Evidence-based reform offers a new story for America's most persistently low-performing high schools.

The High-Poverty Urban High School:
What It Is and What It Can Become

Over the next several months we offer readers a closer look into how ISA's evidence-based whole school reform approach is actualized in our partner districts/ schools to achieve sustained, transformative results.  The lens through which we will look at our work in schools is that of our three research-based core focus areas that inform the ISA approach.  They are: (1) rigorous college prep teaching and learning, (2) building relationships and personalization, and (3) continuous improvement. However, before we begin our deep dive look into what works and why, let's take a look at the familiar old story of the typical low-performing urban high school and contrast it with a new story of what every high school can and should be for the students, families, and community it serves.
The Old Story
The statistics below tell an all too familiar story that is played out countless times in schools and classrooms across this nation on a daily basis in the lowest performing high schools.   In these schools:
  • Only 29% of students are proficient in math compared to 65% for all others.
  • Only 36% of students are proficient in reading compared to 67% for all others.
  • The graduation rate is 40% compared to 87% for all others.
  • Those who do graduate are considerably less likely to enroll in college and considerably more likely to require remedial course work if they do.
Additionally, students with the highest needs, such as students living in poverty, students of color, English Language Learners and special education students are predominantly and disproportionately enrolled in the country's lowest performing high schools—which in turn are least likely to have the resources and supports to meet their students' needs and prepare them for college and careers.  Compared to schools serving primarily affluent and advantaged students, these schools:
  • Have the least experienced and the most underprepared teachers.  About 1 in 7 are in their 1st or 2nd year of teaching compared to 1 in 10 teachers in affluent schools.  11% of teachers in the lowest performing schools are not certified compared to 3.5% of teachers in affluent schools
  • Are less likely to offer the full range of college preparatory coursework, particularly higher-level math and science courses, as part of their curriculum.  While 94% of more affluent high schools offer Algebra II, only 84% of high-poverty urban schools do.  Although 90% of affluent schools offer physics and 85% offer calculus, only 69% and 41% respectively of high-poverty urban schools offer these advanced science and math courses.
  • Do not have sufficient guidance counselors, which hampers their students' ability to explore and select college and career opportunities aligned with their interests and goals.
  • Fail to provide a culture of high academic expectations, support and caring for all students.
However, this old story does not have to be the continuing story. Most ISA partner schools have student socio-demographic characteristics and teaching and learning environments very similar to those above when we enter into partnership. Yet through the implementation of ISA's evidence-based whole school reform practices, dozens of partner schools have been transformed from places of chronic underachievement to intellectually demanding and supportive learning environments that look very much like the urban high school described in the companion article below, The New Story. "This new story is the reality for many of the schools that are part of the ISA network," emphasizes ISA President Gerry House, "and it can be the reality for any high school willing to put in place and implement with fidelity evidence-based practices and research-based principles."

The New Story
Every day, students enter the doors of their schools feeling welcomed and supported and knowing that they are part of a community where they belong, where they are accepted and understood—not simply tolerated. Each student has an advisor who knows the student well and often serves as an advocate for her/him.   Through the advisory system, the school is organized to provide the close and continual guidance, monitoring, relentless nudging, and parental involvement necessary so that no student falls through the cracks.  There are multiple opportunities for student voice, such as town halls, student council, and course and project choice.  These experiences contribute to a culture in which students feel safe physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially and have ownership of their school and their learning.
Students are respectful of their teachers and their school building because they are themselves treated as part of the solution, rather than the problem to be fixed.  Their school discipline policies are designed to promote self-discipline, personal responsibility, and peer support and cooperation, not punishment and exclusion.  Families are engaged as full partners in their children's education, and their knowledge and expertise about their own child's strengths, growth areas, and special skills and interests are sought out and valued.
Students achieve mastery in core academic content areas and demonstrate proficiency on state and local assessments based on college and career standards. These high levels of student mastery are possible because their school's instructional program is grounded in the belief that effort and persistence are critical determinants of school success.  Instruction is not test-driven or remedial. Their school's curriculum is inquiry-based and promotes deep understanding of major concepts, connections across content areas, and application of knowledge and skills to solve authentic problems.  Students view learning as relevant to their lives and reflective of their passions, interests, and talents.
Students graduate on time because the guidance counselor and teacher teams work together with a cohort of students all year to problem solve challenges, share best practices, and stay abreast of each student's academic, social, and emotional wellbeing so that no student falls through the cracks.  Adults build and maintain trusting relationships with students, which in turn are leveraged to increase achievement and provide a safety net of care and support. 
Students are prepared to enter and complete postsecondary education without the need for remedial courses because their school has set high expectations for them and put in place a variety of supports and safety nets to ensure that students can reach the high bar set for them. Writing and math labs, extended day tutoring, and academic mentoring help ensure that students have the foundational knowledge and skills necessary for higher- level learning.  Community partnerships provide students with extended learning through afterschool clubs, experiences, and opportunities for exploration and discovery about the larger world outside of their own neighborhood.  Guidance counselors and advisors work with students and families to help them navigate the college application process from selection to acceptance.  Visits to college campuses and participation in internships provide high school students with valuable exposure to the norms and expectations of the university context and the world of work.
This New Story is a real possibility, not just a fairy tale, for high-poverty urban high schools. It represents the kind of high school that every child deserves and that too few poor children of color actually experience.  ISA has a proven track record of partnering with districts/schools to help them build the collective capacity of staff at every level to design a system of distributed leadership grounded in policies, procedures, practices, and processes that support ordinary people in consistently performing extraordinary work and getting continuously improved results for all students.
The next issue of the newsletter will focus on what a college preparatory instructional program looks like in successful high school classrooms. Now that you know what a transformed urban high school can become, I hope that you will continue to follow us as each month as we take a deeper look into what the ISA model looks like in practice. 
Giving Every Child a Fair Shot: Ensuring All Students Have Equal Opportunity to Succeed. The Executive Office of the President. July 2015
Gerry House is the President of the Institute for Student Achievement and a Sr. Vice President at ETS. She is also a board member for the Woodrow WIlson Foundation, Adelphi University, and the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Essentials Conditions for a Successful High-Poverty Urban High School

Before ISA and a district or school enter into partnership, there are some essential conversations that must take place and some essential conditions that all parties must agree are necessary to achieve sustainable, transformative results.  These essential conditions are described below.

Engagement of key stakeholders- A meaningful, honest dialogue with key stakeholders—school leaders, teachers, students, parents, and community members—is needed to build ownership and commitment to the school or district goals and fully include families as partners in supporting their children's academic achievement.

Commitment to bold, comprehensive, systemic change- The focus is on schools becoming high-performing learning environments for all students, capable of creating sustainable, transformative change, not making them a little less low performing by focusing on incremental improvements.

Unrelenting dedication to preparing all students for success in college and careers- There is a commitment to implementing school-wide a rigorous college preparatory curriculum based on inquiry-based methods and practices that promote critical thinking and application of knowledge across content areas.  This includes an infusion of safety nets and the development of non-cognitive skills that support every student's chance of achieving academic success.

Investment in human capital- There must be a willingness to build the capacity of leaders and teachers at every level in the system to reach academic and non-academic goals.  This includes high-quality, embedded professional learning and individual and team coaching.

District adherence to “top down support for bottom up change" approach- Schools must distribute resources and align policies, procedures and processes so that they support school leaders and staff in effectively implementing the practices and structures necessary for creating high performing high schools.  These new policies promote distributed leadership and an increased sense of accountability and collective responsibility for student outcomes.

US Department of Education Seal

To learn more about ISA's federally-recognized whole-school reform model, click here.
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