A Chance to Redefine High School

How can high schools better prepare all students for the rapidly changing world they will enter upon graduation? Folks in Pittsburgh have some answers.

The trajectory of public education today is one of both progress and stagnation.

On the one hand, more schools are discarding stale practices in favor of approaches grounded in new research about how young people learn today. There has been a proliferation of new tools that can make learning and assessment easier and more engaging. We’ve replaced a controversial federal law with one designed to encourage more flexibility and innovation. Makerspaces, community gardens, and career academies are springing up on public school campuses.

Yet only some students get to benefit from these exciting developments. There are still deep divides in the American education system.

Across the country and even within counties, there are wide funding gaps. The highest poverty districts receive 10 percent less in state and local funding than the most affluent districts, according to The Education Trust.

[pullquote]There are still deep divides in the American education system.[/pullquote]Racial minorities are hit the hardest by the disparities. An analysis by the Center for American Progress found that schools with at least 90 percent students of color spend $733 less per student per year than schools with at least 90 percent white students. Whether lack of funding is the cause of worse educational outcomes for students of color or not, CAP says, it certainly doesn’t help close the gaps. High school graduation rates are rising for all students, but black and Hispanic students’ rates are 73 percent and 76 percent, respectively, compared to white students’ 87 percent.

Amid insufficient resources and funding, there is certainly no shortage of ideas for addressing educational inequalities. That is evidenced by the 700 submissions to a contest that asks applicants to redesign public high school to serve all 21st century learners.

Launched in September 2015, the XQ Super Schools Project will award a total of $50 million to at least five schools. Each school will receive $2 million per year over five years. Applicants had to “reimagine” how a typical high school could better prepare all students for the rapidly changing world they will enter when they graduate, whether they go to college or join the workforce. About half of the applicants were selected to advance to the semifinals, and winners will be announced in August.[pullquote]How would you reimagine high school?[/pullquote]

It is no surprise that three of the semifinal “super schools” are in the Pittsburgh area, where educators are constantly reimagining learning. Each submission taps into local industry and innovation to build opportunities for its student body.

Steel Valley School District, serving old steel mill towns, has taken inspiration from its changing surroundings to imagine a changed campus. The redesigned school will hook students into the community, taking advantage of the skills and knowledge of local residents and organizations, and in turn encouraging graduates to stay and become local leaders. The coursework will be experiential and project-based.

At Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh, a team has dreamed up Thinking Lab HS. Students there will become engaged, empathetic members of their communities and of civic society. Activism, research, and experience outside the walls of the school are central, and the curriculum focuses on ecological literacy, culture, and health and well-being. Under the guidance of a mentor, students will work on projects in campus studios and labs.

The third semifinalist, Rivers Cubed Academy, is a college and career program for low-income youth. The school will offer academically rigorous courses as well as technical education, preparing students to follow a pathway to higher education or employment. Transportation is provided, so underserved students from multiple districts can enroll. The proposal is the brainchild of Schools That Can, the Remake Learning Network, and others.

The three Pittsburgh submissions represent different valuable approaches to rethinking learning. Two start from scratch, using the modern world as a jumping off point for setting up students for success. A third bolsters an existing institution, supporting educators and families by taking stock of what the entire community has to offer.

Regardless of who ends up in the final five, the ideas put forth by hundreds of teams across the country demonstrate the kind of out-of-the-box thinking our education system can continue to use—and the chunk of funding demonstrates the kind of support it needs.

Published June 21, 2016