Public schools are often criticized for not keeping up with student needs — and that’s hard to refute.
In a world of constant change, the majority of public schools have remained rather in changed for decades. The structure is so standard that the public school you attended probably looked a lot like the schools your parents and grandparents attended — even if they did walk uphill both ways in the snow to get there.
But the needs of students are ever-shifting — and public schools are struggling to keep up.
Technology is now ingrained in our lives, but noticeably absent from poorly funded school districts. Racial justice movements are dominating modern activism, but history books remain whitewashed. Inequalities in public school access still exist, but we aren’t working to level the playing field. Standardized testing is the sole barometer for a public school’s success, but many argue these tests prove little about student or school success.
All of these issues play a role in what many say is a public school crisis.
Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school in the U.S.
Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school in the U.S. Approximately 25% of students who enter high school fail to graduate in four years.
If public schools received a grade by advocates for comprehensive education, it would undoubtedly be a “needs improvement.” And those advocates are taking up the challenge to raise the grade — and the bar — of public schooling. The first step? Reimagining what public school could look like.
From advocating for underserved students to completely redesigning how a curriculum is structured, innovative public schools are taking the glaring problems of the current model and working to solve them. Here are nine schools that are especially noteworthy in the quest to make public school actually work for youth today.
1. Carpe Diem Schools in Ohio and Indiana
IMAGE: CARPE DIEM SCHOOLS/FACEBOOK
Breaking the traditional classroom mold, students at Carpe Diem Schools in Ohio and Indiana work in what looks like your typical office space — individual cubicles included. The school emphasizes a blended-learning model for students ages 6-12, shifting away from classrooms restricted by age and treating students as partners in each other’s success.
Students at Carpe Diem work on solo computer-based projects that cater to their individual interests, with collaboration and support from peers and teachers. These individual projects are enhanced by professional-level workshops, acting as classroom instruction. The model moves away from the lecture-based classrooms we all know toward a more collaborative learning experience. Students are admitted on a first come, first serve basis.
2. The Alliance School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Serving middle and high school students, The Alliance School is a much-needed second chance for youth who have previously experienced bullying and harassment in other public school districts. Many of the students at The Alliance School identify as part of the LGBTQ community, a population of students especially at-risk for in-school harassment and is regularly underserved.
About 9 in 10 LGBTQ-identified students nationwide report experiencing harassment at school. The Alliance School was created with the goal of reducing this all-too-common reality, often cited as a success story and an example of how to properly support LGBTQ youth in schools. Interested students are required to set up a meeting with staff to discuss their needs and future enrollment.
3. Clintondale High School in Clinton Township, Michigan
IMAGE: CLINTONDALE HIGH SCHOOL
While most high schoolers focus on keeping up with lectures during the day and completing homework at night, students at Clintondale are experiencing their school days in reverse. Students watch pre-recorded lectures after school, but complete their homework in school, allowing teachers to work one-on-one with students to apply lectures to practice.
The school, which mostly serves low-income students of color, reports that the flipping of the school day has reduced student course failure rates by 33% and school disciplinary actions by 66%. The school accepts students based on a standard public school admissions model.
4. STAR School in Flagstaff, Arizona
Public schools are notorious for whitewashed history books that celebrate the triumphs of white “pioneers” while ignoring the violence against indigenous populations that enabled their so-called success. The STAR School in Flagstaff, however, works to recognize the histories and celebrate the cultures of indigenous communities — specifically the Navajo Nation.
The school, which serves grades K-8, operates on the Navajo tradition of valuing relationships, which is ingrained in the curriculum and operations. The school exists completely off the grid, powered by more than 200 solar panels and two wind generators to foster a healthy relationship between the school and the environment, which is vital for the community the school serves. Admission to the school operates on a public school model.
5. Brightworks School in San Francisco
IMAGE: BRIGHTWORKS SCHOOL/FACEBOOK
Brightworks founder Gever Tulley is known for valuing the lessons of danger. His book, Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), is just the starting point of Brightworks School’s edgy philosophy.
The school, which encourages exploration, expression and exposition, motivates children to play with fire (literally) and other things often labeled off-limits to children — in controlled, supervised environments, of course. The school operates on the philosophy that engaging responsibly with danger is actually an important part of learning, enhancing problem-solving and imagination while also teaching children to remain in control of their environment.
Though the model is undoubtably controversial, Tulley says the pay-off is watching student confidence blossom. Potential students and families have to attend an information session and apply to the program.
6. Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, New York
Pathways, which opened in 2011, goes above and beyond when it comes to public schooling — and that isn’t just a figure of speech. The school goes up to grade 14, relatively unheard of in the public school model.
This model means that students graduate Pathways with an associate’s degree at no cost to them — and that makes a world of difference. Through the program, students are set up for lifelong career and financial success, as the average associate’s degree holder in the U.S. makes about $10,000 more in median earnings than the average high school graduate.
New York City-based students need to apply to the school due to space, with preference given to students who attend information sessions.
7. The Primary School in East Palo Alto, California
IMAGE: THE PRIMARY SCHOOL
The Primary School, projected to open in August 2016, is an initiative started by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who is a pediatrician. The nonprofit K-12 initiative will bring together quality public education and comprehensive health care services for students and their families.
The school will especially focus on low-income families and families of color, which are regularly underserved by both health and educational systems.
8. Quest To Learn in New York
Children are taught that play is for recess, not for the classroom. Quest To Learn, a product of the Institute of Play, works to dispel this myth by proving that play and learning can — and should — mutually exist.
The public school, which serves grades 6-12, uses game-based learning to encourage captivation and critical thinking for its students. Game designers co-design curricula with Quest To Learn teachers, resulting in an innovative classroom redefining the rules of education. To attend the school, students and families have to show a passion for the school’s “unique approach to curriculum” — no minimum test scores required.
9. Parley’s Park Elementary School in Park City, Utah
In public schools, students who speak English as a second language are often discouraged from speaking their first language in class. This devaluing of language diversity is a problem Parley’s Park looks to solve.
Instead of requiring students to leave international languages at the classroom door, students spend half their day learning in Spanish and the other half learning in English. The school encourages this dual language instruction instead of making English dominate culturally, which leads to engaged students from both English and Spanish language backgrounds with the added bonus of constant language learning.
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