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The Schools Profiled in This Guide
Chosen in 2005 from over 400 charter secondary schools across the country that are meeting achievement goals under NCLB, the eight schools profiled in this guide are all outstanding in many ways. They are setting and aggressively pursuing high expectations, and they are achieving success in closing achievement gaps. They are meeting the needs of traditionally underserved student populations (in these cases, African-American, Hispanic, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and special education students).
The profiled schools are a varied lot. All serve high school students, but six also include lower grades traditionally considered part of middle school or junior high, one with fifth grade. Some schools are urban, some suburban, and one serves a rural population, and their enrollment ranges from 120 to 767. Students of color account for more than 92 percent of the population at five of the schools; two others have student populations that are more racially and ethnically mixed; and one serves a more homogeneous population in a rural community. At five schools, more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, including 100 percent of the students at one school. At two schools, 25 percent of the students are designated as special education. One is a boarding school, one is run by a teacher cooperative, and one focuses on the performing and visual arts. All are college preparatory in intent, and each is developing creative solutions to the problems faced by many public high schools. Collectively, they are testing the water to see what is possible for public secondary schools.
The site selection process, described more fully in Appendix A, involved several stages of screening sites based on their overall achievement levels and also on their student test scores in comparison to similar schools in the city or state. To be considered, a school had to have graduated at least one cohort of students and have data to show that students were moving on to college, for the most part, or to work. In many of the schools, significant numbers of students have been the first in their families to attend college. Selected variables for each school are provided in table 1 and also in the individual school profiles in part II of this guide.
To understand what was contributing to success in these schools, a "snapshot" case study of each school was conducted. An external advisory group helped guide the development of a research-based conceptual framework for analyzing schools and also informed the site selection criteria. A two-day site visit was made to each school, to see the school in operation and to talk directly with teachers, students, parents, administrators, and members of the governing board, both individually and, sometimes, in focus groups. Illustrative materials, such as the schedules and assessment tools highlighted in the figures in this guide, were collected from all sites.
This descriptive research process suggests ways to do things that others have found helpful and practical "how-to" guidance. This is not the kind of experimental research that can yield valid causal claims about what works. Readers should judge for themselves the merits of these practices based on their understanding of why they should work, how they fit the local context, and what happens when they actually try them. Also, readers should understand that these descriptions do not constitute an endorsement of specific practices or products.
The research revealed that while the differences across these schools are interesting in themselves, it is the schools' significant similarities that are more instructive for understanding their effectiveness:
They are mission-driven. Determined to get and keep their students on track for higher education, they create a safe learning environment and a strong school culture, with school leaders, teachers, parents, and students all relentlessly focused on ensuring student success.
They focus on college preparation. They provide students with a rigorous, relevant, and engaging curriculum, as well as with cocurricular opportunities, such as internships and travel programs to broaden student experiences.
They teach for mastery. Teachers are not simply imparting a rigorous curriculum; they are expected to teach for in-depth understanding. As needed, students are given remediation, acceleration, and more time on task to learn and master key academic standards.
They provide wraparound support. In ensuring support that responds to students' academic and social needs, they expect and receive help from families and community partners. Personalized support is evidenced through systems, such as advisory programs, college counseling, academic tutoring, and mentoring.
They value professional learning. The principal often serves as an instructional leader, and teachers are collaborative and actively engaged in ongoing professional development throughout the year.
They hold themselves accountable. These schools tend to be well-run organizations with strong, active governing boards that generate creative solutions to challenges that arise and empower administrators and other leaders to make and implement decisions expeditiously.
Part I of this guide explores these common themes in more depth. Examples are drawn from across the set of schools to show the various ways the themes were enacted. To illustrate the points more fully, sample materials taken directly from the schools are presented in accompanying figures. This cross-site section ends with a discussion of implications for all public high schools.
Part II is intended to help the reader get a holistic picture of each school. A brief profile or narrative snapshot of each school brings together in one place important contextual information about each school, its history, and key features. Readers may want to refer to these profiles to get a more comprehensive understanding of each site.