Choctawhatchee High School, known locally as Choctaw, is situated between two military bases in the Florida Panhandle. Its nearly 2,000 students attend classes that are traditional in content and style—lecture format, rigorous lessons. Afterschool activities include athletic teams and pep rallies. Community pride runs deep.
At the Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, New York, there are no athletic teams at all; its physical education offerings include yoga and swing dance. Instead, the school specializes in mathematics, science, and communication arts, and offers a rich set of courses in writing, literature, theater, television, and drama. Murrow’s theater productions, many of which are written and staged by students themselves, are known as some of the best high school productions in all of New York City.
Centreville High School is located in Fairfax County, Virginia, the wealthiest county in the U.S. It is a large suburban high school serving nearly 2,000 students. Despite the general affluence in the community, Centreville has a very diverse student body. Many of the students live in the area’s subsidized housing units and qualify for free and reduced lunch, while others are the children of international families that work in the D.C. area. Nearly 40 percent of the student population is minority. Centreville has a wide offering of Advanced Placement courses and was recently ranked in the top two hundred high schools in the country by Newsweek.
These three high schools are different in terms of their demographics, culture, and curriculum, yet they share a common distinction—they are high-performing schools where all students, including those with disabilities, are achieving academic and social success.
In a project called Good High Schools, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Programs, EDC researchers Cynthia Mata Aguilar and Catherine Cobb Morocco set out to identify, study, and promote the practices of three exemplary high schools. “We looked for high-performing schools that are also good for students with disabilities,” explains Aguilar. “That’s an important distinction. There are many lists of high-performing high schools out there, but not all of those schools are good places for students with disabilities. In fact, in some schools, students with disabilities are squeezed out of the testing and not really paid attention to.”
Using quantitative and qualitative methods, the research team “worked backward” from student achievement data to understand what these schools are doing right. “We’re using multiple instruments to get a total picture of the schools—assessment data, teacher surveys, student interviews. Each one gives us a different slice of the school,” says Aguilar.
The researchers began by analyzing each school’s performance on statewide assessments, with particular attention to the success rates of students with disabilities. Project staff members then immersed themselves in the day-to-day lives of these schools in order to understand how they successfully support all students in achieving academic and social success. They engaged in conversations with administrators, teachers, and parents, and spoke with many different students. They also “shadowed” or followed five students in each school as they went through a typical day. The researchers were careful to select students with and without disabilities in order to see the school through the eyes of a variety of students and understand their daily experiences. Through this investigation, they have begun to identify a wide range of practices at the schools that enable students with disabilities to access, participate in, and succeed in a rigorous, standards-based curriculum.
There is good reason to be concerned about how high schools are meeting the needs of students with disabilities. High school is a critical experience for all adolescents, but particularly for those with disabilities. They need opportunities to develop social and academic skills and to build a sense of competence and independence in order to make a successful transition to postsecondary education and work. Yet, nationwide, students with disabilities drop out of high school at twice the rate of their nondisabled peers. In the tenth grade, their achievement scores level off at a fifth-grade level.
Fortunately, this is not the story at all schools. In their study, the Good High Schools team has identified several factors common to all three schools that appear to contribute to a quality educational experience for students with diverse abilities and needs.
Good high schools personalize learning for students with disabilities
“There are no cookie-cutter approaches in these programs,” explains Aguilar. At Centreville High School, for instance, there is open enrollment for all classes, but students are “hand-scheduled” into those classes. Rather than relying on computers to generate class lists, Teresa Johnson, the special education department chair, personally schedules each of her students into the mixed-group, inclusive classes before the general education students are scheduled. This practice allows her to match student needs to teacher strengths and gives a struggling student another chance at success with a different teacher. At a school like Centreville, which prides itself on its rich Advanced Placement offerings, hand scheduling also allows teachers to review class lists and ensure that the students taking advantage of these courses represent the full diversity of the student body.
Good high schools promote teacher collaboration
This includes co-teaching models where the special education teachers work in the general education classroom alongside their general education colleagues. The models of co-teaching are different in each school, but across all three the special education staffs successfully coordinate their efforts with the general education staffs. For instance, at Centreville, co-teaching by a general and special education team is standard practice. It occurs across all grade levels and disciplines, including mathematics and science. At Choctaw only the ninth and tenth grade English/language arts classes are co-taught. However, for those special education students enrolled in general education classes, teachers regularly submit written updates on each student’s academic progress, conduct, and work habits to the special education department. These reports are used as part of the quarterly conferences that the special education staff have with their students to ensure their successful participation in the general education curriculum.
Good high schools support all students in reaching school and district standards
The three schools set high academic standards and support all students in reaching them. They include their students with disabilities in the standards-based curriculum and require them to participate in statewide assessments. Murrow is a school that offers a quality academic program in a nontraditional setting. It ensures access for all students by offering its rich course selection in a variety of forms that provide differing levels of academic support. A course on the Civil War, for example, might take the form of an honors course open to all students (with prior approval), a general education classroom with optional resource room support, or an “inclusive” classroom where students with and without disabilities are co-taught by a general and special education teacher team. Across these varied settings and levels of support, students have the same major learning goals. In a common schoolwide practice, teachers write an aim or big idea on the board to be discussed and developed that day. All students then engage in learning the same big idea, though the amount and complexity of the readings and the writing assignments may vary across classes. This practice ensures that all students and teachers, in all settings, are grappling with complex and important ideas.
Along with providing access to the full course selection and curriculum, Murrow provides additional layers of support for struggling students. “Ramp-up” classes, for instance, help ninth- and tenth-grade students with weak mathematics or literacy skills prepare for the state’s standardized exams. Some ramp-up classes are co-taught by a special education and general education teacher. The school also provides individual services for Murrow students with mobility, visual, auditory, and other more severe disabilities.
Good high schools develop a particular focus or identity
For Choctaw it is a sense of community and belonging. “It’s a school that prides itself on traditions, like pep rallies,” says Aguilar. “When we interviewed teachers at this school, they used involvement in after-school activities as evidence that the students were doing well. They are proud of this inclusive philosophy.” The school boasts 40 clubs and extra-curricular activities, and students with disabilities are participating in all of them, including ROTC and varsity sports. In fact, the football team quarterback is a special education student.
Choctaw is deeply embedded in the community, a school with intense pride in its successes, both academic and social. Students here have the sense of belonging to a community that genuinely knows and values them. During the interview process, alumni were eager to talk with the researchers about what their Choctaw education meant to them. A successful local entrepreneur reported that he was a special education student at Choctaw and learned that it was okay to learn differently and that he could succeed as well as people who read a lot better than he does. “Some of the alumni became choked up with emotion remembering their days at Choctaw,” says Aguilar.
Centreville also makes it a priority to include students with disabilities in after-school and extra-curricular activities. A ninth-grade girl with cystic fibrosis is the manager of the softball team, for instance. “When playing away games, the school staff always has to call ahead to see if the field is accessible for her,” says Aguilar. “The special education department chair has had to fight some major battles for transportation as well as access to other schools’ facilities,” she says. “The principal also shared with us the story of a young man with Down syndrome who traveled with the chorus to Disney World to compete in the musical competitions. Many details had to be arranged so that he could have an authentic experience, from rooming with other students to actually competing.”
Good high schools promote strong leaders among their special education staff
The special education staff at all three schools are multitalented leaders in the school community. They hold positions of authority, like assistant principalships, and they are strong advocates for young people with disabilities. At Centreville, a school with a strong academic focus, the special education department is the largest and best-respected department in the school, according to the principal. The department recently won the ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens) award, testifying to its excellence. Department Chair Teresa Johnson, also the principal of one of Centreville’s three sub-schools, personally attends all of the Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings for her incoming ninth graders. She is proud of having successfully advocated for increasing the number of upper level classes co-taught by special and general education staff.
At Choctaw, the special education department takes a leadership role among the faculty by conducting an ongoing professional development program for general education staff members. Once a month they provide training on strategies for accommodating students with disabilities in the general classroom.
Working with a national advisory group and reform organizations and networks, the Good High Schools staff will disseminate these and other effective high school practices to school leaders, families, policymakers, and researchers across the country. “This is not an intervention project,’ explains Aguilar. “We are unpacking good examples and promoting them so that other educators can learn from what these schools are doing right.”
Originally published on September 1, 2005