It has been a year of extraordinary change and growth at North Rowan High School. A few years ago, North Rowan High School was designated as a “Restart School” and given charter school like flexibility. This designation was done based on the school not meeting growth goals for several years in a row. With this status, the school was allowed to relaunch itself with less restrictions and escape from the traditional ways that public schools are governed in North Carolina. The school was able to change its calendar to align with the community college system. As a result, North Rowan, while the smallest high school in Rowan-Salisbury Schools, has one of the highest percentages of students enrolling in community college courses while in high school. This affords students the opportunity to earn college credits before high school graduation. Based on this system, it is possible for students to complete a large majority of their community college course requirements for either degrees or certification programs. Further, there is minimal cost to the student and their family. This provides an opportunity for post-high school education that many of our students may not have received otherwise due. It saves families financial resources as well. In fact, North Rowan High School has so many students taking courses that our community college sends several instructors to our campus to teach classes.
Another benefit afforded by the charter like flexibility is the ability for the school’s leadership to work to redesign the school in a way that benefits all students. Many of our students come from challenging socioeconomic conditions. As a result, the school often provides positive interactions for our students as well as meeting many of their basic physical needs. In doing so, we have had to acknowledge that we must first meet our students’ primary needs of hunger, clothing, and belonging before we can assist them in meeting their educational goals. We have instituted training and development around recognizing and supporting students who have experienced various types of trauma. This has helped the staff to recognize signs of students experiencing trauma and how to respond to best support these students. While this is not necessarily tied to having charter like flexibility, the ability to really think and diagnose the true needs of our students in our redesign is tied to the flexibility.
One of the most extraordinary benefits of having flexibility has involved the ability to redesign our curriculum. We have created a lower and upper school. The lower school, composed of 9th and 10th grades, is a hybrid creation that helps to support student with the transition from middle school to high school. Again, we have taken the time to create protocols and practices that best support students as they enter high school. Each grade level is small enough so that it functions as traditional department. The teachers meet at least once weekly to discuss the progress of students and outline any necessary steps to better support students. Further, there are often multiple teachers who attend parent conferences and IEP meetings.
If one teacher contacts a parent, they share the overall progress of the student in all courses typically. This has helped to address any challenges that our students are experiencing. This set up is typically unheard of in high school. It is an effective practice that has been modified from middle school. The grade level also has the same planning period while facilitates the teachers meeting. We implemented intensive intervention with all students in danger of failing courses in early March and continued support through the end of the academic year.
Perhaps the biggest benefit that our students, especially those who had not historically been as successful in school, was the creation of a Design / Challenge Based Learning course. This is the course that would have had Piaget and Vygotsky giving “high gives” to our school’s visionary leadership. The school formed supportive partnerships with various organizations to institute this new way of learning in school.
Students were initially uncertain about this course as they were so accustomed to “the test prep model of schooling” where they are given the information, memorize it, and provide it back on the test. Instead of continuing to perpetuate conditions of “winners and non-winners” in the classroom, we have developed a learning experience where all students can be winners. This means that all students can share their unique gifts, attributes, and strengths in a way that is incorporated into their learning.
By changing the metric of how a student does against a pre-established and arbitrary standard, we have developed a curriculum where students are evaluated based on their progress and growth from where they started. We infuse critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creative thinking, and student agency into how we measure student success and growth. We have sent tremendous growth from our students who have struggled academically in the past. They are very willing to share their thoughts and ideas and prefer to learn through Challenged Based Learning.
By applying a Design Thinking mindset where we celebrate growth, many of our students are excited about learning for the first time in years. It reminds me of the love that my son showed for learning when he first went to Kindergarten. We have been able to push our students to think beyond the world that they know through feedback, nurturing, and resilience. We have seen our students take innovative ideas and make them into reality through Challenged Based Learning.
As we prepare to finish this year, we have also seen high school teachers transform how they think about curriculum and teaching. Traditionally high school teachers are fiercely independent. They often do not have time to collaborate with others to create true interdisciplinary learning across the curriculum. As part of our Design class, our teachers have seen an effective model of co-teaching where all teachers are equal and collaborate effectively. As a result, many of our content teachers have yearned to co-teach with other teachers since they have seen this model in action.
Typically, co-teaching involves one teacher performing the instruction while the other teacher monitors behavior. However, our co-teaching model in Design transcends this. As a result, our model had created teachers who equally share and participate in instruction at all levels. This requires extensive communication and multiple check-ins each day, but it is worth it. Those co-teaching in this model report satisfaction and enjoyment. One teacher even shared that this is the first time in years that he has enjoyed co-teaching. Each teacher is celebrated for their effective instructional practices and has a vested interest in the learning outcomes for all students
While I have only outlined a few of the successes afforded by having the charter like flexibility at North Rowan High School, it is worth noting that none of this would have been possible without having a visionary leader who is willing to do the hard thinking and find creative solutions to complex problems. Additionally, the staff at North Rowan High School has embraced the need to redesign school differently and create an environment where all students have the opportunity to be successful. The most important thing that our students have experienced is that they see that their work matters. They now see purpose and meaning in the work that they are doing. Ultimately, that is what we want all our students to experience.
In thinking about the opportunity presented to North Rowan High School, it has been outstanding to see the growth and positive changes made. While we are far from perfect, we have taken steps to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn at high levels. We also are able to implement new strategies and opportunities that we may not have previously considered. Additionally, we are more apt to think in different ways than before. We have often joked that we are more about “What Box?” instead of “Outside of the Box” as we don’t let the box limit what we do. The opportunities afforded to North Rowan High School are making a difference. We have less restrictions to limit what we can do to support our students. This leads me to wonder what all schools could do if afforded the same charter like flexibilities like we have been. I can only wonder how much joy that our students would experience in learning and growing.
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The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.