Schools for the Future offers an alternative path for at-risk students

It takes courage and discipline to go back to high school after you’ve fallen behind or dropped out, but for those students willing to give it another shot, Schools for the Future provides an alternative path — a path that accelerates learning by rewarding competency as opposed to time spent “in the seat.”

Across the country, high schools are failing to graduate students. According to a recent article in The New York Times, only seven of ten 9th-graders in the United States today will earn a diploma. And while 80 percent of white and Asian students graduate from high school, only 55 percent of African-American and Hispanic students achieve that goal.

In Duval County, Fla., the public school system has taken up the challenge of educating its students most in danger of dropping out, committing $1.7 million in private and public money to pilot Schools for the Future.

Designed for “over-age and under-credited” urban students, Schools for the Future targets students who are two or more years behind their classmates in age and skill-level, according to Ephraim Weisstein. He developed the model in collaboration with the School & Main Institute at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., with multi-year support totaling $450,000 from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Starting in eighth grade — a year earlier than most alternative high school models — Schools for the Future offers instruction through 75-minute blocks of learning. Academic courses are broken down into 30-day modules — “chunk-size bits of learning” — that enable students to move forward at their own rate, based on mastery and not on age or grade.

“What happens in each of those 75-minute blocks is different for every student,” said Weisstein, an education consultant who has worked with at-risk students for more than 30 years.

Schools for the Future builds on Diploma Plus, a program Weisstein designed and piloted in the mid-1990s.

“Most alternative models are based on a two- or three-year period. We start at eighth grade because that gives us the three to five years needed to stage the academic and social supports our students need to graduate and go on to college.”

“The more time we have the better; many of our students are reading at a fifth-grade level when they enter. Many of them arrive with lots of social and emotional issues. There are huge gaps in learning and maturity that need to be attended to,” Weisstein noted.

Schools for the Future also takes advantage of technology, using mobile devices to blend digital curriculum with face-to-face instruction, group and individual study, and coaching.

“Students learn through a mix of activities — seminars, normal classes and online work. At the end of each 30-day period, they are assessed for mastery and either move forward or, if additional practice is needed, assigned additional, supplemental activities,” Weisstein said.

Ultimately, each set of learning modules adds up to a credit-bearing course that will count toward district and state requirements for graduation. Schools for the Future is a college preparatory model, and students are required to pass the same comprehensive assessment tests as their counterparts in more traditional high schools.

“Our goal is to have our students pass the ACT college entrance exam with a score of 21 or higher,” said Weisstein. “We understand that many students who score a 17 or 18 on the ACT will perform well in college, but we want to push the bar higher.

“We’ve used that benchmark to develop our curriculum, working backward from a score of 21 to map the academic steps that need to be taken to meet that goal.”

Because many students who have fallen behind in school also struggle with social and emotional issues, Schools for the Future also works to “accelerate” maturation, says Weisstein.

“We work to build both the cognitive and affective skills of our students. We rely on a positive youth development approach to build students’ social and emotional IQ. It’s the second big piece contributing to the model and it’s the glue that is used to build identity and unity within the school. It’s critical to the school culture.”

A positive and supportive school culture is key to academic success, particularly for schools serving at-risk students, says Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, nonprofit think tank created nearly 20 years ago to develop ideas to help transform the state from a factory-based to a knowledge-based economy. Through its high school accelerator program in Detroit — where seven new models are already operating — Michigan Future will open a Schools for the Future pilot in September, 2012. The accelerator has an overall goal of achieving systemic high school education reform through the establishment of 35 new high schools by 2017.

“One of the important lessons we’ve learned over the past 10 years working with urban high schools is that the culture of the school — first among educators and then the kids they teach — trumps everything,” said Glazer.

Michigan Future selected the Schools for the Future model for a couple of reasons, most significantly its focus on at-risk students.

“It’s the only model we’ve reviewed that specifically targets this population,” said Glazer.

Schools for the Future also offers “one of the most comprehensive, innovative approaches to teaching” that Glazer’s group has reviewed.

“They started with a clean sheet — and they worked to discover exactly where urban kids are when they enter high school. They’ve done a lot of thinking about curriculum, about pedagogy, about teaching. Their approach — which uses blended learning, lots of teacher training — is very thorough, very impressive.”

While there are policy challenges to implementing the model, Glazer is confident that the State of Michigan will approve the necessary waivers granting credits based on demonstrated proficiency rather than time spent in the classroom.

“No one is targeting at-risk kids like Schools for the Future,” Glazer said. “It’s a very powerful model.”

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