The Goal is College, Not High Test Scores
The University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, an urban school for grades 7 through 12, is under corrective action for math, by the annual yearly progress guidelines of the federal program, No Child Left Behind.
Nonetheless, Principal Ricci Hall was a guest at the White House for President Obama’s recent speech on education reform, which included a presidential shout out to Hall for the exemplary achievements of UPCS.
How’s that, again?
Hall had been invited because his school was failing under No Child Left Behind: It showed why a one-size-fits-all approach to assessing school improvement doesn’t always work and helped the President make his case for changing it by allowing state waivers.
The fact is, UPCS is a rock star among American public education schools. Founded in 1997 with the sole purpose of preparing every student for college, UPCS has had almost unparalleled success in fulfilling its mission. Starting with the first graduating class, in 2003, more than 98 percent of its students have been accepted to college, more than 95 percent have matriculated and, since 2006, three out of four have attained a degree within six years.
“Within this demographic, that’s pretty amazing,” says Hall. “More than 65 percent of our kids are minority status, and almost all our students are first generation college goers.”
Yes, UPCS has failed to demonstrate annual improvement in 7th, 8th and 10th grade math, the last two years – the 10th graders have fallen from 95 percent advanced or proficient to 85 percent. Corrective action is underway, but it would have taken place anyway, Hall said, even if the assessment rates hadn’t fallen. The goal, he stressed, is not to meet Federal or state assessment standards. The goal is to prepare kids for college.
More important than measuring yearly results, Hall said, is charting academic growth of the same group. For example, he said, while sophomores in 2010 scored 85 percent advanced or proficient in state test scores, a 12 percent drop from the 97 percent that sophomores scored in 2009, the 2010 sophomore scores represented a 100 percent improvement from the 42 percent the same group scored as 7th graders.
The core of UPCS’s approach to education is contextual learning – putting instruction into a context that demonstrates its relevance for practical use. Here’s an example he cited: In geometry, teaching the concepts of perimeter and area, a teacher might ask students to build a setting for bumper cars, showing how the rails around the outside represent the perimeter and the tiles needed for the floor represent the area.
“Kids come to us and say they’ve always been told that they can’t do math,” Hall said. “We try to undo that. We ask them, ‘Can you think? If you can think you can do math. If you can count, you can do math.’ That starts student engagement. That’s their buy-in. It begins to snowball: Now it makes sense.”
The school also puts a premium on teacher support, teacher collaboration and giving teachers wide latitude in decision-making. Turnover at the school is rare.
UPCS is located a block away from Clark University in the poorest section of Worcester, the second-largest city in New England after Boston. Clark is a small, private, liberal arts-based research university with 2,200 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students. It was founded in 1887. Hall got his bachelor and masters degrees there.
Growing concerned over the decline of the neighborhood in the 1990s, Clark officials applied for a federal housing grant to help revitalize the neighborhood. They also began working with the Worcester Public School system to open a middle-high school nearby as an anchor, with the school’s goal of preparing every student for college.
They chose a former elementary school, built in 1885, and opened UPCS with a seventh grade class, adding another every year and reaching capacity of 245 in 2003.
Today, its success has led to a waiting list of applicants. Entry is largely determined by lottery, but parents are told it’s not for everyone. For example, the sports program includes teams only in cross country, track and basketball. No football. No baseball.
Hall says he tells parents that if they want their kids to be a quarterback or first chair oboe, “this is not the place for you.”
Instead, Hall said, UPCS has built its traditions “with a main thrust of reading, writing, thinking critically, thinking analytically and problem solving.”
The story of UPCS’s success has spread, with lots of media attention and lots of visits from educational experts eager to see how it works. Diane Ravitch, once a staunch supporter of No Child Left Behind now a critic for its emphasis on testing and punishment, has described UPCS as “a shining example” of public education. The Department of Education has recognized it as “an education innovator.”
President Obama became aware of the school, and that’s how Hall got to Washington for the address on reforming No Child Left Behind.
“I went to hear the speech,” he said. “I had no idea he’d mention me or the school. Sitting a few feet away, hearing him talk about our school, that was absolutely amazing.”