5 ways high schools need to look different to get and keep students on track to graduate

The influx of one-time federal K-12 funding provides a unique opportunity to rethink how we organize resources so all high school students are well served.
Karen Hawley Miles is president and CEO of Education Resource Strategies
Karen Hawley Miles is president and CEO of Education Resource Strategies

COVID-19 illuminated and intensified long-standing patterns of inequity and unmet needs across the nation — perhaps none more pronounced than those in our nation’s high schools.

The path to and through high school is a critical transition for every young person. But for far too many, our high schools have not been preparing them well for life after graduation. The pandemic simply doubled down on these challenges, resulting in higher course failure and far lower attendance rates, particularly among our most vulnerable high school students. Many struggled to access everything from the internet to healthy meals and stable housingMental health needs spiked, and postsecondary matriculation dropped. And some students had or now have other significant obligations outside of school, such as working to support themselves and their families or caring for a younger sibling or child.

These intensified needs require a new high school experience — something different than what was offered in most communities before COVID and something more robust than the limited combination of tutoring and credit recovery options available now. High schools can engage students in empowering, standards-aligned work that is connected to what young people care about and what’s next for them, at times that work for them, and with teachers who have the energy and support they need to build strong relationships with students, affirming their interests and identities along the way. Students should have varied opportunities to earn credits, targeted structures to meet their individual learning needs, deeper support for navigating their own wellness, and connections to relevant and timely postsecondary opportunities. All of this is as true for ninth and 10th graders who entered the high school building for the very first time this fall as it is for 11th and 12th graders working against the clock to complete graduation requirements.

The influx of one-time federal K-12 funding provides a unique opportunity to rethink how we organize resources so all high school students are well served, not just some. District and school leaders can take a “do now, build toward approach to this work by choosing feasible, impactful starting points to address immediate recovery needs and designing longer-term changes with a sustainable vision in mind. They will need to figure out a combined set of actions for addressing areas of student need — and the specific changes in scheduling and staffing needed to enable and sustain improvement.

In our work supporting dozens of school systems across the country to maximize their efforts, we identified five ways that high schools need to look different to drive equity and excellence in both high school recovery and redesign:

  1. Staffing models and student schedules should enable more small-group instructionindividual support, and relationship building. These should include expanding time for targeted small-group and individual support and advisory student groupings that help young people access their desired pathways for learning, ensure students have equitable access to strong teaching, and reduce group sizes and teacher loads in core subject areas of English/language arts and mathematics. At Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California, for example, every student belongs to a “house” — a small learning community of about 100 students assigned to four teachers to support ongoing connection and a sense of belonging among the students and create opportunities for teacher collaboration and professional development to improve instruction.
  2. More time forteacher collaboration reflection and relationships. In Hartford Public Schools, the district’s federal recovery investment plan allocates about one-fourth of its total academic and social-emotional recovery dollars to increase support for teachers and school leaders, including high-quality curriculum and materials, expanding time and training for teacher collaboration and professional learning, and broadening coaching supports for teachers and school leaders.
  3. More flexible, student-driven schedules that break away from the standard six-to-eight-period day and 183 days of schooling, including options for high-quality learning opportunities online, after hours, and outside of school. This includes work-based opportunities, dual enrollment, androbust credit-recovery options. For example, the Evening FLEX High School in San Antonio, Texas, offers evening virtual courses concurrent with daytime school to students looking to graduate in three years or those who need to recover designated credits. Classes meet for eight weeks — four hours per session, twice a week — with teachers providing individualized support and instruction. Students progress at their own pace as they demonstrate competency of the material.
  4. A broader set of complementaryteaching and leadership roles that expand the number of educators who can support learning, grow the teacher pipeline, and create more flexible roles for talented educators to stay in the work but play part-time or support roles that fit their life choices.  Differentiating roles and compensation also frees resources to pay teachers and leaders more when they take on more responsibilities or the greatest challenges.
  5. More systematic partnerships with external providers to support both academic learning and wellness among both students and teachers, inside and outside the traditional school day and year. In Oakland, California, the district partnered with parent advocacy groupOakland REACH to offer academic enrichment and tutoring programs for students. In Cleveland Metropolitan School District, district leaders worked with community partners to pivot the role of family support specialists to prioritize direct services to families and create daytime learning pods during remote instructional periods to offer an in-person alternative for families that needed it — while expanding access to mental-health services, food, clothing, and rent assistance.

Too often, these descriptions of what students need are not connected to the changes in staffing, scheduling, and human capital that will enable and sustain these strategies — or the changes proposed miss the critical step of figuring out how the combined set of actions will show up in a coherent school design. Sustaining these changes after the three-year federal funding window expires will require more innovative solutions. Focusing on restructuring resources in four key areas will help:

  • Plan ways to sustain equitable funding after federal ARP dollars go away, ensuring that schools with higher rates of poverty and students with the greatest needs continue to receive their fair share of resources.
  • Revamp and bolster career paths and compensation for teachers, other educators and school leaders to better support differentiated roles and responsibilities, including raising compensation earlier and more significantly for those who contribute most as well as leveraging tutoring programs as a bigger-picture teacher pipeline strategy.
  • Strategically vary class, group sizes and teaching loads as well as learning time, depending on subject, grade level, lesson content, or students’ needs. This may mean moving away from more traditional ways of allocating staff to schools or changing clauses in state regulations and employee contracts. It also calls for deeper collaboration between districts’ talent and finance offices.
  • Freetime for teachers from direct instruction by leveraging technology, outside partners, and other educator roles. This will mean thinking differently about how much of total student learning time must be facilitated directly by teachers to “count” as learning.  Moving toward awarding credit based on demonstrated knowledge and skills rather than time spent in a classroom — competency-based learning — can be a piece of this work. Opportunities for non-core teachers and community-based organizations to facilitate instruction should also be considered. Innovations like these help us explore ways to use time, technology, and outside partners to optimize learning and engagement for students and teachers.

For students to graduate with a meaningful diploma, our high schools can leverage the infusion of resources combined with a historic disruption in the delivery of instruction to do far more than simply adding short-term recovery programs to the long-standing systems and practices that have produced generations of inequitable results for our kids. The young people who have not been learning at the levels they need to be successful both need and deserve more. The shifts described here challenge legacy mindsets, regulations, union contracts, and comfortable ways of working — so accomplishing them will involve us all.

Karen Hawley Miles is president and CEO of Education Resource Strategies, a national nonprofit that helps school systems and schools allocate and organize resources strategically to drive greater opportunities and outcomes for all students they serve. 

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