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What Job Does a Good School Fulfill?

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By: JoEllen Lynch

We tend to think of schools as places where young people gain the knowledge and skills that will carry them forward into college, life and successful careers. That's absolutely right, though truly great schools build their academic program around a strong focus on positive youth development. They recognize and prioritize in their practice that young people need the consistent support of caring adults. Across the board, research shows that the best urban high schools scaffold pathways for adolescents that take into account their need to develop and practice a range of competencies within and outside of school, developing adolescent ecosystems in which students feel safe, respected, and engaged.

The job of a good school is creating the partnership between teens and adults that scaffolds this experience and recognizes the multiple ways that adolescents master these skills. While the ultimate recognition is the diploma -- "the ticket" to the next step -- students can only excel when they are sure of their skills and confident in the person they bring forward.

Much of our conversation on secondary schools focuses on how schools can meet the cognitive challenges of the Common Core Standards and get more students to college and careers. We recently celebrated the attainment of an 80% graduation rate in the United States. When we look at that data, we begin to understand that achievement increased as we boldly addressed the failure of our large comprehensive high schools and replaced them with intentionally designed schools where learning and development could be supported by intentional relationships between adults and young people. Each school comprised a team of adults and young people creating and succeeding in opportunities to meet the needs of individuals.

When we look closely at the Common Core, we realize that the standards also implicitly embed goals for positive youth development - they require students to be independent, responsive, and discriminating thinkers who value analysis grounded in evidence. Good schools recognize that teaching and learning unfold in a social context, and they intentionally shape that context to support adolescent development. This is even more important in schools where young people enter ninth grade lacking critical skills needed for success in high school.

In my experience designing and leading secondary and transfer schools throughout New York City, I've learned a lot about how to support young people as they work toward college and career. At South Brooklyn Community High School, students chose to attend after dropping out of high school. So, the journey began with a decision, a choice and then was supported at admission by an adult who sought to understand the student's strengths, needs and vision. The instructional model and the youth development model were one and the same. "School" included life outside the brick and mortar through community involvement, family involvement, friendships and work. While we cannot "fix" the problems that teenagers encounter, we can help them build the skills to address them and support them in gaining the help they need. The school was a partnership: young people and adults, school system and Community Based Organization.

If we intentionally design schools that meet students where they are - accommodating young people's schedules, building on their strengths, and becoming an integral part of their lives - we can recuperate and accelerate learning, empowering young people to succeed in college and career. That's our job.

The Smart Cities blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America's great cities. We're writing a book about what we're learning-- and you can help.

JoEllen Lynch currently serves as Executive Director of Springpoint, a national organization that partners with school districts and networks to establish new, innovative high schools.

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