Lessons from High Schools Designed to Connect All Students to Success

To better understand options for students who are off track in the goal of graduating from high school, Barr commissioned Springpoint to visit a set of New England schools serving this population and to share their findings here.

We know that students thrive in environments that build on their strengths and allow them choice and voice in their learning. Nowhere is this more important than in schools serving students who are off track to graduate. These students arrive with varied skills, needs, and goals—and their school environment must be intentionally designed to meet them where they are.

To understand the current landscape of options for these students in New England—and the need for further solutions—the Barr Foundation asked Springpoint to visit a cluster of such high schools and to speak with local and national experts in the fields of school leadership, youth development, and school design. In these visits and conversations, we were compelled by the deep need for strong alternative education options in the region, and energized to hear about possible paths forward to create strong options that will work for students. Below are some of the most salient insights—but first, a bit of what the research tells us about the scope and urgency of this work.

Current high schools are not designed to prepare today’s students for tomorrow.

Across the United States, about 2.6 million young people are off track to graduate from high school. Further, each year, more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States. That’s one student every 26 seconds—or 7,000 students a day. All told, about 25% of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time—and in pockets of New England those numbers are even higher. In Massachusetts alone, 55% of all high school students either don’t graduate or fail to connect successfully to post-secondary education.

When secondary schools are not equipped to meet their needs, far too many high school students experience failure. This impacts their trajectory after high school, presenting challenges as they move on to other opportunities. A young person who drops out of high school, for example, will earn $200,000 less over his or her lifetime than peers who complete high school, and almost a million dollars less than those who earn a college degree. Beyond earning potential, high school completion affects students’ fulfillment in life and their ability to contribute meaningfully to the world.

When students fall off track in traditional settings, it is critical that we provide environments that re-engage them in learning, address their unique needs, and create for them a sense of belonging at school. Research suggests these conditions are necessary for all students, particularly those who have fallen off track toward graduation, if they are to experience real academic achievement and ready themselves for college and career.

School and system leaders have an opportunity to design schools that meet students where they are.

Though the need is great, there is a small but growing cadre of schools and programs creating the conditions that allow these students to succeed. With intentionally-designed learning environments that address students’ academic, social, and developmental needs, these schools demonstrate that all young people can indeed succeed and thrive—if we support them in the right ways.

All young people can indeed succeed and thrive—if we support them in the right ways.

From our site visits and conversations—along with our prior work—we know that the most successful schools focus on positive youth development as a central organizing principle. They fully recognize that young people’s ability to achieve academic success is interrelated with their development as young adults. They have structures, teaching strategies, and supports that intentionally reinforce these goals. They harness young people’s interests and focus resources in such a way that schools become positive catalysts for youth development.

We’re learning how to create more options that work for students.

Through our site visits and conversations, we heard strong support for expanding the options available to students who are off track. In the words of one national expert, “we need to start from the assumption that all students have assets. We need to create environments that recognize this as the jumping off point for working with students.”

These experts, along with school and system leaders, agree that in addition to a focus on asset-based instruction and positive youth development, schools that serve students who are off track to graduate should reflect the following design characteristics:

  1. Intentional recruitment and enrollment. Students are often unaware of the supports available to them. The most successful schools proactively reach out to students and families.
  2. Access to small class sizes and individualized instruction. Small class sizes allow these programs to focus on individual students and to tailor instruction accordingly. Personalized learning offers tailored growth opportunities based on students’ skills and interests.
  3. The ability to earn credits quickly and on a flexible schedule. Many programs also included an opportunity for students to earn college credit as they completed their high school degree.
  4. An opportunity to see what is possible. Students who are off track need opportunities to clearly envision a future in which they are successful.
  5. Tutoring and remediation. Successful programs offer instruction periods outside of regular course offerings for tutoring and additional assistance.

Overall, successful school models for students who are off track to graduate are able to provide the right balance of structure and autonomy, recognizing students’ independence as young people while still supporting them in reaching clearly articulated goals for the future. In the words of a principal of one of these schools, “A critical part of our work is the young person’s encounter with their own agency.”

Together we can develop a network of schools that support all students.

Though we are beginning to understand what works for students who are off track, there is more we can do to support the growth and development of school models designed to serve them. Many of the schools that currently serve students who are off track operate in isolation. Without a cohesive network, practitioners are unable to share best practices and build on each other’s work. One of the unifying themes in our conversations with practitioners was the need for a shared learning community to help develop, elevate, and improve high-quality secondary options for students off track to graduate in New England. As one school principal noted, “We have to incorporate the latest thinking into our school models so we are able to continuously accelerate outcomes for our students.”

Our goal in supporting Barr’s initiative to create opportunities for students in New England who are off track to graduate is to help develop a thriving network of practitioners serving this population of young people. Together, these new models will build on one another’s strengths in order to powerfully demonstrate the impact of a student-centered, targeted, and supportive approach that addresses both the academic and developmental needs of these students. As they continue to grow and share best practices, we hope these schools will pave a path for educators in New England and across the country.

We welcome thoughts and ideas on how to make this vision a reality via the comments section below, or by reaching out to us at info[at]springpointschools.org. In addition, we encourage you to read our new guide (linked below) on how practitioners can ground their schools in positive youth development theory.

Read “Positive Youth Development In Practice

Learn more about Springpoint’s approach to student-centered school design

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JoEllen Lynch

Guest Author Executive Director Springpoint