Exploring Innovative Schools and Policy Supports that Prepare College and Career Ready Students

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) recently brought several state policymakers on a trip to New York City to observe schools focusing on a set of ‘deeper learning’ competencies necessary for success in college and careers. These competencies include critical thinking, communication, collaboration, mastery of core content, and learning how to learn.

In visits to two schools, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) and the College of Staten Island High School (CSI), teachers and leaders stressed the need for rigorous academic content and the use of project-based learning approaches, where students integrated multiple disciplines and took advantage of opportunities in their communities. These included unique approaches to parent-teacher conferences and portfolio projects. For instance, student-led family conferences consist of conferences with a teacher, family member, and the student, and allow students to present their progress to the family member. These have encouraged high levels of family engagement, given students ownership over their work, and allowed them to practice valuable communication, critical thinking, and self advocacy skills. Portfolio projects gave students the chance to participate in deeper reflection on the work they have completed and conduct self-assessments through a graduate profile. Additionally, students received support and coaching from teachers and peers during weekly advisory periods, and teachers treated these periods and planned for them as if they were normal lessons. These and other practices have paid off for both schools—both have graduation rates and college entrance rates far above the district average.

What was observed was a culture committed to learning rather than a culture devoted to any one particular practice. In order to foster such a ‘deeper learning’ culture in other schools, education stakeholders must think through the role of state and local policy. During the visit, several stakeholders shared their perspectives, including New York State Education Commissioner John King, New York City Chancellor Dennis Walcott, and Deputy Chancellor David Weiner.

A large focus of Commissioner King’s presentation was on preparing students for college and careers through professional development, tougher graduation requirements, and support for the transition to the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core’s focus on both academic content and the application of knowledge through higher order skills is considered to be vital in preparing students for success in college and careers. New York has created a statewide website for disseminating curriculum materials and other resources related to the transition. New York is also providing alternatives to seat-time requirements. It currently allows up to 6.5 credits through options such as an oral examinations, special projects, work-based learning experiences, online learning, and independent studies.

New York City has been championing an initiative called the iZone, which encourages several innovative practices, including personalized learning, the use of real-time information, collaborative learning, real-world based learning experiences, digital resources, and additional teacher planning time. These efforts to personalize learning and improve student engagement began in select schools with an interest in, and a vision for, change. These schools work with national partners, such as Envision and New Tech Network, to implement innovative practices. Starting from 81 schools in 2010, the initiative hopes to grow to 400 by 2014 and eventually allow all schools to integrate these practices into their curriculum and instruction.

For more information on the schools, partners, and policy work happening in New York, see AYPF’s website

Andrew Valent is a Program Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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