An edited version of the following commentary by Supt. Dr. Susan Lusi was published in the Providence Journal on March 19, 2015.
High school teachers in Providence and other urban areas have classrooms full of students who, while of similar chronological ages, come to school with vastly different educational experiences and levels of preparedness. Reading levels may range from third grade to post college and mathematics proficiency varies to similar degrees. What these students have in common is that all will leave high school and enter a society and an economy that requires high levels of knowledge and skill for the successful pursuit of college and/or career. As educators, we bear an equal responsibility to prepare all of them, regardless of where they start.
So what are high school teachers, their schools and their district to do? One approach is to ensure that students come to high school better prepared. There is a great deal of work underway in Providence to this end and some early evidence that this work is bearing fruit. However, in systems such as Providence where student mobility is 19%, the vast majority of students are poor, and many come to us from different countries at different points in their educational careers, a broad diversity of learners will always be present, and we must learn to educate each and every one of them well.
Enter the Opportunity by Design (OBD) high schools slated to be opened by the district next year – one co-located at Hope and the other at Mount Pleasant High School. These innovative schools are being explicitly designed to meet the multiple learning needs of our students. They will be deeply personalized and will use technology, as well as flexible groupings, scheduling and teaching approaches, to meet students where they are and help them both recoup and accelerate their learning. Learning will take place both on and off the school site – something made ever more possible through the smart use of technology – and students will have the chance to work at their own pace and demonstrate their learning in multiple ways.
These are not schools-within-schools and they are not selective. Two separate schools will share the existing buildings at Hope and Mt. Pleasant. Students will be assigned through the traditional student assignment process to each school separately, and once assigned, students will stay. Their success will be the responsibility of the school leaders and staff. The schools sharing a building will be encouraged to share professional development and best practices, but schools will not “swap” students arbitrarily.
Why do we think these new small schools will work when, at least in the eyes of some, small schools have not been successful in Providence in the past? MDRC, a highly regarded nonprofit, nonpartisan research firm has done a rigorous, multi-year study of the New York City small high schools on which the OBD schools are based. The most recent reports from this study, published in 2014, concluded that the New York small schools, which serve mostly disadvantaged students of color, raised graduation rates by 9.4 percentage points, increased college enrollment by 8.4 percentage points and achieved these gains at a lower cost per graduate primarily because students were less likely to require expensive additional years of high school in order to graduate. [Unterman, R. (October 2014). Headed to College: The Effects of New York City’s Small High Schools of Choice on Postsecondary Enrollment. New York, NY: MDRC.] In addition, over the course of this school year, design teams of students, community members, staff and families have been engaged in a process of exploring research and visiting great schools across the country to learn more about best practices. These teams are designing schools that adapt those practices to our Providence context.
Students from across the city, from all middle schools, all backgrounds, and all education types, will have the chance to become a part of the inaugural and future classes of the OBD schools. These schools have energetic, visionary school leaders in place, and are backed by the work of design teams from our community with a vested interest in the success of our schools and our students. We are proud of this effort, and we look forward to learning from their successes and sharing their stories as proof points of what is possible in urban education.