By Kevin Hart
It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday, and the students of William Smith High School in Aurora, CO, are on the move – literally. Woody Dodd’s U.S. history students are recreating the 1965 marches in Selma, AL, altering the words to the civil rights tune Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.
One by one, the students discuss their goals and what stands in their way. One student talks about his dream of attending college, but how he is worried about paying tuition. In unison, the students sing:
“Ain’t gonna let tuition turn me ‘round.”
As the students sing passionately, one after one, about their futures, you’re left with one question: Is this really William Smith High School?
Is this the same alternative high school that served for years, in one administrator’s words, as a “dumping ground” and “school of last resort” for students who weren’t making the grade in traditional high schools?
You bet it’s the same school. Over the past two years, the 270-student William Smith High School has reinvented itself as a pilot school with an intense focus on union-district collaboration, expanded learning opportunities, and community outreach.
“The problems don’t go away. It’s how you solve them that’s different,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel during a recent visit to the school as part of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign. So far, the results of William Smith’s new approach have been nothing short of amazing.
Piloting a new course
In 2007, Aurora Education Association President Brenna Isaacs and local NEA representative Frank O’Hara approached the Aurora Public Schools District with a radical idea – they wanted to launch a pilot school initiative that would allow for greater flexibility in exchange for more accountability for student performance.
Pilot schools have a long history in Boston, which currently operates 21 of them, but the idea had never been tried on any scale in Aurora. School Superintendent John Barry quickly got on board, and worked with AEA to seek school board approval for converting William Smith to a pilot school.
“We were excited to be able to put together a proposal,” remembers AEA President Brenna Isaacs. “We built this from the ground up with collaboration with the district. It’s been an exciting process.”
William Smith officially became a pilot school at the start of the 2008-2009 school year, and was granted significant flexibility and autonomy in exchange for results. A joint steering committee, which includes union representation, administrators, faculty and community members, governs the school, which receives the standard district per-pupil allotment, but has flexibility in how it spends the money.
It’s similar to a charter school model, but unlike charter schools, which are often accused of “creaming” the best students from a district and opening few slots for special education students and English language learners, William Smith is required to serve the exact same demographic as the district. That includes students of color, including a significant Latino population, and many students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“We do not screen for achievement, behavior or attendance,” principal Jane Shirley said.
And William Smith is required to exceed district averages on state testing and other key metrics within three years. That’s a daunting task, but through a focus on attitude improvement, collaboration and preparing students for the future, William Smith is already well ahead of schedule.
You can’t turn around a school without student buy-in, and changing the attitude and culture of the school was an immediate priority for William Smith staff. In 2004-2005, the school only had a 73% attendance rate, and 75% of ninth graders failed at least one course.
I had a student say, ‘I’m not respecting anyone until they respect me,” Shirley remembered. “My response was, ‘How’s that working out for you?’”
The William Smith staff needed to find a way to improve achievement among these same students in a short period of time. The process started with having students accept ownership of their education.
School administrators and staff reinvented the school’s educational philosophy around the idea of a ship. They encouraged students to stop seeing themselves as passengers, and start seeing themselves as crew members, actively participating in the hard work of developing their characters and minds.
“The crew reaches the same destination as the passengers, but they have a much richer experience,” said Shirley. “We’re building a community of crew.”
Early on, the students made clear they wanted to help chart the course. A group of students approached Shirley and expressed frustration about some attitude and discipline problems in the school. They wanted to serve as peer mentors to help get these students back on track.
The Rudder Team – which has become a powerful leadership force at the school – was born. The team, under the leadership of faculty advisor Brooke Jacobson, helps mentor incoming freshman and sets a positive example for school behavior.
Faculty members also meet each day with their “crews,” a cohort of students they advise. Crew activities run the gamut from literacy exercises to career and college guidance.
“A lot of it comes down to one-on-one interactions, and because of our autonomy I get more of those opportunities,” said reading teacher Paul Grzybowski.
Collaboration and engagement
The pilot school project at William Smith has been a collaborative effort among the teachers union, administrators, community members and students since day one. They jointly manage the school and hold each other accountable for its success.
Staff collaborate over the summer, before students return to school, to plan lessons and student experiences for the year. The school day includes scheduled time for teachers to collaborate, share ideas and provide each other with constructive feedback. It’s also a time to talk about experiments teachers want to try regarding everything from new texts to how they pace their classes.
The school has also made tremendous strides engaging and collaborating with parents, getting them more involved in their children’s education. Admittedly, that process got off to a slow start.
“When we first started, we had three parents at our parent conference,” Shirley remembers, shaking her head.
Now, the participation is near-total. At the end of each year, all William Smith ninth graders present their work for the year and justify why they feel they should advance to tenth grade. This past year, nearly all the parents attended.
The school also works with community groups and looks for ways to leverage the extensive educational resources in the Denver metropolitan area. For example, the school collaborated with the University of Colorado’s medical school on a biology curriculum, and has reached out the local art groups that can provide guest lecturers in their areas of specialty.
Preparing students for the future
Because of the flexibility that comes with autonomy, William Smith is able to implement a number of activities designed to prepare students for their futures. By the time they graduate, all students have had extensive experience using first-rate technology that most would never be able to afford on their own.
The school leased 120 laptops from Apple – nearly one for every two students – and also incorporates iPods, video editing and Promethean Boards into lessons.
“Technology is not a separate subject,” Shirley said. “It’s a tool students use to complete their work.”
Students also participate in spring “intensives,” where they engage in activities designed to provide new skills and experiences. Spring intensives can include scientific experiments, photography workshops, or even work with paranormal psychologists.
“We want the students to do the work of scientists, artists and musicians,” said Deputy Superintendent Tony Van Gytenbeek.
Because college tuition is such a burden for most William Smith students, the school works to ensure that many students graduate with several college credits. The school has partnered with the Community College of Aurora and Pickens Technical College (located right next door) to offer courses for college credit.
In fact, several students graduate from William Smith each year with associate degrees. These students are prepared to enter the job force or attend four-year colleges where they will save thousands in tuition.
Sue Clark, a retired teacher and administrator who now serves as a member of William Smith’s joint steering committee, sums up the school’s progress in one sentence.
“This went from being a school of last resort to a school of first choice,” she said.
The school’s 73% attendance rate from 2004-2005 is now a distant memory. This past school year, attendance was in the mid-90s. And what about those 75% of freshman who failed a class in 2004-2005? That number may hit zero this year.
The school is already exceeding district averages in reading and math, and the numbers continue to climb.
“William Smith is on target,” said Superintendent Barry. “If you’re going to have that autonomy, you have to have that accountability.”
The goal now will be to spread William Smith’s blueprint throughout Aurora (additional pilot schools are already planned) and to see where else in America it can be duplicated.
“Education has built some campfires of excellence, but campfires by definition are not supposed to spread,” NEA’s Van Roekel told a meeting of William Smith’s joint steering committee. “We want to create brushfires of excellence.”
William Smith’s staff and students may have started a brushfire, and once you witness the spirit of collaboration among the staff and the sense of excitement among the students, it’s clear the fire will burn for some time.
As Woody Dodd’s students might sing, they ain’t gonna let nobody turn them ‘round.