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Taking Small Steps Towards Change At A Big, Traditional High School

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 (Flickr/Spiros Vathis)

It’s easy to hear or read stories of innovation happening at other schools and write them off -- those schools won a grant to try something new, or work with a less difficult population, or are charter networks, or are smaller, the list goes on. And while these factors matter, innovation is happening in big traditional schools too. How can administrators and teachers working in more traditional settings incorporate interest-driven, student-centered approaches without letting go of the diversity and broad offerings of a comprehensive school? It’s a challenge, but it starts with small steps.

Many students thrive in big traditional high schools. For some kids, playing on a sports team is the only thing motivating them to continue working hard at school. And big high schools can offer students many more choices including AP courses, foreign languages, arts and musical opportunities like band, chorus and orchestra. All these activities contribute to a vibrant community with many options for students to find a niche. Teachers and administrators at West Seattle High School are trying to hold onto all these good qualities and make shifts in pedagogy at the same time.

“The high school structure doesn’t work for every student,” said West Seattle Principal Ruth Medsker. Often big high schools like West Seattle require students to be compliant in order to fit in and that can lead to disengagement. Medsker is interested in finding models within her large school that offer something different to students who want it.

“How do we make the system fit the child instead of trying to make the kid fit the system?” she asked. Teachers at her school are exploring this question in a variety of ways, including through a pilot advisory-type program that began with a cohort of 25 tenth graders.

“The idea was these students have promise, they have skills, they have things to offer, but something about our school system wasn’t working for them,” said Matt Kachmarik, who acted as the advisor, social studies and English teacher to this group of students. As much as possible, school staff tried to give these 25 kids schedules that would allow them to take classes together. They also focused on non-cognitive skills using reflection, team-building games and discussion to tease out what was going on outside of school, as well as barriers to learning inside its walls.


“I definitely have some students who are among the deepest thinking of anyone in the entire grade,” Kachmarik said. Some of them are under a lot of stress or have experienced trauma or just don’t have strong executive functioning skills, but they’ve found a home in what they call the Focus program.


The staff hoped that keeping students together with a fewer number of teachers for most of the year would allow them to develop stronger bonds with adults and peers in the school who they could turn to when they needed help. And, because everyone was getting to know each other well, they could explore more interest-based projects and even give students opportunities to shadow professionals outside of school.
“When you start doing these cohorts you’re limiting them to a few classes,” Medsker said. “But you’ve built this capacity for them to advocate and see how their class choices affect where they want to go at the end of the day.”

The students who took part in the initial pilot program no longer have all their classes together, nor is the focused support of advisory built into their day now that they are juniors. But at least some of the students have found more success in the wider school after the experience.

Terrah was struggling after her freshman year. A few years before she moved to Seattle with her mom and siblings from Ohio and the transition hasn't been easy. She didn’t have a lot of friends in middle school and high school was overwhelming.

“A lot of my teachers told me they saw a lot of potential in me, but my transcript didn’t really show it,” Terrah said. Her teachers could tell she was working hard, but she struggled with math and often experienced anxiety that she said feels like something is pressing down on her, pushing her to explode. She still feels that way sometimes, but when it happens, she asks to visit the tutoring center, where one of her mentors from the previous year works. She can work in her own way when she’s there.

“I have a different learning style than most,” Terrah said. “I don’t like sitting in classrooms and taking notes.” She appreciated that in her Focus program she got individualized attention and formed tight bonds with the other students. “I made new friends through the program. It was just teachers caring about kids individually instead of putting everyone in a box.”

West Seattle has taken many ideas from the Big Picture schools, which focus on relationships, relevance and rigor. A core practice of schools following that model is exhibitions, when students present their work and how it connects to learning goals in front of an authentic audience. Terrah found this assignment scary at first, but also rewarding.

“We took things we were really proud of ourselves and put them together into a project and showed them to everyone’s parents including our own,” Terrah said. At first, she was worried that the work she was proud of wouldn’t be impressive to other kids’ parents. But she said parents were blown away. “A lot of parents were really impressed because their kids had never mentioned school things or said ‘Hey, look at my work.’ ”


The initial years of this pilot program have seemed to show some good results. Students in the program had fewer absences and passed their core classes at better rates. They’ve learned about themselves as learners, including strategies and habits of mind that will help them be effective in school and they’re trying to use those now that they don’t have as much support.

Medsker is also pushing numerous other changes in the school that fit well with the Focus program. She’s asking teachers to do more project-based learning and the whole school is trying to change the grading system. Medsker is pushing for 70-minute periods across the district to facilitate this work and is trying to find ways to let students get credits for internships outside of school.

“We’re using [the Focus program] as a lab for our schools,” Medsker said. “We’re putting teachers in there who want to do the work -- teachers who are skilled at relationships and who want to do something different in their classrooms.” The program has helped start some buzz around the school -- uninvolved teachers are taking note. Several came to watch the student exhibitions and were impressed. A teacher who declined participation originally is now interested in making her course part of the cohort.

The team is also learning a lot along the way. While the initial exhibitions focused mostly on non-cognitive skills, now teachers are pushing to make them more about academic work. To do that, they are considering a portfolio system to catalogue student work. They’ve already begun to do student-led conferences, but they see portfolios as a step forward to make those conversations more concretely about what the student did. Teachers of the cohort are also thinking through how they might do more interdisciplinary projects.

West Seattle High is also trying to implement a similar program with incoming freshmen, guessing at which kids could use a little more support based on factors like attendance in middle school. The hope is that a program like this will help prevent those kids from falling through the cracks of a big high school in the first year.


Ultimately, kids all learn in different ways and one of the strengths of a big school is the diversity it offers. West Seattle’s program is one attempt to provide a different option for kids who aren’t succeeding in traditional classrooms.

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