Why High School Turnaround Should Start in Middle School

George Chu is the Chief Operating Officer of Citizen Schools. In a room full of the brightest, most respected people in American education, they'll all agree on one thing; every student should graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. So, in June 2012 several of those people got in a room and discussed how to make sure that happens...

george chu head shot

A recent article by Bridgespan (previously posted as a series of blog entries on Mass Insight Education’s blog) recaps a meeting held by top education leaders focused on high school turnaround. The group's consensus was positive-- "Successful turnaround of failing high schools will require coordinated efforts with students and teachers across the full K-12 system." If we were in that room with them here's what we   would have to add...

1. The earlier the better.

The article stresses the need to begin school transformation long before students enter 9th grade.

Looking to the example of Aspire Public Schools provides clear evidence. The network of small public charter schools focuses on college prep with the requirement that each student pass at least three college level courses before graduating high school. Despite their students' 100% college acceptance rate, one of their biggest challenges is in working with students who begin high school several grade levels behind. Their rigorous curriculum doesn't allow much wiggle room to catch students up who may already be behind from middle and elementary school.

At Citizen Schools, we totally agree. The need to focus on the middle grades can not be overstated. Middle school is a critical time in a child's development; academically, physically and socially. We recently published a blog post explaining the significant dip in student engagement from elementary school to middle school.

Research by Robert Balfanz points to 6th grade as the "make or break year." At Citizen Schools we are dedicated to ensuring that it is a "make year," by offering college and career readiness classes that are tailored to middle schoolers paired with academic support classes. Then we add in our secret sauce-- exposing the kids to professionals who have experienced college and career success who show the students how they too can get themselves on that same path through project-based learning.

2. A second shift allows for a second wind.

The article also mentions the importance and difficulty of acquiring and retaining high quality talent in a turnaround environment. They call it the need to provide a "second wind" for those dedicated teachers. Our solution is to go a little bit further and give them a "second shift."

In partnership with AmeriCorps, Citizen Schools provides partner schools with expanded learning time educators who are fully integrated into the school's staff. These Teaching Fellows observe the classrooms of traditional teachers, learning from them and often co-teaching. In the afternoon hours, this "second shift" of educators allows schools, which may be stretched for funds and capacity, to work with students in smaller groups to make sure that everyone is caught up, on track and moving forward.

3. Apply lessons learned to the traditional public school system.

The turnaround examples in the article are charter schools or focused turnaround efforts like Tennessee’s Achievement School District. That begs the question, how can we take these lessons learned for turnaround and apply them in traditional public schools? The answer is through strong partnership.

Sixteen districts in eight states have partnered with Citizen Schools to boost achievement in some of their lowest performing middle schools. These partnerships at the school level, community level and district level are rooted in the common goal to get students on a positive trajectory. For example, Citizen Schools’ partner school Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Massachusetts has seen significant gains in student achievement, going from one of the lowest performing in the district to one of the highest.

As the article states, ensuring a better future for our students is possible. At Citizen Schools we are excited to be a part of the movement and understand that the stakes are high. By focusing on the younger grades as well as high school, by creatively expanding our schools’ teacher capacity, and by working with all types of schools, hopefullwe will eliminate the need for turnaround altogether.