Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio's High-Performing Urban High Schools

“Nobody is satisfied with the educational performance of Ohio’s poor, urban, and minority youngsters—or the schools that serve them.” This was how we opened our 2010 report Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio’s High-Performing, High-Need Urban Schools, which examined high-flying elementary schools.

That sentiment is just as true for the high schools we studied in 2012 as it was in 2010 for the grade schools we examined. Yet there are high schools in the Buckeye State that buck the bleak trends facing too many of our urban students. Such schools show significant achievement for disadvantaged youngsters from depressed inner-city communities.

Whereas the original version of Needles in a Haystack looked at eight exceptional elementary schools, this report examines six high schools that are making good on promises of academic excellence; specifically, schools that work for low-income and minority students. These high schools make serious efforts not to leave anyone behind. It’s a tall order, as too many urban schools—which we have come to know are those with high numbers of poor and minority students—leave too many children behind. For example: Ohio has 135 high schools that have been identified as “dropout factories”—schools that fail to graduate more than 60 percent of their students on time. They account for roughly 15 percent of the state’s high schools.

All of our Needles high schools—two each in Cleveland, Dayton, and Columbus—have student bodies that are more than 60 percent economically disadvantaged. Five of the six have majority African American enrollment. All but one (DECA) of these Needles schools is a district high school, working within the confines of a district bureaucracy and with labor union rules. Schools with these demographics, in urban settings, are lucky to have 70 percent of their students pass basic state tests and graduate 60 percent of their students. Yet students in these Needles schools score ten, 20, even 30 points higher than their district peers—and over 90 percent of these students graduate, most going on to some form of higher education. In fact, U.S. News ranked three of these Needles schools in the top 101 schools in Ohio; two others earned Bronze Medals from the magazine.

 2012 Needles in a Haystack High Schools

School Name

City

Grades Served

Enrollment

Principal

Centennial High School

Columbus

9-12

773

Frances Hershey

Columbus Alternative High School

Columbus

9-12

606

Sharee Wells

Stivers School for the Arts

Dayton

7-12

911

Erin Dooley

Dayton Early College Academy (DECA)

Dayton

7-12

390

Dave Taylor

John Hay Early College High School

Cleveland

9-12

225

Carol Lockhart

Cleveland School of the Arts

Cleveland

6-12

634

Andrew Koonce

Such high-performing outlier schools have tantalized us since we first noticed them in the state achievement data for schools in Ohio’s big cities, which we analyze and report on every year. We undertook this study of high-performing, high-need high schools in order to understand and spotlight the reasons for their success.

How did we find these “needles in a haystack” high schools?

We started out by looking at enrollment and achievement data for 818 public high schools (Ohio has more than 818 public high schools; we reviewed data for those schools for which three years of data were available: 2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11). We wanted to identify those schools that served predominately economically disadvantaged students with a particular focus on those schools that also served a majority of students of color. We then looked for high schools in the data that performed at a relatively high academic level for at least three consecutive years (2008-9 through 2010-11). After applying our performance criteria, 50 schools (just six percent of what we started with) met the cut in terms of both being high-need and high-performing. From these 50 we settled on a sample of six to profile.

These six aren’t the only such high-need, high-performing schools in Ohio. But in order to put limits around our project, we focused on those schools serving the neediest urban high school students, and delivering truly uncommon results over multiple years.

To study these Needles high schools and report on what makes them tick, we called on veteran journalist, and former news editor of Life magazine, Peter Meyer. Peter has vast experience when it comes to covering education, from working with the Fordham Institute and covering the challenges facing America’s schools and their students, to serving as a member of his local board of education. Peter and his research assistants spent several days in each of the schools, clocking more than two hundred hours observing classes and interviewing district administrators, school leaders, teachers, parents, and students. Peter also scoured public sources of information and vetted dozens of documents about each school provided by Fordham.

The resulting report provides important insights into how to improve high schools so they can better serve our neediest kids. In the Afterword of the report we these share six policy lessons that we believe can help us in the ongoing struggle to create and sustain more high-performing urban high schools:

  • Significantly increase the number of new high-performing high schools, both district and charter, while closing or substantially restructuring failing schools.
  • Encourage school-based principal training programs.
  • Adopt a “tight-loose” approach to accountability by setting clear, data-specific goals for schools then directing funds to schools, relaxing mandates, slashing regulations, and cutting strings so that school leaders have the control and operational freedom to meet those goals.
  • Discourage administrative churn in high-achieving schools.
  • Empower schools to hire and retain the best talent available.
  • Engage parents.

Our six Needles high schools prove that it is possible to do right by high-need youngsters within the framework of America public education—and give the lie to defeatists and excusers who claim dropout factories are to be a given until we fix families and their communities.

As with the first Needles report, we hope that by uncovering the secrets of these schools’ exceptional performance we can suggest district and state policies and practices that will foster more such schools—without making it harder on the few we have now. Even if the ingredients of success turn out to be no secrets at all—and in fact many of the ingredients of success for these high schools are similar to what we discovered in the original Needles schools—transforming that understanding into widespread practice remains a challenge for Ohio educators, policymakers and commentators. Because, as we all know, such schools don’t happen by accident. If Ohio wants more of them, the adults have to make it happen.

 

Download the full report here

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