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What’s the best way to solve one of the most intractable problems in education reform, fixing failing high schools? It’s rare that students themselves are asked this question, but their input might be just as valuable as ideas from the experts. So The Hechinger Report asked Jerika Miller, 17, a student at William Smith High School in Aurora, Colorado, what she thinks matters most in turning around struggling high schools and designing successful new ones.
William Smith, formerly an alternative school where more than half of students are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunch, went from dropout factory to a model of success. In 2008, only about a quarter of seniors earned a diploma, according to state data. Last year, 66 percent graduated (The number would be above 80 percent, but several seniors each year elect to stay an extra year instead of graduating to enroll in community college classes paid for by the school)*. Educators attribute the transformation in part to the school’s adoption of project-based learning and a new emphasis on leadership among its 300 students.
Ambitious and driven, Jerika has planned on becoming a neurosurgeon since she was 6 years old, when her grandfather, who recently died, developed heart problems. “I figured if you could learn how to fix problems in your brain, you could figure out how to fix problems everywhere else,” she said.
Jerika moved around often as the daughter of a single dad who works in sales, changing schools almost annually. But despite William Smith’s old reputation as an alternative school for misfits, she found her niche there and has stayed put for three years, the longest she’s spent at any school. She is an honors student with a 3.9 GPA.
She talked to The Hechinger Report about why she was attracted to William Smith and what other schools might learn from its successes.
Question: How did you end up at William Smith?
Answer: I was going to Hinkley High School, which is an Aurora public school, and I really hated it. I was struggling. I wasn’t doing as well as I had hoped.
Q: Why is that?
A: I think that it was socially, everyone had found their friends. It was the last semester. It was hard to make friends and get into groups, so I became really reserved. My best friend was like, ‘You should apply to William Smith.’ So I did. The principal said they would love to have me.
Q: What were your schools like before –– were they better, worse? What makes William Smith different?
A: William Smith is my favorite of all the schools, just because everyone knows everyone and you’re no longer just a number. When I was going to these big high schools you were a student ID number and if you didn’t have your ID, no one knew who you were. It was like you didn’t really matter.
When I moved to William Smith, they’re very interested in what’s going on in your life and your schooling, and they want to know how you’re doing genuinely. They know you by name. William Smith is my family now. I’ve come to know everyone, and everyone means a great deal to me. It’s a different feel from going to a school where no one knows you.
It’s very community-based. We work to better not only our school, but our community, which is something I’ve never had in any school.
Q: We’ve been writing about how to reform high schools. What do you think William Smith has done right to improve itself?
A: Even though the teachers may sometimes change, the attitude doesn’t change. They’ve focused the entire curriculum on the big picture, and how to work to be a member of society, rather than get your diploma and leave. Even since my sophomore year, they’ve eliminated the stress on standardized tests. That was a huge thing for me. Even though we spend a little bit of time on ACT prep, we don’t base our entire class curriculum on how to pass a standardized test.
It’s very project-based, instead of reading from a textbook. I don’t think in the three years I’ve been here I’ve focused on a textbook. It’s very hands on, working in groups, working on projects, and being able to work with different people.
Q: And that’s changed in the time you’ve been there?
A: My math class sophomore year, I was doing a lot of worksheets. Then we started working on projects and working on real-life instances where we could use math. It really started junior year, and my study habits have definitely been influenced by the changes.
Q: What do they still need to work on?
A: One thing that we need to work on is getting people involved. From what I’ve seen, high schools work better when everyone is involved in something, and they feel like they can be part of a group. It’s really hard to get people in a small school motivated to get involved in things, because they feel like it’s not worth it because there aren’t enough people there.
If we could get people more excited about the things that are going on outside of academics at our school, that would be really cool: homecomings, leadership, stuff like that.
Being part of a group motivates you to be more involved in everything.
Q: What is the hardest thing to change?
A: It’s really hard to get students who don’t want to be involved, to be involved, or who don’t want to come to school, to come school, and create an environment that makes it feel like it’s not school anymore.
When teachers connect more with their students and are able to give them what they need, it’s easier for [students]. When they’re in an environment where they can ask questions and not feel stupid, that’s really important. For a long time, I came to school and I didn’t ask questions because I didn’t know my teachers and I didn’t feel safe in that classroom.
Q: What would you tell other struggling high schools to change first if they want to improve student outcomes?
A: What I would tell the teachers, listening to students and looking out for those students who don’t talk a lot, or don’t engage a lot in class, looking out for them and asking them how they’re doing, and making them feel like you actually care about them, is a huge, huge part of being successful in school. When the teacher cares and wants me to succeed, that’s always when I’ve done better.
Put out what you want to receive. Putting out the message that they can talk to you that you care, they’re going to care more about what you’re teaching and how they’re doing in class.
*Clarification: This article has been updated to include a note about William Smith’s four-year graduation rates, which would be higher without the district’s ASCENT program, which allows students to spend an extra year in high school and attend community college classes.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.