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Rethinking High School With Higher Expectations and More Flexibility

Click to see more SXSW edu coverage.Austin, Texas

As innovative educators gather at the mega SXSWedu conference, there is lots of talk about the need to rethink old models of teaching if schools are going to prepare all students for college and career.

On a panel led by Jeff Livingston, the senior vice president for education technology and strategic alliances for McGraw-Hill, two of those educators—the founding principal of Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn and the president of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF)—discussed how raising expectations and personalizing learning have the potential to get more students on meaningful career paths.

When the first students came to P-TECH in Brooklyn in 2011, Principal Rashid Davis said he expected 100 percent of them would make it into college-level calculus by the fourth year.  Not all have achieved that, but Davis said it was the right move, and the push is paying off.

"Expecting every child to have access to this opportunity caused everyone to think differently"—teachers, industry leaders, colleges, parents, and students themselves, said Davis during the panel session.

Of P-TECH's students in their second, third, and fourth year, 72 percent are in college classes. Half of the school's special education students in their fourth year are in college classes, said Davis.This is at a high school where there is no academic screening for admission and 70 percent of students are African-American males.

After their first year, if students meet the college-readiness benchmark at P-TECH, they can move up and excel at their own pace.This spring, Davis reported, six students will be graduating after four years (two years ahead of schedule) with both their high school diploma and their associate degree.

"This shows me that the expectations we have for high school students are way, way too low," said Livingston.  Along with setting high, clear expectations, treating students like adults and using data to address individual needs have the potential of transforming high schools, he added.

Ruth Rathblott, the president and chief executive officer of HEAF, said her Harlem-based after-school program embraces the philosophy that for students to be successful, they need help developing life skills and exposure to the broader world before going to college. As part of the program, students have done service projects in the United States and abroad, including in Detroit, Belize, and the Dominican Republic. For many who have never traveled outside their neighborhoods, the experience is a way for students to stretch themselves and help with their transition to living away from home.

All HEAF participants have graduated from high school, 100 percent have enrolled in college, and 83 percent completed a degree within six years. Rathblott said she would welcome more flexibility in high schools to allow students to move at their own pace and realize their full potential.

To help students meet the higher standards needed at P-TECH, Davis said there were no shortcuts.  Teachers share data with the students and tell them that they must change habits and work hard.  "It wasn't about magic," he said of the progress of students. P-TECH has longer school days, instruction on Saturdays, and bridge programs for incoming students that start at the end of 8th grade and continue through the summer.  Providing mentors and intervening early before "life gets in the way" set students up for success, Davis added.

"This combination of data-based technology, high expectations, and treating students like adults can save lives," concluded Livingston.

Davis said changing high schools is not so much about structure as it is a shift in perspective: "It's not really a policy issue. It goes back to belief" that all students can excel.

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