Letter to Board of Education on High School Redesign

As part of my job, I recently attended a national conference from the Dept. of Education on effective transition for students with disabilities. A major part of the two-day conference focused on high school redesign and how the researched elements of redesign dovetail with what we also know is important to the successful transition of students with disabilities.
In looking at the national data, students in poverty, students of color and students with disabilities are all facing similar hurdles: lower than normal graduation rates, lower literacy levels when leaving school, less experience with rigorous coursework and lower employment rates (with corresponding lower wage levels).

As a member of the West High community, I want to applaud its success in implementing small learning communities and a rigorous core of courses for freshmen/sophs (along with freshman advisory, lunch-and-learn tutoring, noon clubs and other initiatives designed to engage students and elevate achievement). My sophomore, who has taken the embedded honors in English and Western Civ, in addition to an honors math sequence, has loved her classes, learned to think critically, shared perspectives with students from around the world and from all economic levels, and has appreciated making friends by having many classes with the same cadre of students in her SLC.

Likewise, West has long included students with disabilities in a wide range of general education courses. Its transition program has one of the highest success rates in Wisconsin, successfully developing jobs for students, preparing them for community living, and enrolling them in tech school and other post-secondary options. However, I continue to be concerned with what I see in all four Madison high schools (which data also shows is an issue nationwide):
— Very few African American, SE Asian and Latino students in college-prep courses. (A friend of my daughter’s says he has ONE African American student a classmate across all 7 hours of his day.)
— Lower attendance rates among students of color.
— Less engagement in extra-curriculars and in student leadership roles by students of color and students with disabilities (I don’t think any of the Student Government members at West are African American or have a significant disability. Students with disabilities often are not included on field trips or in other extra-curriculars outside of school unless a parent comes with, which isn’t age-appropriate for high schoolers).
— Different expectations for students based on race and disability. As a member of the district’s Equity Task Force, I reviewed comments from more than 400 community members. ALL demographic groups mentioned differing expectations for students based on race. Students I’ve talked with at West agree, saying students of color are much more likely to be stopped in the hallways. Likewise, parents I know from several high schools in town have been told their children with disabilities can’t take specific honors classes, despite high test scores and past success in high-level courses. One was told that the high school doesn’t provide accommodations in honors classes. The other was told students with significant physical disabilities don’t take “those” kind of classes.
Some aspects of high school redesign that I hope the grant writers can include in their application include:
— Mechanisms for ensuring high expectations for all students. This includes students with disabilities. We need to see a broader range of students in a variety of leadership positions in the school. I’ve heard there will be advisory committees for each high school as part of the grant. I hope that creative recruitment and supports will encourage a wide range of students, particularly students who have not been as successful in our high schools, to be part of these leadership teams.
— Increased effective guidance counseling for all students. Often, students with disaiblities and students who don’t seek out college prep guidance counseling don’t have as much access to career assessment/planning, interest/aptitude inventories, course planning, etc. I know West High has fabulous guidance counselors, but not nearly enough staff or time to do what they need to do.
— Disaggregation of the data to pinpoint our greatest challenges. What do we know from MMSD data about how each group of high schoolers is doing? What is our participation rate in activities for each demographic group? What are the dropout rates? Post-school employment rates? College-prep coursework rates? How many students in specific groups (including those with disabilities) are leaving school with a regular diploma? How many are prepared for secondary education? How many students with disabilities have access to general education courses?
— Effective and adequate professional development. Learning to teach in different ways is integral to high school redesign. General educators need resources to know how to differentiate and provide modifications/accommodations in classes for students with diverse needs: high flyers, English Language Learners, students with specific disabilities, students who are not initially engaged, etc. Special educators should have knowledge about course content involved in general education courses. Both sets of teachers need training on team teaching and collaborative planning. All teaching is moving away from lecture-driven, didactic and passive instruction toward more engagement, collaborative teamwork and critical thinking and problem-solving in the classroom. Teachers need the time and resources to learn and practice new teaching strategies.
— Effective leadership. Will all our high school leaders have access to professional development and other resources to ensure that their staff understand inclusion/disability/diversity/cultural issues?
— Finally, all students, including those with disabilities, will need to be active, engaged members of their small learning communities if high school redesign is really successful. Students with disabilities should be part of the entire school community, not segregated into one small learning community or teaching team. Students of all backgrounds and abilities should be represented in extra-curriculars, student leadership, and decision-making at the building level. We should see all students feeling welcome and included at dances, school events, in clubs and engaged with lunchtime activities. Last week, national author and trainer Dr. Francie Kendall visited the University to talk about the absolute importance of a diverse workforce. Her specialty is technical assistance to institutions of higher learning and she does a lot of consulting for UW-Madison. She talked about the economic cost (dollars and cents) of being a homogeneous institution. One comment that stuck with our group was that an employee who does not feel welcome in the workplace spends 40% of his/her productivity/energy on coping with workplace factors, rather than on his/her job. Likewise, she cited research showing that today’s businesses have found it too expensive to hire college grads who have not had experiences working with ALL demographic groups. The best solutions to business challenges come from groups who represent all different economic, social, cultural and ability backgrounds. Her comments on what businesses and universities have learned about how to be profitable and successful seemed especially germaine to what our high schools need to have in place to support tomorrow’s work force.

Beth Swedeen

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Filed under AMPS, Equity

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