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High School Design and Transformation: One Size Fits Each

Kevin Grawer, Principal of Maplewood Richmond Heights School District in St. Louis

In order to create a more responsive learning environment for our students and staff, we designed our high school schedule strategically to meet the challenge of consistently providing high quality, personalized programming for a diverse student body. We know, for example, that not all students learn course material on the same timetable.  Despite the fact that all students are required to have the same amount of seat minutes for each course they take, not all students require the allotted time to master the standards–some students need much less, and others need much more time to do so.

To provide appropriate scaffolding for students who need more time, we developed literacy labs and math labs where students get specific support for their work in the course they are struggling with and continued development of their overall skill set in the area. This lab serves as elective credit for our students. We also created credit support classes to assist our struggling learners.   In other words, if a student fails Algebra I with a 54%, what is the sense of requiring that student to repeat the entire year’s worth of class?  Our school data clearly shows that failing students tend to be even less successful when we put them back in the same exact class for the second time.  Instead, we analyze which standards students fell short on and create a The question then arises, “What about those students who need a greater challenge within the regular curriculum?  What do we do to support and challenge them?”  Our response to this question was to create honors options sections within our courses.  Students who want or need a greater challenge within our course offerings can willingly opt into this level of work.  The honors options students are in the same classroom with the non-honors options students and study the same standards.  However, the honors options students are charged with a 25% “advanced differentiation” workload.  Consequently, these students do more/different readings, class projects, presentations, off-site visits, and have more varied assessments than the non-honors options kids.   We ensure at least three honors option students are in a section so they are able to collaborate. We believe this approach works much better than traditional tracking because top students stay in the regular education class and provide examples of what high quality work looks like, a key problem with tracked courses.

High schools hear a lot of talk about their role in ensuring that students are “college ready.”  Of course, we work hard to do so by instituting a clear set of focused strategies:

  • Ensuring our students have dual credit options, not just in the core areas, but in the fine/practical arts and tech-related courses;
  • Offering an “open access” approach to dual credit options and certifying that our pre-requisite courses are aligned to, and prepare our students for the dual credit level workload;
  • Creating support classes for our most rigorous courses to ensure our students have intentional academic scaffolds;
  • Implementing a daily schedule that allows for easy access and enrollment in academic supports and rigorous courses;
  • Analyzing our data regarding who is enrolled in our most rigorous courses and developing strategies to ensure our dual credit enrollment mirrors our student demographic enrollment.

The icing on the cake to our college/world-ready programming is our response to our school metaphor, “School as Apprenticeship.”  As apprentices, our students are learning a skill set each hour from their mentors (the teachers) on a daily basis.  Still, this interaction is not enough.  We endeavor to insure our students have access to the real world of work and exposure to the talents and preparation required to perform skillfully and successfully on the job.  We have invested in our metaphor by creating the position of “Director of Career Connections.”  This office handles student job shadows, internships, meetings with professionals, and career interest inventories via our Naviance system.  Moreover, each classroom teacher must have an apprenticeship-related goal each year.  For example, the 2nd year English teacher included as part of his apprenticeship goal this year the following:

  • Inviting professional writers into class to discuss their career trajectories and college course of study;
  • Creating NPR Story Corps interviews related to the themes of Hamlet and Lord of the Flies.

With our Career Connections, we add another layer, exposing students to future careers and a deeper analysis of their interests and strengths.

Finally, we tweaked our schedule and the way we look at our school day to guarantee that each student will have a schedule that fits his or her needs and goals.  In Missouri, students are required to earn 24 credits to graduate.  This means the average student earns 3 credits per semester or 6 a year.  We, however, offer our students 8 courses each semester meaning they can possibly earn 32 credits during their 4 years with us.  The difference between 32 credits and 24 is rather large but also speaks to the individualization we can offer each student.  Not every student needs to enroll in 7-8 classes per semester as it may not be in their best interest or fit their learning profile.

Many students simply cannot handle the 8-course workload; others crave it.  When we recognize that there is value in creating a more open and free flowing system within our schedule, we can truly support students and their individual goals while more closely mimicking a college schedule.  The student that wants to be a fireman may take 5 or 6 academic courses per semester (rather than 8) and leave early (or start later) to intern at the local fire department without endangering his progress to graduation.  On the other hand, the student who wishes to earn a maximum amount of college credit while in high school may opt to take the full 8-course load from 9-11 the grade, thereby getting ahead of the credit earning game, and allow time for internships, college visits and job shadows during the 12th grade year.  The days of every student having an 8-3 schedule are archaic, simplistic and downright hurtful to students who have outlined their future goals.  “One size fits each” is our motto, not “one size fits all.”

When we attempt to homogenize our educational experience for all students, we end up limiting their creativity, restraining their ambitions, and promoting bitterness among our students and parents that leads to mistrust in our relationship.  By tweaking our school designs we can not only improve our relationships within our school community, but also give our students (the reason for which we all have jobs) deeper insights into who they are and who they are becoming.