IN MANY WAYS, this new school year looks like a return to normal. But alongside the more familiar, deep and persistent challenges remain in many districts, and these concerns were exacerbated during the last two years. In Boston and across the region, we are faced with the challenge of not merely “returning to normal” because we know that normal was not supporting all students to be successful.
I have the privilege of working with dedicated school leaders across New England who are setting bold visions with their community to intentionally define their school purpose and model so that all students thrive in their high school and leave their K-12 education fully informed about their options and prepared to pursue their goals. There are school leaders committed to multi-year journeys to transform curriculum and instruction, the most important drivers of equity and excellence for students. Bright spots, representing the fundamental change we need to see in schools, exist. Coupled with an understanding of the deep concerns and challenges, bright spots provide an opportunity to show what is possible – not because their work is done and should be simply replicated – but because they provide inspiration for what could be.
Below are four high school options in Boston launched over the last decade that deserve recognition and can serve as inspiration for what’s possible in this time of change in the Boston Public Schools and across New England. These examples blend the lines between high school, college, career, and community and demonstrate that rigorous, purposeful learning experiences can be a core part of school, rather than on the periphery. They provide inspiration that it’s possible to design a school for all students – including and especially those who have been historically marginalized – to build the knowledge, skills, experiences, and social capital to pursue their dreams.
The Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain is the first dual-language high school in the district, and is home to educators who work closely with students, families, and the community to prepare students for higher education, careers, and civic leadership. The arts, technology, wellness, and a focus on culturally responsive approaches are underpinnings of their work. Striving for excellence, Margarita Muñiz Academy recently engaged their community to define their school’s “Portrait of a Scholar,” which describes what they want all students to know and be able to do by the time they graduate. The school is now establishing a “city as a campus” model to help make their portrait of a scholar a reality. Students are embarking on internships, dual enrollment opportunities, community service, and expeditions to learn in a broader context and acquire all the knowledge and skills identified in their portrait of a scholar.
One of the partners in the city as campus model is the Intrepid Academy at Hale, launched in 2018 with Barr Foundation support, which brings high school students and their teachers to a 1,000-acre preserve southwest of Boston each day for a semester of outdoor learning focused on leadership, community-building, and wellness. Students participate in the semester-long experience as their main education option, engaging in interdisciplinary and experiential curriculum based in nature while meeting state standards for math, science, and humanities.
Digital Ready offers comprehensive programming for BPS students in grades 11 and 12, and recently graduated (“year 13”) students that combines college, work-based learning, and rigorous academics. In partnership with local industry and higher education partners, Digital Ready focused on STEM-tech pathways that put students on a path to economic mobility. In addition to their Boston studios, Digital Ready is the key partner for an existing high school, SeaCoast High School in Revere, as they convert into CityLab Innovation High School. CityLab is reimagining the high school experience by using the city as a lab for learning so students can experience relevant and college-and-career-connected learning. The Revere partnership is an example of what is possible for Boston to sustain a new model as part of the high school ecosystem.
A Brighton-based Horace Mann (in-district) charter middle and high school, Boston Green Academy offers a unique environmental science and technology program and helps students find their individual paths after high school. Only five years ago Boston Green Academy became a full school for grades 6-12, serving about 500 students from every neighborhood and background in Boston. Now, it stands as one of the most improved and innovative in the district. It’s a model that “ignites curiosity and allows students to push past their preconceived ideas of what they can achieve.” Boston Green is continuing to deepen its impact with a concentrated focus on increasing instructional rigor.
It’s important to reflect on examples of ingenuity that can be living models for schools all over New England. It’s not enough to just see them as one-off bright spots. The intentional – and ongoing – journeys of these education options to transform core learning experiences for all students can be supported and scaled. Across each of these examples, students, families, and educators continue to be engaged in co-designing and refining the vision and model. We must be bold about our aspirations for profound school change and what’s possible for our students.
Jenny Curtin is the acting education director for the Barr Foundation. The Barr Foundation is a financial supporter of MassINC, the corporate parent of CommonWealth.