Guest post by Margaret Calvert

As school leaders, we define success in numerous ways. Higher attendance rates. Improved reading and math proficiency. Increased achievement on assessments. But the ultimate measure in high school is graduation. In this measure, we strive to earn a 100 percent, like any good student. However, most of us believe that this exemplary standard exists only in the realm of our imagination and is impossibly beyond our reach. But what if we change our thinking? What if we make our goal to reach 100 percent and expect that all of our students find success?

This is just what we did at Jefferson High School in Portland, OR. JHS is the only majority African-American high school in Oregon with roughly 52 percent African-American/black students and 80 percent students of color in 2016. Our district faced declining enrollment and in 2011, in an effort to retain and attract more students, we redesigned our high school to a middle college focus option where every student is expected to earn college credits before graduating.

To achieve this goal, we knew that we must eliminate every difference in educational outcomes for historically underserved students. Our plan was to identify what was working in the school and take it to scale. If a pedagogical practice, structure, program, or partnership was working for 20 percent of our students, then how could we make it work for 100 percent of our students? Our guiding question was and continues to be: How do we need to change as educators to get to 100 percent?

Check our Beliefs

Our leadership team—a group of teachers, administrators, and community partners—met regularly to determine what this goal meant for our work with students. We asked ourselves a series of questions (listed below) that funneled our attention from the broad goal into specific actions and areas of focus. If we answered “no” to any question, we followed up with “why.”

  • Do we believe that all students will successfully complete at least 12 college credits within four years of enrolling in high school?
  • Do we believe that all students will successfully complete at least one college class before graduating from high school?
  • Do we believe that all of our students will graduate from high school?
  • Do we believe that all of our students will successfully complete every graduation requirement class?
  • Do we believe that we have the skill, knowledge, and resources necessary to achieve our goal?

Put Beliefs in Context

We located where we were as educators and where our students were in their learning. Who was already finding success? Who was close to finding success? Who was struggling? We looked at students one by one, literally building lists on the wall, and searched for patterns. We asked ourselves over and over, how do we extend our reach within the classroom to help more students find success?

Our staff worked in collaborative cycles of inquiry focused on the students who were under-engaged in our classrooms. They designed lessons with these students in mind, invited colleagues to see the lessons in action, and then reflected on their effectiveness. We asked ourselves:

  • What success am I seeing in my classroom?
  • What moves was I making as a teacher to support that success?
  • When are students most engaged? How can I build on that?
  • Who is not finding success? What is my strategy to engage them?
  • With whom am I collaborating? What impact does it have on student success?
  • What questions are surfacing about my practice? How will I get feedback?

Develop a Plan 

We assessed our capacity for change and used it to develop the sequence of collaborative structures that we built over five years. The sequence allowed us to get supports in place for students before enrolling all students in college-level coursework and provided intentional places for staff to collaborate.

  • 2011–12: Freshmen academy teachers released one period to collaborate.
  • 2012–13: Resequenced courses to align with college.
  • 2013–14: All juniors took a language arts class that was a dual-credit college reading class.
  • 2014–15: All first-year algebra students double blocked.
  • 2015–16: All seniors took a humanities-based, team-taught college class.

Let it Grow

Our first two graduating classes in the full middle college program (the classes of 2015 and 2016) graduated at a higher rate than our district and state. Students in the class of 2016 had an 84 percent graduation rate overall, with 88 percent for black/African-American students, and 90 percent of graduates successfully completing at least one college-level course. Though we are not at 100 percent yet, the increases JHS has made in a few years are significant. We owe much of our success to changing our thinking about our expectations of students, believing that we can achieve 100 percent, and committing ourselves to examine our practice.

Margaret Calvert is the principal of Jefferson High School—the Middle College for Advanced Studies in Portland, OR. She is the 2016 Oregon Principal of the Year. 

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