We need more high school reinvention—the quiet experiments and big-money bodacious, too

A decade ago, I reported on the first graduation ceremony at Chicago’s Spry Community Links High School, which I described at the time as a “quiet experiment to reinvent the high school experience for some of Chicago’s most vulnerable students.”

Spry was, and still is, the only traditional Chicago public school that spans from preschool to high school. The high school is small, about 180 students. Students start their school day late (originally it was 11 a.m., but now it’s closer to 9:30 am) and stay through the evening, a schedule ideal for teenagers and one they still manage to make work for staff even under existing union contracts.

The school shares space and teachers with the 700-pupil elementary school. Students attend school-run programs on Saturday and classes throughout the summer. Every day for two hours, students prepare for the world outside Spry—tutoring students in lower grades, volunteering at hospitals and community organizations, and completing college courses. Spry graduates more than 90 percent of their students, most in three years through the accelerated coursework, and they are pushed to continue on for a four-year degree or additional career training. Every student is Latino and low-income, a fourth of them are still learning English, and many are undocumented.

I loved reporting that story, and I love that tiny high school, mostly because it continues to defy so many assumptions about what is possible in a massive urban school bureaucracy and in a neighborhood where so little is expected of students and their families.

“Most schools are developed to adapt to the needs of the adult world, but at Spry, we broke that cycle based on the needs of our community and families,” said Carlos Azcoitia, who has held just about every top job in the Chicago school system but is proudest of his break-the-mold work as Spry’s principal. He was tired of seeing promising eighth-graders drop out of high school because they were flunking their first period classes and disconnected from their teachers and lessons in massive neighborhood schools. “I wanted to create a whole new model, but do it in a (neighborhood) high school.”

High School Reinvention, Writ Large

Tomorrow, we’re going to hear a lot about another attempt to remake high school­–but there is nothing tiny or quiet about this experiment, which is big and bodacious and has beaucoup dollars backing it. XQ: The Super School Project will announce the winners of a yearlong nationwide search for “audacious, unconventional, unconstrained ideas to reinvent the American high school.”

A minimum of five winning teams will get $10 million over five years to bring these dream schools to a scalable, self-sustaining reality.

XQ’s project starts from this simple truth: Nearly all of our nation’s public high schools are frozen in time, locked into a factory model that disregards the way teens learn best, overlooks the complexities of changing neighborhoods, and fails to prepare them for our modern economy.

So no, XQ isn’t the first or the biggest player in high school reinvention. Fifteen years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested $650 million to promote the dissolution of the mega, one-size-fits-none high schools in favor of small personalized learning communities designed to better meet students’ interests and academic needs. The “small school” movement played out in our nation’s largest urban districts, so much of America was left untouched by this major reform, and Gates later acknowledged the investment didn’t prove to be the transformative game-changer he had hoped.

However, a recent study looking at the Bloomberg administration’s small schools initiative in New York City suggests that smaller high schools can work and the students are more likely to enroll in college.

And doubtless the naysayers will jump on the big-bad-billionaire bandwagon to pick apart the process and root for its demise—not because it isn’t a great idea but because the project is led by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

To hell with the naysayers. I’m going to be rooting for the XQ winners and for all the XQ finalists who won’t be getting the big prizes but many of whom will continue to develop their groundbreaking new models.

And I’ll be cheering on all the visionary school leaders, like Carlos Azcoitia, who aren’t waiting for a big prize to convince them that we have to start doing something dramatically different in our nation’s high schools–the isolated rural ones, the impoverished urban ones and the mediocre suburban ones, too. These innovators know that doing right by students means daring to dream and defying the status-quo conventions.

 

Watch the announcement of the XQ Super School winners below.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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