In recent months, the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) Board of Education has heard updates from its three comprehensive high schools – Pioneer, Huron and Skyline. [The district also includes three alternative high schools – Community, Stone, and the Roberto Clemente Student Development Center.]
Updates to the board on the three comprehensive schools had been scheduled for last June, and the presentation on Skyline High School was delivered June 9 as planned. But a tornado warning on June 23 saw the board retreat to the basement of the downtown Ann Arbor district library, resulting in a delay in the presentation on Pioneer and Huron high schools planned for that day. The board received an update on Pioneer and Huron at its Oct. 13 meeting.
Skyline is the youngest of the three comprehensive high schools. Its creation was approved by voters as part of a comprehensive school improvement program in 2004, and it is now in its third year of operation. It opened with just a freshmen class in 2008, and has added one grade each year, gradually providing significant relief to the overcrowding at Huron and Pioneer. Next year, Skyline will have its first class of seniors, who will graduate in 2012.
In the wake of enrollment shifts among the schools, administrators and teachers from each of the three schools provided the board with updates on their transitions.
Pioneer and Huron staff made a joint presentation to the board about the changes in their buildings, organized around “characteristics of successful high schools.”
Skyline’s staff began their presentation by delineating differences in structure and organization between their school and the two other comprehensive high schools. They then moved into a review by subject area, with emphasis on Skyline’s four magnet programs.
Huron and Pioneer Update
AAPS assistant superintendent of middle and high school education, Joyce Hunter, began the Huron/Pioneer presentation by explaining that representatives from all three comprehensive high schools attended a Model Schools conference sponsored by the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).
The ICLE funded a study on the characteristics of effective high schools, and it is these characteristics, Hunter said, around which the Huron/Pioneer presentation would be organized: personalized learning, high expectations, data-driven decisions, 9th grade transition, the three Rs (rigor, relevance, and relationships), effective leadership, and professional learning.
Huron/Pioneer: Personalized Learning
Staff from Pioneer and Huron reviewed the use of the achievement team process (ATP), saying that it had been used to redirect more than 150 students at the schools since its inception last year. As described by The Chronicle in an article on the achievement gap last June:
The Achievement Team Process (ATP), which was put in place [in 2009]. It is an electronic data collection process that can be accessed by all teachers at all schools to create personalized learning plans. … [T]he ATP is especially useful in tracking which interventions have been tried for each struggling student. It’s a way to address each student’s “specific needs and strengths.”
High school staff said the ATP has been very helpful, and has resulted in a variety of successful interventions including online learning, tutorial programs, retesting, summer school, and other mastery learning techniques.
Counseling staff added that guidance counseling is an essential and integral part of learning, and has become more proactive. Counselors work closely with teachers and parents, and are looking forward to participating on the newly-formed district-wide advisory committee on guidance.
Huron/Pioneer: High Expectations
Staff began by noting that both Huron and Pioneer are regularly included on national lists of quality schools. The high expectations of students are evidenced, they said, by the large number of accelerated and advanced placement (AP) classes offered, and students’ success in those classes. Many students maintain high grade point averages, and millions of dollars worth of college credit has been earned in AAPS through AP testing.
Huron principal Arthur Williams added, however, that the reduction in size of the student bodies at Huron and Pioneer is an opportunity to ensure high-level success for all students. “We have a great feast here,” he said, “but everyone is not at the table.”
Williams and other staff said they have been challenged to find ways to make the curriculum accessible to students who are not choosing higher-level classes. They described the “AP springboard” project, a series of rigorous English and mathematics classes designed to increase the participation of students in AP classes by specifically preparing them for such classes. Also noted was the Rising Scholars program, a partnership with the University of Michigan (UM) that promotes academic excellence and provides enrichment programming for under-served students.
Huron/Pioneer: Data-Driven Decisions
Staff briefly described the results of a social climate survey completed last year among 3,000 of the 4,300 students at Huron and Pioneer. The survey instrument used was called the “We Learn” survey, and was created by ICLE. Students and staff were asked parallel questions to allow for comparison.
Huron and Pioneer reported that the survey results reflected some disparities between student and staff perspectives that warranted concerning. In particular, when asked if the schools created a “culture of respect, caring, and concern for all,” 80-90% of staff said yes, but only 60-70% of students agreed. Staff mentioned the importance of determining what “caring” means to students, and how teachers can better communicate that they care. There were also differences of opinion among staff and students regarding the relevance of instruction, and whether or not the schools hold high expectations for all students.
Good news that came from the survey was that roughly 80% of students at both schools reported that they engaged in critical thinking in school, discussing and solving problems that have more than one answer.
Staff reported that the survey results are still being examined and that the application of the information gleaned from the survey would be taking place over the next two school years.
Huron/Pioneer: 9th Grade Transition
Both schools believe strongly in the freshmen year being foundational for students. Ninth graders are allotted additional counselors, teachers with reduced course loads to allow for more academic support, and administrators who are dedicated to their grade level. Student profiles of all entering students are reviewed over the summer to ensure that students are directed to resources that could help them to be more successful.
The Bridge program is offered to Huron’s incoming 8th graders, and covers curriculum, study skills, and test-taking strategies. Huron is also piloting a 9th grade lunch this year, to improve the ability to intervene with struggling students and increase team building among 9th grade staff.
Pioneer is now placing all 9th grade students in teams taught by teachers in the four core subjects – English, math, science, and social studies – so that for four classes a day, students interact with smaller communities of other freshmen. Teachers on each team share a common planning time, allowing for more integrated assessment of students.
Huron/Pioneer: The Three Rs – Relevance, Rigor, and Relationships
Staff began by highlighting two programs – the homebuilding program, and the health sciences partnership with UM – that showcase relevant learning.
The homebuilding program engages students from both Pioneer and Huron in the building of a house that is then offered for sale on the open real estate market. The program requires students to apply math and language skills directly to the development of the house, and provides students with significant leadership opportunities.
The heath sciences program allows students from both Huron and Pioneer to participate in a two-hour block curriculum in anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology, and then apply their learning during 12 weeks of clinical rotations in conjunction with the UM. The health sciences program allows students to develop relationships with professional mentors, and explore health careers via direct observation.
Staff then outlined ways in which the rigor of the high school curriculum is established. They explained that each section of the curriculum is mapped, establishing core class sequences that ensure success on state assessments. Common assessments have also been created among teachers teaching the same classes, they said, and routines have been developed for collecting and comparing student data on those assessments. This allows teachers to compare teaching strategies in light of demonstrated student achievement.
In addition, both schools have established tutoring programs for students who are falling behind, as well as one-on-one counseling available for students who are at risk of not graduating to help get them back on track. Regarding reading in particular, there are a series of proven interventions offered to students at both schools in a tiered approach depending on their tested reading level.
Rounding out the topic of rigor, staff offered the example of three new classes being offered to connect better with the interests of all students – African-American U.S. History, Art of the Spoken Word, and African-American Music and Culture.
Representatives from both schools acknowledged that teachers are responsible for establishing relationships with students and parents. Referring again to the “We Learn” survey, Williams noted that social climate is a complex system, and that it is difficult to change quickly. However, he argued, “the success of our personal relationships is imperative.” Williams suggested that teachers need to be the ones to reach out and connect with students, beginning with simple gestures like greeting them when they enter the classroom and making small talk with them.
Williams also noted the effectiveness of peer mediation programs – in place at both Huron and Pioneer – in reduction of conflicts between individuals. The Intergroup Relations program, he said, is also in place to mediate conflict and tension among groups, and has been instrumental in resolving conflicts.
Huron/Pioneer: Effective Leadership
This section of the presentation highlighted the importance of athletics to developing student leaders. Staff noted a strong, positive correlation between athletics and academics, noting that student athletes have an average GPA of 3.4, and that participation in high school athletics is predictive of future success.
Huron/Pioneer: Professional Learning
Both schools engage in ongoing professional learning communities (PLCs), staff explained. They explained that PLCs allow teachers to work together to improve practice, and a move toward a more collaborative approach to looking at student achievement.
Reading Apprenticeship (RA) is one strategy used collaboratively, staff reported, as RA teachers train other teachers in their approaches. RA helps content-area teachers (in subjects other than language arts as well) “make thinking visible” to students as they make sense of challenging content-area texts.
Huron/Pioneer: Board Response
Multiple board members thanked the Huron and Pioneer teams for putting together such a collaborative and well-organized dual presentation. Treasurer Irene Patalan stated that their report validated her belief that building Skyline was good for the district, since lowering the numbers of students at Pioneer and Huron has been so helpful for their growth in other ways. Pioneer principal Tamber Woodworth agreed, saying “It’s easier to shift the culture now that it’s smaller.”
Board secretary Andy Thomas pointed out that the AAPS strategic plan calls for all students to develop personalized learning plans (PLP), and wondered if only struggling students are helped to develop such plans. Hunter confirmed that only about 10% of students have gone through the ATP, but that guidance and counseling are provided for all students. Mexicotte asked the high school teams to return later in the year to address what PLPs look like in their individual schools. It would be interesting, she said, to uncover that PLPs are being created for each student, but are simply not being called that.
Stead asked the high school staff to bring back comparative analysis of the “We Learn” data, and a description of how that data translates in to action plans. Mexicotte echoed Stead’s sentiments, asking the schools to report back on what strategies would be developed based on the survey data. Nelson suggested working with parents to improve school climate.
Nelson also asked what was being done in the spirit of equity to build respect for and knowledge of the value of diversity, and Hunter noted that each school has a minority student action network (MSAN). She affirmed that schools should be a safe harbor for everybody.
Lightfoot asked why Huron and Pioneer seem to operate differently. “If a program is deemed good, or is working, why isn’t it the same process, or named the same, at both schools?” she asked. Staff answered that programs are developed separately and are thus named separately, but that most programs essentially have some kind of a counterpart. One example is that both Pioneer and Huron have after-school tutoring programs – one is called MASH, and one Renaissance.
Baskett requested that a parent or student component be added to the high schools’ presentation in the future. She also requested that the next report also contain a description of how students are guided when they re-enter one of the comprehensive high schools after being part of an alternative program.
Mexicotte added that in the future she would like to hear more about how efforts are paying off to enroll more underrepresented minority students in advanced placement and accelerated classes. She also asked the next presentation to include a report on the effectiveness of the career pathways program, and whether the district is required to use that program in lieu of others. Lastly, Mexicotte mentioned that the board would like to stay informed as the comprehensive guidance assessment committee begins its work.
Hunter introduced Skyline principal Sulura Jackson, who began Skyline’s presentation by focusing on the interaction among “the three Rs” – rigor, relevance, and relationships. Jackson explained that, though there has been a lot of discussion among education professionals about “how to place the three Rs,” Skyline has decided to place relationships first.
With strong relationships in place, she argued, and learning made relevant, students develop the trust necessary to be supported through the rigor. Thus, Skyline’s presentation began by focusing on these three elements, and then by describing the student services and extra-curricular activities supporting them.
Jackson began by describing two levels of community at Skyline – professional learning communities (PLCs) and smaller learning communities (SLCs). PLCs, she said, are the core mechanism by which the staff creates common practices, which then create a common environment for students. All Skyline staff, Jackson stated, hold a common vision and belief system based on mastery teaching and learning. Staff using common pacing guidelines and syllabi, and believe in ongoing professional development. They also share a common commitment to equity/care teams.
Skyline’s SLCs are multi-grade groups of roughly 400 students each who are assigned to one set of teachers, counselors, administrators, and support staff for their entire four years at Skyline. Though students can take classes throughout the whole building, staff explained, the SLCs function as a “home base” within which students can develop richer relationships, and a sense of community.
SLCs are also the location of the school’s ongoing student advisory sessions, called Skytime. Lesson plans for Skytime are developed schoolwide, and are intended to foster student learning and support. There is a Skytime committee that plans the lessons, on which students also participate.
Jackson reported the Skyline did a separate school climate survey prior to those done at the other two high schools, and that the results were encouraging. Skyline has gone a long way, she said, toward establishing a positive climate and culture, as evidenced by the fact that 95% of students overall either agree or strongly agree that “Skyline teachers believe students are capable of learning.”
Regarding discipline, Skyline staff said that they believe effective instruction is the key to discipline. When necessary, they said, Skyline uses a tiered approach to disciplinary interventions, including conferencing with the student, informing parents, conferring with the student’s counselor, and referring to administration. Jackson added that all of these conversations are recorded in Power School and that there needs to be a history of interventions before suspension is considered.
Jackson pointed out that Skyline’s population doubled from 2008-09 to 2009-10, but that the number of suspensions did not. She credited the establishment of positive relationships and modeling as the reasons for the declining suspension rates. Jackson also noted that the majority of suspensions are not due to behavior in the classroom, but in the hallway, common areas, or it’s due to behavior during after-school hours.
Skyline staff reported on their efforts to make instruction relevant. They offer many hands-on and project-based learning experiences, and use authentic grading. Instruction, they said, is commonly differentiated and interdisciplinary. Thomas asked the staff what differentiated instruction is, and Jackson explained it’s when teachers try to hit all the learning styles in their lessons, since not all students learn the same way.
A major difference between Skyline and the other two comprehensive high schools is that Skyline uses trimester scheduling. This, Jackson argued, allows for mastery of the curricular material to remain constant, while time changes, instead of the other way around. Jackson asserted that all students can learn, but that they learn at different rates. If students score less than 80% on any test, she said, they are re-taught, and re-tested. In this way, instruction is personalized.
Jackson asserted, “If we get the first two Rs right [relationships and relevance], students will choose more rigorous courses.”
Curricular leaders in English language arts, social studies, mathematics, and science presented on their instructional approaches, including integrated English/social studies and science curricula, common mastery assessments, online portfolios, and an innovative “sustainable/green chemistry” class.
Thomas asked for a definition of sustainable/green chemistry, and science teacher Kathe Hetter explained that it stresses not only the methods by which chemistry is taught, but how sustainable chemistry practices could be used to solve real-world problems. Teachers also order fewer toxic chemicals, and show the same reactions in safer ways.
They each stressed that failure at Skyline is not an option, and that “raising the floor raises the ceiling.” As an example, math classes in particular offer in-class recovery time, after school tutoring, working lunch, and credit recovery courses in order for students to achieve mastery of the subject matter.
Staff also reported on Skyline’s world language offerings, which include Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, German, French, and Latin, health/physical education classes, and visual/performing/applied arts. The arts have a co-curricular focus, teacher Anne-Marie Roberts said, and gave the example of theater students helping with lights and sound for the choir concert.
Skyline: Magnet Programs
Staff outlined Skyline’s four magnet programs – Public Health and Biomedical Sciences; Design Technology and Environmental Planning; Communication, Media, and Public Policy; and Business, Marketing, and Information Technology. The programs are introduced to all Skyline 9th graders, and begin in 10th grade.
The magnet programs then continue throughout a student’s last three years of high school, and though students are not required to stay in them, they are strongly encouraged to do so. Students are enrolled via a lottery system, and applications require parental approval. 30 Skyline sophomores enter each of the four magnet programs each year, such that each program will have roughly 90 students when Skyline is fully enrolled. It is also possible for students outside the magnet program to take some individual magnet classes as electives.
Skyline: Student Services & Athletics
Skyline counseling staff described their guidance and counseling program as “data-driven.” It follows the national American School Counselor Association (ASCA) model, which is a proactive model of guidance and counseling. Lead Skyline counselor Claudia Siewert explained how this approach includes, for example, the administration of a comprehensive needs assessment, which is completed with students and parents early in each student’s high school career.
Alexis Boyden, the department chair for Skyline’s special education program, spoke about their student support services program. The heart of their work, she began, is collaboration with general education teachers. Skyline offers full inclusion of special education students, which is achieved by general and regular education teachers co-teaching classes, offering academic support, and making the goal of special education to move students into general education classes as much as possible.
School librarian Sara Duvall and instructional technologist Peter Pasque reported on Skyline’s “21st century library,” and media/technology course offerings. All Skyline 9th graders take a class in modern research techniques, and 10th and 11th graders take advanced classes in database strategies and uses. Pasque summarized, “We want Skyline students to have a leg up when they get to college.”
Skyline’s athletic supervisor, John Young, reported that over 60% of Skyline students participate in at least one sport. Skyline now offers 34 varsity sports, even though it currently has students only from grades 9-11.
Skyline: Board Response
Board members were universally supportive and enthusiastic about Skyline’s presentation. Lightfoot thanked Jackson for her leadership and vision. Nelson asserted that the whole academic program sounds really exciting, and suggested that Skyline staff really do have the potential to be national leaders. Stead summarized, “I couldn’t be more proud of the opportunity you’ve created for all of us.”