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What Makes a High School Successful?

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Updated on Dec 17, 2007

We hear it all the time: American students aren't stacking up when it comes to 21st century skills. Japan, Singapore, and even some second-world countries are giving us a run for our money, preparing their students much more ably in math, science, and other key areas. So what exactly can we do about it? How can we make sure that high school is preparing kids for college and for life?

Drawing from the work of leading researchers and educators from around the country, the Alliance for Excellent Education, an educational nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., identified 10 key elements of a successful high school – qualities every school should have in place to ensure that all students get the tools they need for future success.

You can't help fix a school if you don't know what needs fixing. Here's a checklist of what to look for when you look at your child's school, and beyond:

1) Challenging Classes
Schools often divide kids into tracks: college bound, honors, Advanced Placement. But all students need to learn the advanced skills that are the key to success in college and in the 21st century workplace. Every student should take demanding classes in the core subjects of English, history, science, and math; and no student should ever get a watered-down course of study. Further, students should also be given the opportunity to earn industry certification or some college credit while in high school through programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or those offered through a local college or university.

2) Personal Attention for All Students
Every high school should be small enough – or divided into small enough units – to allow teachers and staff to get to know all students as individuals and to respond to their specific learning needs. By the 9th grade, students should have a detailed plan for graduation. Students should receive frequent and ongoing support from at least one academic advisor throughout their high school years.

3) Extra Help for Those Who Need It
Every high school should have a system in place to identify kids as soon as they start to struggle in reading, math, or any core subject, and every school should reserve time and resources for the immediate help those kids need to stay on course.

4) Bringing the Real World to the Classroom
High schools should help students make the connection between book learning and the skills needed to be successful in life. Students must develop the work habits, character, and sense of personal responsibility needed to succeed in school, at work, and in society. As part of their class work, students should have opportunities to design independent projects, conduct experiments, solve open-ended problems, and be involved in activities that connect school to the rest of the world.

5) Family and Community Involvement
Students thrive when their high schools encourage positive learning relationships among families, educators, businesses, and other members of the community. Parents should have many chances to visit the school building, talk with teachers and staff, voice concerns, share ideas, serve as volunteers, and suggest ways to improve the school. And school leaders should reach out to their neighbors by attending community events and forming partnerships with local organizations in order to increase effectiveness and tap additional resources.

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