Raising the Bar

Raising the Bar

Raising the Bar

Pamela S. Bahre and Miguel A. Cardona

If you were to drive by either of the two high schools in Meriden, Connecticut, you would immediately notice the construction zone at each of the campuses. You would also notice both schools using new fully functioning wings. During the last three years, construction has transformed the learning environments for students into state-of-the-art classrooms with the equipment needed to prepare them as leaders for the workforce well into the next century. What you may not notice when you drive by the buildings are the changes taking place in the instruction at both schools. Equally as impressive, but longer lasting, is the transformation in teaching and learning at Orville H. Platt and Francis T. Maloney high schools.

There are also major changes transforming the experience of students. These changes are led by a school board team that understands the importance of policy in raising the bar. Recently, Pamela Bahre, chair of the curriculum subcommittee, made recommendations that were unanimously passed by the board. These recommendations came as a result of a thorough and systematic review of course offerings, and a clear vision to improve the conditions of students and the community in which they live. Preparing students for the next chapter in their educational careers starts well before they walk into our high schools. The district offer high school credit options in middle schools to allow eighth-graders an opportunity to work on graduation requirements while opening space in their high school schedules for elective courses. Similarly, each high school offers 18 courses where students earn college credit.

These aggressive efforts to provide greater opportunity and accelerate the achievement of all students, especially those who have historically underperformed, symbolize the impact course offerings can have on student success. The ability to provide these options for students comes from an understanding that high expectations start with a school board that understands course offerings and curriculum options can dictate how high the “bar” can be raised. The Meriden board uses its policy development process to ensure students are receiving more opportunities to be successful. An example of this was the recent vote to increase the number of high school college-credit bearing courses and add middle school courses offering high school credit. Increasing the rigor at both levels ensures students are better prepared for high school and college.

As a result of these offerings, the Advanced Placement (AP) and Early College Experience (ECE) course selections by students have increased exponentially in Meriden High Schools. When measuring improvement, it is best to measure growth over time. Over the last six years the district’s academic indicator growth as well as increases in students taking more rigorous coursework are among the best data the district has ever had. It demonstrates the commitment to improving the opportunities for Meriden’s next generation of students to find success in life.

Comparing the 2010-11 school year to the current school year, there has been a 127 percent increase in the AP or ECE overall enrollment of Meriden students. More students are taking these challenging courses, receiving more rigorous content, and being better prepared for post-graduate experiences. Some of the most dramatic gains can be found from students who are categorized in subgroups that have traditionally underperformed in the district, state, and nationally.

Students considered economically disadvantaged, measured in Meriden by including those qualifying for free or reduced lunch, have increased enrollment in AP/ECE courses by 300 percent. Black student enrollment has jumped 360 percent in this period, and Hispanic student enrollment has increased by 428 percent. Students who are learning English as a second language, commonly referred to as ELLs, have also benefitted from the bar being raised. In a six year period, the increase of ELLs taking rigorous AP/ECE courses has increased almost 2000 percent. Like the adage reminds us, “A rising tide raises all ships.” The Meriden narrative can read, “A rising bar raises all students.”

While a clear vision from the board of education, superintendent, and central office team are important, strategies at the school level are necessary to make this possible. In Meriden, several proven strategies have helped create a systemic shift to raise the bar.

Data analysis

Leadership and guidance teams at the schools are provided with metrics reporting the number of students in advanced courses. The data is further disaggregated by gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other indicators such as special education classification and ELL status. Having clear data to examine and serve as a guide for strategies ensures actions taken are focused on need.

Guidance involvement

The guidance department leaders understand the connection between enrollment in advance courses and college acceptance. As they counsel students and parents, these connections are shared. Through positive interaction with parents, guidance team ensures the bar is also raised at home. In many cases in urban districts, this generation of high school students may be the first to experience the college preparatory process. Preparing for college starts early in the high school course selection process, and the guidance team set high expectations for students and their families from the start.

Leadership meetings

The high school administrators meet with department leaders and review the participation rates of students in these rigorous courses. They look for patterns in disaggregated data and target outreach and student meetings when it is felt students are not taking rigorous enough courses. At these leadership meetings, they discuss the importance of course selection as a tool for student success with their teacher leaders. There is also a period of time where students are not allowed to drop an AP/ECE course. They must first experience two weeks in the class before setting up an appointment to discuss it with their guidance counselors.

Leaders also meet monthly to discuss student outcome data. During these meetings, they examine data identifying successes and needs for systemically raising the expectations for students. Using meeting time to collaborate on strategies aimed at establishing conditions for high expectations are vital at the district and school level.

Multiple pathways

Achieving success in rigorous courses can be accomplished in a variety of ways in Meriden. While the course offerings for Advanced Placement and Early College Experience courses are the primary method, other innovative options such as Personalized Learning Experiences (PLE) exist. Here, students design their course with the support of a teacher based on student interests. Students can choose to develop a PLE within the school in a content area of their interest or outside of the school with a community partner who can support the experiential learning of the student. One example of a successful internal PLE was the student who learned about leadership in a complex organization by setting up a course that included working with the superintendent. The student regularly confers with the superintendent, spends time with him at Central Office and visiting buildings, and develops an understanding of leadership principles in a designed and approved course. Another example of a PLE that took place in a high school was Piano 4. While this course in not offered at the high school, a student worked with a teacher and PLE Coordinator to establish rigorous standards for a personalized experience.

High school construction renovations provided opportunities for students to learn about architecture, project management, and construction design while earning credit through an external PLE. Here, the district partnered with its construction managers to offer an externship that supported course requirements developed by the student and teacher. When raising the bar, student choice is important. Students learn best when they are engaged and in control of their learning.

Another strategy aimed at offering more opportunities for students to access AP/ECE courses has been an increase in the number of online and summer offerings. Students are able to participate in summer programming that offers online and district-facilitated courses supervised by teachers. These, coupled with offering students PLE credit for extracurricular activities such as participating in an organized sport after school hours, allows open spaces in a student’s schedule for AP/ECE courses during the school year. The PLEs, online, and summer options allow students to select higher level courses when they are offered during the school year.

In order for the bar to be raised in Meriden, all systems must play a role starting with a high functioning school board. The board sets the tone with its vision for high achievement, but also with the policies it passes. The district administration is then responsible to ensure more options exist for all students. At the building level, teams must work to staff, teach, and encourage student participation in these courses. Together, everyone involved plays a critical role in student success.

The district celebrated the raising of the beam at Maloney High School in 2014 and at Platt High School in 2015. While the district takes pride in its buildings and understands that the raising of the beam is symbolic of the new era for its high schools, it also celebrates the school board’s raising of the bar as a new era of higher expectations and better outcomes for all students.

Pamela S. Bahre is a member of Connecticut’s Meriden Board of Education and serves as Chair of the curriculum sub-committee. Miguel A. Cardona, Ed. D., is assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for the Meriden Public School System.

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