience.

Visit as many schools as possible–it’s the best form of professional learning. The faculty at Singapore American School faculty visited 100 schools and shared their learnings in professional learning communities. About 300 people from Kansa City Missouri have visited schools in a dozen cities around the country (#KCGreatSchools).

Ask your team to study new school models. Check out our list of schools worth visiting, read NGLC profiles, QX profiles, NewSchools profiles, and Springpoint profiles.

Build your own stump speech about powerful learning. Pepper it with vivid pictures of great teachers and local learners. Paint the picture of student-centered learning: personalized, competency-based, anytime anywhere, with students driving their own learning. Include stories of learners going deep on passion projects and developing public products and community contributions.

Use your blog and social media to highlight local and national examples of powerful learning. For example, check out David Haglund on Twitter (@hagdogusc) and Randy Ziegenfuss on Facebook.

Advisory: the core of secondary learning.

One critical (we’d argue non-negotiable) element of secondary transformation is a strong advisory system–a distributed guidance and counseling system that includes a sustained relationship with an advisor. Core roles of an advisory include academic monitoring, college and career awareness, culture building and social emotional learning.

Give schools some implementation flexibility, access to content and tools, and lots of professional development.

Triggers: look for change opportunities.

Every change takes energy and often political capital. Look for triggers that will dislodge business as usual–building or remodeling a school, a change in the budget, new state policy, curriculum adoption cycle–and use it to create forward momentum.

Look for symbolic acts that will illustrate the path forward–your next hire, your next visit, your next project.

Edges: work from the outside in.

Starting from the edges and areas of non-consumption (as Christensen suggests), the Singapore American School added a weekly genius hour, a makerspace that could be used before/after school and during breaks, and replaced some AP courses with self directed research projects.

Innovating in credit recovery and alternative education are two common edge strategies. If you have a struggling alternative high school, ask an innovative teacher leader to update the format.

Another edge case is struggling schools. Working with proven school models is a reliable turnaround strategy (see the story of Oso New Tech in El Paso).

New schools: go fast, start small.

Using any available triggers and working from the edges, start as many new schools as possible. As in Kettle Moraine, they could be microschools (learn more and see 13 ideas for leveraging local assets with microschools) or small academies at existing schools (like the 8 New Tech schools in El Paso).

Look for local, regional, and national support for new schools. Based on likely support, ask teacher leaders for new school proposals. Like Denver, you could incubate and authorize innovative new school networks (listen to this podcast for more).

Networks: work together in PLCs and school networks.

Encouraging teachers to study student work and to work together in professional learning communities can promote collaboration and deeper learning.

Encouraging schools to work in vertical networks (e.g., STEM feeder pattern) or like minded school networks can leverage the challenging work of developing a learning model and supporting it with tools and professional learning experiences.

ConnectEd developed and shared the Linked Learning model with districts nationwide. NAF supports more than 600 career academies nationwide. More than 100 school districts partner with New Tech Network to develop integrated team-taught project-based schools.

Invite schools to grow into a framework.

Steve Shultz initiated a thoughtful transformation in Colorado School District 51 in Grand Junction. Like Singapore American School, the D51 transformation began with school visits. Schultz, who worked in the district for 35 years, said about their ambitious agenda, “We can’t force this on people.” Instead, he created a learning culture and built leadership capacity.

Schultz facilitated the developed a framework (a detailed vision, grad profile, design principles, and school and district roles) and invited schools to grow into that framework. Seven of the 44 schools agreed to make the transition first and serve as demonstration sites. Rather than rolling out a preset implementation, they have built a performance-based framework and have encouraged and supported the growth of their educator.

In short, facilitate a shared vision (aims and LX), build core components (advisory), work from the edges and take advantage of opportunities, start some small schools, and invite school communities to grow into a next gen framework.

This work can seem really complicated but Roger Cook, superintendent of Taylor County Schools in Kentucky, said “it’s as simple as caring about kids and helping educators do whatever is necessary to help them succeed. No zeros. No failures. No dropouts. No excuses.”

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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