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Making Learning Personal in High Schools: The Role of Secondary School Leaders

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May 29, 2014 10:52 am


In the face of economic uncertainty and stiff global competition, the national policy community has coalesced around the priority of graduating all students ready for college and careers. The drive to ensure equitable opportunities for all students demands solutions—not only to raise the level of students’ preparedness, but also to address the huge achievement gaps based on race/ethnicity and income that exist across all levels of the system.

The nation has made progress. The national high school graduation rate has reached a historic high of 80 percent. But even with the overall gain, a disproportionate share of the 700,000 young people who leave high school without a diploma each year are students of color, low-income students, or students with disabilities or limited English proficiency. Moreover, according to a recently released major assessment known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” too few high school seniors who are just months away from college or the workplace perform solidly in reading and mathematics.

These data points throw into sharp relief the remarkable performance of three Breakthrough high schools showcased at a May 1 briefing on Capitol Hill hosted by the Alliance and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).  Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, California, Sleepy Hollow High School in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis, Missouri were recognized by the 2014 MetLife Foundation–NASSP Breakthrough Schools project for dramatically improving student proficiency over a three-year period, while also serving a large number of students who are most at risk of dropping out.

Breakthrough Principals Mark Anderson, Carol Conklin-Spillane, and Kevin Grawer provided powerful examples of the structures and processes essential to doing great things although not necessarily under great circumstances. Also, presenting were Barbara-Jane Paris, President, NASSP Board of Directors, Jonathan Brice, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education, and Phillip Lovell, Vice-President of Policy and Advocacy at the Alliance. If you missed the briefing, we invite you to view the archived video.

These schools, which serve a majority of low-income students and students of color, achieve cohort graduation rates ranging from the upper 80s to 98 percent. They described different pathways to success but common elements from NASSP’s Breaking Ranks Framework such as increasing personalized learning, building collaborative leadership, and expanding access to a rigorous and differentiated curriculum for all students. All of the breakthrough schools place a premium on increased rigor and support for students. According to Breaking Ranks, “There are many themes throughout this work, but if one theme could be extracted that is overarching and paramount, it is a message that the high school of the twenty-first century must be much more student-centered and above all much more personalized in programs, support services, and intellectual rigor.”

The principals described a variety of means to personalize learning and level the playing field by providing an extensive array of rigorous courses, using research-based instructional practices, integrating the use of technology, and strengthening career connections.  Kevin Grawer, principal of Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis, Missouri, described a committee of twelve who come together every three weeks to talk about each of the students in grades nine through twelve. “We talk about who is struggling, who is not, and what interventions work. These interventions can range from social services to changing their schedule to creating new courses.”

Beginning in 2006, every student at Maplewood Richmond Heights receives a laptop computer affording more real-world applications, creative coursework, and opportunities for students to share resources and work collaboratively. Teachers and students serve as mentors for integrating technology. Interdisciplinary teams create norms and protocols for providing feedback to students on their demonstration of knowledge and skills and to teachers on their instructional practice. Students and parents have twenty-four hour access to curricula, student work, grades, and attendance on the school’s website.

The school has been transformed from one about to be taken over by the state to one being recognized for Distinction in Performance. “One hundred percent of our students are accepted into college, the Armed Forces, or vocational and tech schools,” says Grawer. “We see major improvements on every indicator— number of students on the honor roll, state tests and end-of-course assessments, ACT scores, and a significant drop in school discipline data.”

Sleepy Hollow Principal Carol Conklin-Spillane leads a school where arguably more than half of the students enter ninth grade below high school performance levels. Seventeen percent of the 900 students are English language learners, and another 17 percent receive special needs services. She strives to build teachers’ capacity and willingness to take risks in designing niche programs and support mechanisms to enable students to engage in challenging learning opportunities. “You have to create an environment where teachers can take risks just like students. If you have the kind of cultural openness and you personalize working and teaching the way you personalize learning for students, the same magic that we see with kids happens with teachers,” says Conklin-Spillane.”

To ensure that students from diverse backgrounds have access to rigorous instruction, Sleepy Hollow embraces open access to Advanced Placement (AP) and honors-level courses to all students. Every effort is made to customize instruction; increase instructional time; and provide shorter, flexible instruction or one-on one-support for special projects.  The school was recognized by the College Board for Exceptional Achievement for AP participation and achievement. Pass rates for the English and Algebra New York Regents exams are 93 percent and 84 percent, respectively.  Sleepy Hollow High School has a cohort graduation rate of about 86 percent and a college-going rate of 93 percent.

Mark Anderson, 2011 California Assistant Principal of the Year, leads Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, California. The school serves 2,000 students in grade six through twelve with more than 70 percent from low-income families. It also opens the door for students to take honors and AP programs. Beginning in 2010, the AP program grew from 578 tests taken by 261 students to 949 tests taken by 416 students.

“We get the students in sixth grade and so we start early to identifying the courses a student needs to achieve his or her goals. Students take what we call pre-AP classes designed by mapping backwards to determine the questions, vocabulary, and depth of content required to succeed in subsequent courses,” explained Anderson. He emphasized the importance of challenging every student. He added, “Maybe this is not what you want to hear, but if I have to be in my office responding to policies and writing back to policymakers, I am not with my students. We need to be able to get out and connect with people to ensure every student has what he or she needs.”

Marshall continues to expand AP offerings in response to student requests for additional learning opportunities. In addition, it has enhanced its visual and performing arts pathways in close ties with the cultural arts community in the Pasadena area. Student achievement has soared—90 percent pass the California English language arts state test on the first attempt; 87 percent do so in math. In 2012, the cohort graduate rate reached 98 percent with 97 percent of graduates attending two- or four-year colleges, many of whom are first generation in their families to attend college.

What are the conditions that enable high schools to radically change their performance? Key themes emerged from the panel discussion.

  • Positively affecting student learning and performance requires a clear focus on rigorous expectations and a deep implementation of evidence-based practices at the instructional core.
  • School leaders must consider fundamental changes in the organization of schools and the substantial changes needed in pedagogical practices to increase students’ ability to handle challenging coursework.
  • A collaborative culture is essential to address the quality and depth of tasks in which students are engaged, the reasons for students’ underperformance, and decisions about instructional practice and individual learning in relation to curricular expectations.
  • School improvement requires focused attention on how to build educator capacity to move schools from the traditional conveyor-belt, teaching-driven model (what is taught) to a student-centered, learning-driven model (what is learned).
  • High schools that have successfully improved instruction for low-ability students tend to be exceptional—with a shared belief in diversity among staff, successful professional learning  that leads teachers to use inclusive pedagogical practices and additional supports for struggling students.

More information on the event, including archived audio, video, and a transcript, are available at


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