Highland Springs, Tucker becoming model ‘high schools of the future’

New editions of Highland Springs and Tucker high schools will open next fall, but a redesign of both schools is beginning this school year as they prepare to become prototypes for the county’s “high school of the future,” as described in Superintendent Amy Cashwell’s “passport” outline.
The process began with a “discussion” phase in the 2018-2019 school year, during which staff members read studies and articles focused on redesigning the high school experience, visited other high schools and visited local businesses, Henrico Schools Director of Workforce and Career Development Mac Beaton told the Henrico School Board during its work session Sept. 10.
Last year, high schools moved to a block schedule to support innovation, Henrico Schools Director of High School Education Thomas Ferrell said. The schedule gives students in career and technical education centers longer class times and gives the division a chance to increase field experiences and internships, he said.
Also last year, Highland Springs and Tucker were among six high schools in the state in four school divisions that committed to collaborate on redesigning high schools. The schools earned High School Innovation Planning and Implementation grants, in collaboration with Old Dominion University, from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam through the Virginia Department of Education.
The partner school districts established four goals:
• the development of interdisciplinary courses;
• creating a structure to support internships and shadowing experiences;
• advisory programs;
• and wraparound services to provide additional support.
Highland Springs and Tucker high schools are beginning to implement the redesign goals this school year, Beaton said.
To address the interdisciplinary courses goal, Beaton said, Highland Springs will offer “geospatial technology”, which combines technology and earth science. Tucker will offer “humanities,” which blends English 11 and U.S. history, and “enviro-fit,” which blends health science, physical education 9 and environmental science.
For the second goal of creating internship and shadowing experiences, the schools are working with the Workforce and Career Development department.
To meet the third goal, the schools created advisory structures and lessons that will be run through ninth grade English classes and academic enrichment periods.
The fourth goal will be addressed in two phases this year, Beaton said, and schools will work with the Family and Community Engagement department.
“Phase one of providing wraparound services to students calls for Highland Springs and Tucker to strengthen in-building and previously established community supports for students,” Beaton said. “Phase two will establish a system to strengthen community partnerships and to purposefully align resources for students.”
In the 2021-2022 school year, the two schools will enter the “execution phase” — they will move into their new buildings and be completed prototypes, Beaton said.
The buildings have a new design, Ferrell said.
“Both schools are being rebuilt with a new facilities design that features flexible learning spaces, learning commons areas, as well as classroom configurations that will provide enhanced opportunities for students to communicate, collaborate and interact with academic content,” Ferrell said.
Far-reaching implementation of the redesign goals — meaning every high school seeing effects — should be completed by the fall of 2024, Beaton said.
Subcommittees for other goals
Beaton said the design team had established three subcommittees focused on additional goals for all high schools:
• increasing enrollment in IB, AP and dual enrollment courses;
• examining specialty centers and career academies;
• establishing structures that support internships, externships, job shadowing and career pathway support, which will be handled by a community resources and supports subcommittee.
The subcommittees will consist of central office staff, building leaders, building-level instructional staff and students, Beaton said.
Varina District School Board member Alicia Atkins asked if the subcommittees had considered introducing dimensions of wellness — emotional, financial, physical, etc. — paired with personal career strategies for students.
“That is modernizing high school, when we prepare our ninth through seniors into understanding who they are through dimensions of wellness coupled with some of the things that they have succinctly done well in the past with where they are to date to help them understand where they want to be in the future,” Atkins said.
Career counseling and wellness programming is happening in advisory sessions and academic planning times and through counseling and social-emotional lessons beginning this school year, Ferrell said.
A personal career strategy examines where a student is as an individual and considers advancing technology and careers that might not exist yet. The subcommittees could look at evidence from Ohio State and other schools showing the effectiveness of personalizing plans, Atkins said, adding that she would like the school division to explore and consider implementing them as part of a web-style approach.
Addressing barriers to AP classes
Board Chair Roscoe Cooper III, who represents the Fairfield District, asked what barriers to AP classes have been or will be removed.
Changes already have been made to increase access to AP courses, Ferrell said. The division covered the costs of the PSAT for all ninth and 10th grade students last year, which allows for early identification of students with AP potential, he said.
Additionally, at least one administrator at each school has taken the responsibility of leading the effort to expand access to courses, and the division changed the enrollment process to eliminate barriers, he said.
Previously, teacher recommendation was the main method of enrolling in AP courses, Ferrell said, while it is now one piece of a larger process that looks at students’ PSAT scores, grades, interests, passions and goals for the future. The decision is made through conversations with students, their counselors and their parents, he said.
Cooper also asked about early identification and preparation of students for AP courses.
“We’ve done more to educate families around AP courses,” Ferrell said. “We’ve done more to educate students. I want to say all of our high schools had some time of AP awareness opportunity for parents and for students. Teachers are aware that we’re trying to provide more access to students, not as a way to simply earn a college credit, but as a way to further prepare students for college.”
The department also is working on creating supports for students taking AP courses for the first time in academic enrichment periods and letting students know that teachers and school counselors can be supports, he said. They are working on celebrating students for completing AP courses this school year.
Although she believes the division is on target for equitable access to AP programming, Tuckahoe District board member Marcie Shea said she doesn’t believe that AP courses are the highest level of learning.
“I don’t think AP coursework is the be all, end all of education and the ultimate goal for our students. As a former AP teacher, I know that so often that content ends up to be an inch deep and a mile wide in the way the syllabus has to be paced,” Shea said, and that the courses limit teachers’ autonomy to go in-depth on material that interests their students.
Additionally, the College Board redesigns of the courses seem to make them correlate less and less to college courses, she said.
If the goal is college credit for students, Shea said, dual enrollment classes might be the better venue. If the goal is the highest level of learning, the interdisciplinary studies can provide it.

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