Group of school leaders posing at a workshop.

Words of Advice from Seven Schools Reimagining Where Learning Happens

After two years of planning work, school teams share what they have learned about redesigning high schools to better leverage community assets.

Barr recently awarded implementation grants to seven high schools with plans to redesign their schools to provide diverse, authentic learning experiences outside of traditional classroom settings. Known as the Wider Learning Ecosystem cohort, these schools from across New England engaged in two years of planning, which included deeply engaging students, community members, and other stakeholders in thinking through how to leverage their community assets to address college and career readiness gaps and promote successful postsecondary transitions. We are excited to continue to partner with these schools to offer all of their students opportunities to gain knowledge, skills, and progress toward high school graduation through a combination of learning experiences in their communities, including:

Three icons representing a wider learning ecosystem

  • Anytime-anywhere learning opportunities that enable students to participate in experiential learning and build social capital in the community and augment the school’s capacity to provide comprehensive programs of study.
  • Career development experiences that promote students’ awareness of their interests and options and deepen student engagement in school through connecting the relevance of their coursework to their future plans.
  • Early college experiences that expose students to the environment of post-secondary education and enable students to earn college credits while completing the requirements for their high school diploma.

Before these partners shift focus to implementation, we wanted to make sure we took the opportunity to learn from their experience over the past two years. Barr's Education Team and The Learning Agenda (who facilitated the Wider Learning Ecosystem learning community), recently asked our partners to reflect on the question: What advice would you give to educators interested in taking steps toward a high school redesign to create more authentic and equitable learning opportunities for their students? Responses from the planning teams are featured below, organized under five common themes.

1. Start with a clear vision and focus on student needs.

Be clear about your vision up front to help build consensus. More importantly, continuously anchor planning conversations to your goals by revisiting: “Why are we doing this? What do we hope to accomplish? What do we want students to know and be able to do?” —Winooski Middle High School, Winooski, VT

Starting with our vision (or portrait) of a graduate helped us direct our work. We spent time assessing what things we were already doing that supported students' progress toward specific aspects of the vision of a graduate. In the areas where we knew we needed to do better, we focused on the what before attempting the how. What did we actually want when all was said and done? Then, we worked backward. —Manchester High School, Manchester, CT

2. Engage and empower stakeholders throughout the process.

Redesign needs to happen from the bottom up, not the top down. Intellectually we know this, but we often resort back to who we can get at the table the easiest. One quote from the equitable redesign work group that stuck with us was, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” —Manchester West High School, Manchester, NH

Identify a small number of committed and influential stakeholders in your community early on to engage in the planning process. Our key champions included parents, businesses that offered internships, and community organizations that served as connectors to new potential partners. We found that dividing the redesign team into smaller work groups helped increase the opportunity for meaningful involvement of a wider range of stakeholders. —Nokomis Regional High School, Newport, ME

Plan for widespread engagement of teachers, students, family, and the community throughout the process. We took a ‘broad brushstroke’ approach that included hosting community forums, conducting surveys, hosting focus groups, engaging non-school stakeholders on our planning team and on subcommittees, leveraging existing school and district initiatives, creating a website, and gathering consistent student feedback through mini-surveys administered during class. —Somerville High School, Somerville, MA

Develop clear messages and visuals so that everyone, particularly historically marginalized groups, is empowered in the process. Find ways to grow and support leaders and champions from each stakeholder group. —Manchester High School, Manchester, CT

3. Build a network of support and seek advice from others.

Talking to teachers and leaders at other schools through school visits has been immeasurably helpful in demonstrating the importance of taking our time and carefully figuring out what is important to our students, families, community members, and staff. —Blackstone Academy, Pawtuket, RI

Seek out strong allies and critical friends, especially other schools engaged in redesign work. —Common Ground High School, New Haven, CT

Learn from other schools that have engaged in this work. We found it beneficial to have an outside partner with knowledge and expertise in school redesign to support the management of this large-scale project and process. —Somerville High School, Somerville, MA

4. Invest time in developing a realistic plan and implementation strategy.

Be careful and intentional about how you roll this out. We found that too much information can overwhelm or create skepticism, while too little information results in feelings of disconnect, powerlessness, and frustration. —Manchester High School, Manchester, CT

Staged implementation has worked well for us. In particular, choosing to re-build students’ experiences starting with a new incoming class, followed by each grade level, helped make the design work more manageable and keeps the focus on creating strong pathways. —Common Ground High School, New Haven, CT

Prioritize the long-term sustainability and feasibility of your plan. Invest in the strategies that offer the greatest promise for enhancing students’ learning experiences. Determine how you’ll measure success. Reflect and adjust plans as needed. —Nokomis Regional High School, Newport, ME

5. Engage in reflective practice and continuous learning.

Build in testing, learning, and reflecting cycles in tandem with capacity building efforts. It is through prototyping circles that we understand what works and achieve greater clarity on the why and the how. —Winooski Middle High School, Winooski VT

Spend time up front creating systems of accountability that hold you to design principles and create feedback loops with all key constituents —Common Ground High School, New Haven, CT

Pause and reflect frequently. It’s better to do one thing at a time and do it well than to do many things with little follow through. —Manchester High School, Manchester, CT

Members of this Wider Learning Ecosystem cohort and redesign experts recently shared their stories of struggle and success on a topic that emerged as an important theme across the cohort: sustainable school change. We are excited to share the resulting new guide, developed by The Learning Agenda, with all schools interested in meaningful change:

On the Road to Sustainable School Change: Stories from the Ground

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