From School Failure to School Success: Lessons from a Chicago High School
Today's post is the practitioner perspective on the research introduced by the UChicago Consortium on School Research (@UChiConsortium) in Monday's post: How Did Helping 9th Graders Improve Chicago's Grad. Rates?
For years, Wells Community Academy High School was the kind of high school families tried to avoid if they could. Its high dropout rate and low academic performance were morale-killers for students and teachers. Its rates of poverty and minority student enrollment would typically be predictors of school failure. In the last five years, however, Wells has improved significantly in nearly every major measure of school success, from attendance to graduation to college enrollment. One of these measures is Freshman OnTrack (FOT), a key predictor of senior-year graduation, which has increased 30 percent in the last five years. A student is considered OnTrack if she has accumulated five full credits (ten semester credits) and has no more than one semester F in a core subject (English, math, science, or social science) by the end of the first year in high school.
Increasing FOT at Wells was no easy task. The hardest part was addressing both the adult and the student mindset of what students are capable of achieving. Among other research-based texts, one that we rely on heavily at Wells to have conversations around this topic is the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium) report, Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework. Ensuring that both teachers and students subscribe to a growth mindset that allows for flexibility in demonstration of mastery is essential for student motivation. At Wells, we challenge the type of belief system that says when a student fails a math test, that means she is not "cut out" for math. Instead, we believe that if she aced a math test, it is because she applied herself and studied — not because she is innately smart. If we don't learn to examine our belief systems, then no set of practices will help move student outcomes in the right direction.
But without practices and structures, new belief systems and learning can't take hold and find a space to flourish. So for a school to improve its students' outcomes, it needs to deal with both the messy adaptive work of human beliefs and philosophies and also the technical work of creating time and processes for the change to take place. Here are some practices we have put in place at Wells that have produced dividends for our students in all grade levels:
Transparency is key. We look at student-level data on a weekly basis by sub-groups and individual students and discuss things like failure rate, Bs and better (at least a 3.0 GPA), attendance, and so on
During these data dives, we target specific students who are at risk of falling off track or not performing at optimal levels and create personalized success plans for them
Each student is assigned to an adult mentor who checks in with her at least once a month to discuss needs and goal-setting
Every five weeks, all students participate in looking at their own data and charting their own strengths and areas of growth aligned to their goals
Once a quarter, every single student has a one-on-one coaching session with an adult around key components of their performance indicators, such as grades, attendance, behavior, test scores, etc. Success plans are revisited and revised during these conversations. We are thrilled that over time, these conversations have shifted from being adult-led to student-led
Students are surveyed often to inform the types of supports they are provided
We value mastery over task completion. Students are given multiple opportunities to re-do work to prove to their teachers that they have mastered the content, and as a result they see their scores rising and they feel more successful, fueling their desire to work harder
All of these practices and more have notably improved our school and created much better life options for our students, many of whom come from trauma, low socioeconomic, and minority backgrounds. We have significantly increased our Freshman OnTrack rates, which has led directly to a significant increase in graduation rates. Our research-informed practices are truly making a difference for our students every day.