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New High School Recognition Focuses on Closing Opportunity Gap

Being a quality high school is about more than having students with high test scores, according to researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Kevin Welner, an education professor at CU-Boulder and director of The National Education Policy Center, is leading the Schools of Opportunity project, designed to recognize public schools using effective strategies to level the academic playing field for all students.

"We are trying to point out schools engaged in practices that are helpful for students and close opportunity gaps," Welner said in a phone interview. "We want people to adopt these practices and we want to change the conversation about how we think of great schooling."

When rankings reward schools for academic performance, those that operate in high-income neighborhoods typically do better because students are exposed to activities outside of school that boost their competencies, said Welner. What this project does is focus on efforts happening to help all students learn.

"We want to think about practices within a high school that schools have control over," said Welner. "If we are just looking at outcomes (high test scores, for example), we are picking up opportunities to learn that take place outside of school and you end up with a ranking of schools that looks a lot like ranking of wealth or selectivity."

The university is launching the program initially with public schools in Colorado and New York this year, with the hope of expanding to include nationwide after the pilot. Applications from public high schools in those two states are welcome until November 15. The project is also led by Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y, who was the 2013 New York State High School Principal of the Year.

After a school applies, a team of evaluators will conduct a review, looking for 11 specific practices to help all students learn identified by experts in the 2013 book co-edited by Welner, Closing the Opportunity Gap. Evaluators will be looking for effective student and faculty support systems, outreach to the community, health and psychological support, judicious and fair discipline policies, little or no tracking, and high-quality teacher induction and mentoring programs.

To be eligible, schools must have at least 10 percent of students in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program and enroll a typical percentage of students with individual education programs.

The winners will be recognized for meeting gold and silver levels. Those chosen will be announced in the spring on The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog.

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