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Pathways to Opportunity Project: Increasing Educational Equity through Innovative School Design Elements

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This paper details the complexities of in- and out-of-school challenges encountered by off-track youth. It outlines the tremendous opportunity these students present for high school innovation. The authors maintain that schools appropriately designed can effectively meet the academic and nonacademic needs of over-age and under-credited students. The authors provide recommendations school design and systems modifications that can be implemented in either public charter or district alternative high schools. It is the authors’ position (and experience) that schools implementing these design elements maintain safe and healthy climates and cultures, content and effective staff, and most importantly –greater performance gains and improved life circumstances for their students.

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Pathways to Opportunity Project: Increasing Educational Equity through Innovative School Design Elements

  1. 1. POSITION PAPER #1 JULY 2015 Pathways to Opportunity Project: Increasing EducationalEquity through InnovativeSchoolDesign Elements © PATHWAYS TO OPPORTUNITY | AUTHOREDBY: LESLIE TALBOT & ARETHA MILLER 1 Position Summary Often invisible and/or considered too late to help, approximately 30 percent or 57,600 young people ages 16-21 in New York State are off-track or disconnected from school completely. This percentage of disengaged youth is consistent across most of our nation’s large and mid-size school systems. Who are these young people – these opportunity youth? They are predominantly male and minority; may live in extreme poverty; may experience homelessness, debilitating health and/or other emergent circumstances; and may be court-involved. Most need additional educational and nonacademici supports not typically found in traditional high schools. The daily hardships that off-track youth face, make it difficult for them to stay in or reengage in school. Despite their challenges, off-track youth have the same interests, hopes and dreams as other young people. However, their needs in- and out-of-school are vastly different. For example, many are at least two grade levels behind in academic performance and/or in respect to age and credit accumulation. Most need human and social services and other supports. The majority would benefit from a fast track to postsecondary education and/or employment. This student population, therefore, presents a tremendous opportunity for high school innovation. Because of their maturity, these students have the capacity to accelerate learning and realize performance gains within relatively short periods of time. This position paper summarizes the Pathways to Opportunity Project (#PathtoOpp) work, and recommends innovative school design elements for high schools serving over-age and under-credited students. Launched in spring, 2013 in collaboration with the New York State Department of Education and the State University of New York (SUNY) Charter Schools Institute, the #PathtoOpp’s Project is comprised of an experienced group of educators, government officials, and youth development professionals engaged in a multi-year endeavor to ensure off-track youth enroll in and graduate from high school, college and career-ready. The goal of #PathtoOpp is to transform how high schools educate opportunity youth. We seek to ensure that young people who are off-track to graduate and/or have disconnected from school entirely have access to an adequate supply of quality seats that provide academically rigorous, therapeutic and nurturing learning environments in public charter and district high schools across New York State (NYS). Why Should States and Charter Authorizers Encourage Unique Design Elements for Schools Serving Off-Track Youth? In recent years, general interest in the plight of opportunity youth has experienced New York and states across the country should require high schools serving off-track youth to adopt innovative and evidence-based school design elements that produce effective cultures, supportive climates, notable graduation rates and sustainable postsecondary success. The Problem: Despite a recent resurgence in interest from the field, too many high schools serving off-track youth across NYS and similar locales underperform on a variety of academic and nonacademic measures.
  2. 2. Increasing Educational Equity through Innovative School Design Elements © PATHWAYS TO OPPORTUNITY | AUTHOREDBY: LESLIE TALBOT & ARETHA MILLER 2 significant momentum. This interest has resulted in corporate social responsibility initiatives; media-generated content; foundation-supported research, papers, programs, initiatives and collaboratives/working groups; university-led investigations; and competitive government grants. While it is difficult to determine the exact yield from these efforts, here’s what we can report:  An emergence of numerous initiatives focused on the challenges encountered by off-track youth and how they have been underserved. These efforts have centered on the complexities of “dropout factories,” “the opportunity gap,” and “alternative accountability;”  Increased numbers of large and mid-size school systems and charter management organizations have added programs/schools specifically designed for over-age and under-credit youth to their portfolios; and  State education agencies, charter school authorizers, and policy organizations are grappling with alternative accountability measures. Nevertheless, as a whole these initiativeshave done little to stem the tide or improve the life outcomes for the majority of young people most at risk – especially for those who are two or more years off-track to graduate. Here’s what we have gleaned from a cursory survey of alternative high schools in New York State:  Some seats created especially for over-age and under-credited youth are designed for those who achieve a sixth-grade reading level and/or for those not more than one- grade level off-track to graduate.  Some fail to re-engage and improve the attendance of off-track youth. This data is particularly troubling, because evidence suggests that attendance provide a gateway to closing the achievement gap, increasing graduation rates, and improving college and career readiness.  High school graduation rates remain low among NYS’ larger districts especially among African American and Latino students (see Albany, Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers). Still more troubling, youth unemployment and under-employment rates persist for those 16- 24 across the United States – and particularly in metropolitan statisticalareas (MSA’s) that formerly were booming manufacturing hubs. What all of the aforementioned data tells us is that the complexity of this problem demands innovative and comprehensive school design and systems modifications. These approaches must be evidence-based and targeted to the unique academic and nonacademic needs of over-age and under-credited students. The design elements recommended below have been gleaned from the collective experience of #PathtoOpp’s Project Brain Trust members, and can be implemented in either public charter or district alternative high schools. #PathtoOpp’s Project partners implementing these design elements maintain safe and healthy climates and cultures, content and effective staff, and most importantly – greater performance gains and improved life circumstances for their students. What Key School Design Elements are Most Effective in Improving Outcomes for Off- Track Youth? Our ideal school design for over-age and under-credited students establishes a nurturing culture and therapeutic learning environment for students and staff. It The Impact: Schools that chronically underserve severely off-track youth inadvertently become pipelines to prison or, at the very least, pathways to a life-time of under-employment.
  3. 3. Increasing Educational Equity through Innovative School Design Elements © PATHWAYS TO OPPORTUNITY | AUTHOREDBY: LESLIE TALBOT & ARETHA MILLER 3 employs age-appropriate and evidence-based instructional strategies, and prepares young people to assume productive and contributing roles within their communities and our ever- evolving global society. 1. Establish a clear and comprehensive definition of off-track youth. Use this definition to both sizeii the population and determine the distinct challenges facing this student population. For our purposes, these young people are defined as those who are two or more years off-track with respect to age and credit accumulation toward a high school diploma. However, one “size” does not fit all. For example, within any given school there may be considerable numbers of students who are one year off-track. No matter the over-age and under-credited status, it is imperative for schools to cohort or track student progress based on the semester in which they age out of K-12 education. By sizing the population, a school can prioritize course offerings that match students’ needs. However, merely sizing the off-track student population does not sufficiently depict their academic and nonacademic challenges. In short, population sizing does not provide sufficient data to inform school models, policies, practices and programs. Therefore, we recommend additional descriptors to help district and charter schools and systems better prepare for and address the needs of their off- track students. We have identified six distinct sub-groups within the over-age and under-credited student population, including those: a) Who are one or fewer years off-track to graduate, experience relatively few out-of-school challenges, and have minor basic skill deficits. b) Who are one or fewer years off-track to graduate, experience considerable out-of-school challenges and have minor basic skill deficits. c) Who are one or fewer years off-track to graduate, experience considerable out-of-school challenges, and have significant basic skill deficits (may have/need an IEP). d) Who are two or more years off-track to graduate, experience relatively few out-of-school challenges, and exhibit minor basic skill deficits. e) Who are two or more years off-track to graduate, experience significant out- of-school challenges, yet have minor basic skill deficits. f) Who are two or more years off-track to graduate, experience considerable out-of-school challenges, and have significant basic skill deficits (may have/need an IEP). Furthermore, it is important to note that this student population cannot be captured simply via typical US or State Department of Education poverty indicators (i.e., minority, low income, English learners, etc.). Therefore, we recommend that high schools serving off- track youth also collect and use additional nonacademic indicators (see #5 below) to further define their student populations. We believe an accurate definition of off- track youth is critical to designing and implementing the most appropriate and efficacious programs for these students. In sum, a clearly and comprehensively defined student population makes it possible for schools to better align their policies, programs and practices to the unique academic and nonacademic needs of the students they serve. The Solution: The following design elements have demonstrated consistent success in reengaging, retaining and successfully preparing off-track youth for postsecondary education, career and life.
  4. 4. Increasing Educational Equity through Innovative School Design Elements © PATHWAYS TO OPPORTUNITY | AUTHOREDBY: LESLIE TALBOT & ARETHA MILLER 4 2. Establish and execute a robust student assessment system. In order for schools to successfully serve off-track youth, they must have a deep understanding not just of who they are as individuals and the unique circumstances that impact their lives in- and outside-of-school, but also of their competencies and capacity to accelerate learning. It is, therefore, crucial for high schools serving off-track youth to administer baseline and interim standardized assessments to measure student performance growth – particularly in reading and mathematics. Equally important is the documentation and monitoring of students’ nonacademic performance growth. Whether the collected data is based on academic or nonacademic measures, it is imperative that this information is used to determine school schedules, course and nonacademic program offerings, student supports,iii and postsecondary planning and transitioning. In sum, schools and programs serving over-age and under- credited young people must be designed so as to provide real-time responses to the needs of their students – even if these needs change from semester-to-semester. 3. Implement sound competency-based instruction. As we mentioned earlier, off- track students often are under the gun to graduate before they age out of K-12 education. We recommend, therefore, that schools consider the use of competency- based instruction versus seat time. That said, however, competency-based instruction must be aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). It must involve more than blended learning and credit recovery. Its strategies must include tailored content and pedagogies focused on accelerating learning. Furthermore, it must provide students with personalized pathways towards graduation, making it possible for them to take ownership of their own learning. Lastly, sound competency-based instruction must provide the flexibility and rigor that off-track youth need to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to flourish in a highly technical global economy. 4. Establish a rigorous Career & Technical Education (CTE) program. CTE is not the vocational education tracks we remember from years past. Instead, Perkins Grant-eligible CTE programs involve sequenced coursework leading to an industry-recognized certificate. Effective CTE programs involve instructional planning across the content areas, and between school staffs and industry representatives. CTE programs must integrate career and technical topics across the curriculum to provide students with relevant, real-world learning experiences. CTE programs must offer content, instruction and exposure to regional growth industries ensuring students’ skills match the labor needs of local employers. Lastly, CTE programs must provide paid intern/apprenticeship and/or employment affording students the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned to authentic real- world experiences. In sum, well-developed CTE programs not only prepare students for postsecondary education and/or career, they also provide many off-track youth with an additional incentive to reengage in and graduate from high school. 5. Institute an appropriate staffing plan. High schools most successful at serving off-track youth are purposefully designed to support the unique academic and nonacademic needs of these students. Therefore, these schools must develop
  5. 5. Increasing Educational Equity through Innovative School Design Elements © PATHWAYS TO OPPORTUNITY | AUTHOREDBY: LESLIE TALBOT & ARETHA MILLER 5 and implement appropriately designed staffing, selection and development plans. For example, teachers must be effective at weaving basic reading skills throughout their daily practice. At least one English and mathematics teacher must also carry special education certifications to ensure basic skills remediation is incorporated across the content areas. All instructional staff must be willing and able to work together to provide cross-content instruction. Above all, instructional staff must possess the competencies and capacity to acceleratestudent learning. Student support services staff also must reflect the needs of the students they serve. The traditional student services model comprised of a school social worker and/or psychologist, special education coordinator and nurse is woefully ineffective given the ongoing emergent conditionsiv many off-track youth encounter on a daily basis. Schools must establish a coordinated team of instructional and non-instructional staff who can quickly recognize and respond to the aforementioned emergent conditions. For example, a student-responsive staffing plan might include case managers, student policy boards, peer counselors, social workers, mentors, health care professionals, and transition planning staff (the latter supports student transitions into and out of school including postsecondary education and career). No matter the staffing plan, to be effectively proactive and responsive schools serving off-track youth must redefine typical job line roles and responsibilities. For example, a case manager may co-teach a social studies class. A teacher may co-facilitate group counseling. Students may drive curriculum content and instruction. Additionally, in order to maintain student attendance and enrollment, at least one student services staff person must live in and/or have ties to the school’s community. This employee must be responsible for keeping his/her “ear to the ground” and driving proactive strategies to meet student needs (i.e., safety, human services referrals, etc.) in- and outside-of-school. Furthermore, schools serving off-track youth must be deliberate about their hiring and selection processes. School leaders must determine if a potential new hire has an appropriately aligned disposition and skill set necessary to ensure off-track youth long-term success. Staff who work with off-track youth should be willing to engage in creative problem-solving, help young people become better advocates for themselves, and guide students in developing those habits of mind that are necessary for academic and personal success. This will result in accelerated learning, modified behavior, and improved personal choices. In sum, schools serving off-track youth must look, feel and operate differently from their traditional counterparts. They must use student and community data to inform staff selection, and determine staffing plans, roles and responsibilities. 6. Create a portfolio of strategic partners. Schools that serve off-track youth must be strategic about the partnerships they establish. These partnerships must enhance learning and provide in- and out- of-school supports for students and their families. Partnership organizations must be diverse and include community-based and human service agencies, higher education institutions, local industry and employers, parents, students, and alumni. For example, a partnership with a local university might yield a memorandum of
  6. 6. Increasing Educational Equity through Innovative School Design Elements © PATHWAYS TO OPPORTUNITY | AUTHOREDBY: LESLIE TALBOT & ARETHA MILLER 6 understanding (MOU) for dual enrollment programs. A strategic alliance with a local hospital might result in physical and mental health services. Other relationships might include workforce development training or emergency and/or affordable housing. Schools must make every effort to ensure that potential partners and services are aligned with their missions and core operating values. Similarly, partnership models are most effective when they are integrated into school policies, programs and especially dailypractices. For example, a human services partner may support education program development and participate in classroom instruction. No matter the arrangement, all partnerships must be codified into formal, well-developed agreements that clearly define each entity’s roles, responsibilities, performance expectations and accountability measures that include timelines and milestones. 7. Institute activities and incentive plans that reinforce supportive school climate and culture. This recommendation is about building strong and effective relationships within the school community. Schools serving off- track youth must spend time throughout the academic year engaging in activities that support relationship-building among and between students and staff. Age- appropriate traditions, rituals and regularly scheduled activities play a crucial role in establishing student buy-in and adherence to school policies and expectations. Schools serving off-track youth must create frequent opportunities to recognize and reward students who remain on track per their personalized learning plans. Students must play a role in developing and executing the aforementioned activities. Schools must involve students in site-based decision-making. Additionally, schools must establish comprehensive incentive systems. Schools must align the aforementioned activities to incentive strategies to ensure student and staff buy-in and ownership. This promotes student engagement, and in turn, maintains enrollment and facilitates learning. Examples include opportunities for students to “earn” an item (i.e., a special addition to the school uniform) designating an honor or “membership.” Similarly, a school might involve students in creating and driving the agenda for Morning Meetings and/or Town Hall sessions. No matter the incentives, the system must be multi-tiered and age- appropriate, reinforce positive behavior, and enable students to set rigorous yet realistic personal and academic goals. In sum, culture- and relationship-building activities provide opportunities for the school community to celebrate student success and achievement. These opportunities play a critical role in establishing positive school climate and culture, and empower off-track youth to stay the course towards graduation. Concluding Thoughts We humbly submit these recommendations to the field. Help us build a movement to increase public awareness, advocate policy change, create more high quality seats for, and establish and support a professional learning community of practitioners serving off-track youth.
  7. 7. POSITION PAPER #1 JULY 2015 Pathways to Opportunity Project: Increasing EducationalEquity through InnovativeSchoolDesign Elements © PATHWAYS TO OPPORTUNITY | AUTHOREDBY: LESLIE TALBOT & ARETHA MILLER 7 CONTACTS: For more information regarding the Pathways to Opportunity Project contact: Leslie Talbot, Founder & Principal Talbot Consulting leslie@talbotconsulting.com Aretha Miller Aretha Miller, Chief Executive Officer The Venn Group roselanemiller@yahoo.com END NOTES i We define nonacademic needs as those associated with human services (i.e., housing), and social and emotional well-being. ii When we use the term to “size” the over-age and under-credited population, we’re referring to number of students who are at least two or more years off-track with respect to age and credit accumulation toward earning a high school diploma. iii We define student supports as those that are school-based (i.e., provided by the school social work, school psychologist, nurse and/or guidance counselor), within-school nontraditional supports (i.e., provided by a case manager, mentor or community-based organization), and out-of-school supports (i.e., provided by human services providers, physical and mental health care providers, employers, or higher education institutions). iv We define emergent conditions as homelessness, pregnancy and/or parenting, harassment, physical and sexual abuse, gang-related activity, mental health, court-involvement, etc.

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