Parents who want a challenging academic education for their children should look at middle schools and high schools that comprise these additional essential traits:
6 – Counseling that includes process and goals – not just for college or for students with IEP’s, but every year, for every student.
Students need a plan that is flexible and challenging at all levels – a plan that encompasses academics, community involvement, athletics or artistic pursuits, and social activities. They must take responsibility for the idea that all aspects of their lives determine the success of all others – that being a great athlete or having the lead in a drama production does not excuse poor academic efforts.
When students create their own goals in each area, they invest effort toward achieving those goals; the effort alone helps them to advance. An organized reassessment of goals each year allows for flexibility and ownership by students – schools which guide this process and allow for such flexibility (not just enforcement of “graduation requirements”) nurture academic excellence.
7 – “Best practice” concepts apparent – schools that “walk the walk”.
Many school administrators and teachers spout the most current “edubabble” – terms like integrated curriculum, process-based learning, and research and evidence-based standards – without putting those practices into play in their classrooms. Such academic processes require extensive teacher and counselor involvement with each student: in assignments, in the classroom, in planning academic goals.
Evidence of these concepts in practice are: teachers who are available after school hours by phone to answer questions and help students; homework assignments which are returned with commentary and suggestions for improvement; students who are excited about the concepts they are learning that add to their knowledge in other classes; principals who become personally involved with stakeholders in a genuinely caring way – who listen with interest and attention to the suggestions, concerns, and desires of their teachers, and students, and communities – and who actively address all such concerns.
8 – Student self-assessments that incorporate acceptance of academic weaknesses and strengths, and a commitment to improvement.
It is one thing for teachers to assess students, telling them how they need to improve, and an entirely different animal when students themselves assess – and create adjusted goals for – their own work. Schools take a step toward such self-assessment when they allow students to run portfolio-based parent conferences – showing off their best work, and discussing what they have learned in class that semester. However, such conferences are only a partial nod toward self-assessment.
Students must take an honest look at their own strengths and weaknesses – and then determine how they will address – with specific, outlined goals – which weaknesses to improve in the next semester. Without such a commitment from each student, portfolio-based assessments simply run the risk of being performance-based, rather than process-based. And the emphasis on performance only is the road away from ultimate academic success.
9 – Communication and commitment on the part of teachers, parents, and administrators in support of what is best for students’ academic success.
Schools that focus on student needs have an open, three-way communication about the requirements and responsibilities of each party in student success. Often, parents, teachers, and students sign a contract of their own commitments and responsibilities toward maintaining and achieving success. Effective administrators guide families toward each student’s best academic life rather than remaining aloof enforcers of paternalistic, restrictive graduation requirements. Schools that support student success are friendly, flexible, challenging, and fun places where all stakeholders feel appreciated, heard, and successful.
10 – Flexibility in grade levels and in awarding of credits which allow students to advance at their own pace.
Effective schools enable students to advance at their own pace through advanced – and remedial – curricula. Discarding the idea that all students in each grade level must learn and advance at the same rate, allowances are available for students to test out of classes; to receive credits for advanced work they have achieved in prior years; to take AP and other advanced courses when they are ready, rather than having to wait until 11th or 12th grade; to enroll in dual situations at private schools or colleges in order to receive more challenge or to learn languages or other elective coursework that is unavailable at the local school.
Flexibility is key to high achievement – many students drop out of high school, not because they are academically-incapable, but because their unique abilities and intellectual creativity are not stretched by available offerings. All students are stunted by restrictive academic policies. All students benefit from advanced techniques and creative curricula. All schools could achieve academic success – not by teaching to tests, not by increasing restrictive requirements, but by challenging students in a variety of contexts, and by challenging themselves to adopt “best practices” for every student, every day.
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