By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — In 2003, with technology-based industries booming, state leaders were looking for strategies to develop a 21st-century workforce equipped to work in those industries and offset the massive loss of the jobs on farms and in factories that had powered North Carolina’s economy for generations.
To help address that workforce need, then-Gov. Mike Easley spearheaded formation that October of a nonprofit to foster the development of high schools that would do a better job ensuring that every student graduated prepared to succeed in the new economy.
The effort, known as the North Carolina New Schools Project, secured seed funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was targeting high schools as a core focus of its U.S. grantmaking.
New Schools, which has raised a total of over $50 million in public and private funding and partnered with public schools, community colleges, businesses, the University of North Carolina system, and private colleges and universities, now is working with over 100 schools in 66 counties throughout the state.
And with a new $15 million federal grant, it is preparing to expand to eight rural counties some of the strategies it has supported that it says produce the kind of high-school graduates the state needs.
The most important approach is “providing teachers with the support to use the instructional strategies that are shown to succeed with far greater numbers of students,” says Tony Habit, New Schools’ president.
In partnership with local school districts, UNC and schools of education at individual UNC campuses, New Schools has helped develop a range of new kinds of schools.
Those include four “learning-laboratory” schools that give teachers and school administrators from throughout the state an opportunity to study what works in a classroom; nearly 20 “STEM” schools that focus on science, technology, engineering and math; and 74 “early-college” high schools, typically based on the campus of a college or university, that work to help students make the transition to college and then survive and thrive there.
The overall strategy is rooted in support for teachers, principals and other administrators.
That includes professional development, classroom and leadership coaching, networking among schools, and opportunities to observe successful schools.
Four Learning Lab schools in Durham, Caldwell, Cumberland and Wayne counties, for example, host “residencies” of two to three days for teachers from other school systems.
Akin to the “medical-rounds” model used in residency programs for physicians, the program lets the resident teachers observe and collect data on teachers teaching in classrooms in the Learning Lab schools, provide feedback to them, and then get responses to their feedback.
The resident teachers also meet with and learn from students in the schools about what works for them.
New Schools also provides instructional coaches who work with teachers in their classrooms, and leadership coaches for school administrators.
And it is partnering with local school districts to create networks of STEM schools to enable teachers in different school districts to work together and share resources and best practices.
“We’ve learned that it’s very powerful when teams of teachers can work together across geographies when they have a shared interest,” Habit says.
“Equally as important, when teachers can share resources and materials, it means the creativity of one teacher can benefit many teachers, and every teacher doesn’t have the burden of developing their own curriculum.”
The idea, he says, is to create “an ecosystem of innovation where good practice can spread more quickly.”
In partnership with local school districts, businesses, and higher education, New Schools also is working to “incubate” different approaches to teaching that “seem to work with far greater numbers of students,” Habit says.
Every day in every classroom, for example, every student should be required to “read, write and think,” he says.
And students are encouraged to collaborate with one another.
“When students collaborate,” he says, “they are more engaged in their work, and if they’re required to explain their work to other students, it lead to greater retention and mastery.”
The new federal grant will help New Schools reach roughly 20,000 students in eight rural counties by providing support for teachers to use instructional strategies that work; focusing on the rigor young people need to graduate fully prepared to succeed in college; helping young people develop the skills they need to stay in college; and providing examples of what has worked in early-college programs located in more traditional schools.
New Schools says its efforts produce better students.
Schools affiliated with New Schools, for example, have achieved a four-year graduation rate of 85.6 percent, compared to 77.9 percent for all North Carolina public schools, while the graduation rate for black males at New Schools programs totals 80 percent, compared to 64.2 percent for all public schools in the state.
“Our core work,” Habit says, “is the development of highly effective teachers and administrators who can more consistently graduate more students ready for college and careers.”