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The Answer Sheet: This High-Poverty School Succeeds by Focusing on Adventure, the Arts, Project-Based Learning

Students from William Smith High School in Colorado (Provided by William Smith High school)

(This is the third in a series of posts about schools named as winners in the 2015-16 Schools of Opportunity project. You can find the first post here and the second here.)

If you listen to the school reform debate these days, you would be forgiven for thinking that public schools across the board are failing students and that schools that are struggling can only improve if they fire all of their staff, become a charter school or let the state take them over. It’s just not so.

This is clear in a project called the Schools of Opportunity, launched a few years ago by educators who sought to highlight public high schools that actively seek to close opportunity gaps through 11 research-proven practices and not standardized test scores (which are more a measure of socioeconomic status than anything else).

The project assesses how well schools provide health and psychological support for students, judicious and fair discipline policies, high-quality teacher mentoring programs, outreach to the community, effective student and faculty support systems, and broad and enriched curriculum. Schools submit applications explaining why they believe their school should be recognized.

The project started in 2014 as a pilot program in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-2016, with gold and silver winners coming from states including Maryland, Georgia, California and Oregon. It is the brainchild of Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law; and Carol Burris, a former award-winning principal in New York who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education.

Twenty schools were named as honorees for the 2015-16 school year — eight gold winners and 12 silver — and you can see the list here. This is the third in a series of posts I will publish that highlight why each of the schools was chosen to be honored. It is important to note that each school found success in ways that met the needs of their own communities.

This week’s winner is William Smith High School in Colorado, and the post was authored by Kevin Welner and Linda Molner Kelley. Welner is the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law at the university. Kelley, associate director of the Schools of Opportunity project, is the former assistant dean of teacher education and partnerships and director for outreach and engagement at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In those and her current consulting roles, she has developed numerous K-16 and community programs designed to strengthen learning opportunities for students and teachers in diverse settings. She is also a former high school teacher and administrator in a Denver-area school district.


By Kevin Welner and Linda Molner Kelley

High School: William Smith High School
City and State: Aurora, Colorado
Principal: David Roll
Superintendent: Rico Munn
Enrollment: 305
Economically disadvantaged students: 60 percent

William Smith High School serves a diverse group of students who seek a personalized education, grounded in deep exploration of academic content through project-based learning, local community connections, travel, and service experiences.

Located in Aurora, Colorado, which is immediately east of Denver, William Smith’s approach is strong collaboration among administrators, staff and students, plus investment in a school community marked by shared values and a desire to do meaningful, relevant work.

Teachers are considered valuable professionals, and the school commits resources to their professional growth and leadership. Teachers spend Friday afternoons collaborating and developing the projects that drive student learning.

With administrative support, teachers hone their practices, traveling to other successful and innovative schools across the country, attending institutes offered through Expeditionary Learning Education, Advanced Placement Institutes and other professional organizations. William Smith also supports a pipeline of novice teachers interested in its style of educational innovation. These “Boettcher Teachers-in-Residence” are paired with veteran teachers for an intensive practice teaching experience.

Authentic, real-world problems and issues drive academic course projects, and these often include service learning opportunities. William Smith involves the broader community by partnering with the local University of Colorado Anschutz medical campus in health science programs, offering dual enrollments with community colleges, utilizing adjunct arts and fitness instructors, and requiring all seniors to complete a capstone learning experience, often partnering with adult mentors in the community.

Sixty percent of juniors and seniors choose to enroll in concurrent coursework at community or technical colleges.

Constantly evolving and thinking to the future, staff members frequently adjust courses and schedules, creating flexible ways to allocate time so that learning opportunities are maximized. The administration regularly seeks feedback from alumni, current students, parents, and teachers in order to keep the curriculum dynamic. Students are also involved in curriculum planning, and their collaborative inquiries often prompt subsequent topics of study.

With multi-grade level classes, and with no “tracked” classes at the school, all students have full access to any course in which they are interested. Teachers differentiate their instruction to accommodate all learners in each class. Students also have opportunities to explore their passions in one-week “intensives” offered each fall and spring. Past studies have included 3D prototyping, aerial dance, urban farming, and a service project to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Instruction and assessments are topic-based and authentic to projects, not test-driven. Assessments might include showcases, community presentations, dramatic performances, Socratic Seminars, written portfolios and other opportunities to demonstrate learning that are appropriate to the content.

Students of color and students who receive free and reduced lunch succeed at rates equal to, or higher than, the rest of their peers. The school boasts a 90 percent graduation rate — 92 percent for minorities — and both of those rates are the highest in the district.

“When we teach interesting things and engage kids in the work of professionals, learning will follow,” said Principal David Roll.

This shared vision of purposeful learning, coupled with a culture of support and respect for all, makes William Smith High School an innovative example of what a high school can accomplish. We are pleased to recognize William Smith as a gold School of Opportunity.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Kevin G. Welner

NEPC director Kevin G. Welner is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, specializing in policy and law. He and Alex Molnar foun...