At Animas High School we aim to change the lives of our students through our core values of personalization, engaged learning through project based learning, education equity, rigorous academics, and teacher as designer. As a school of choice in Durango it is our mission to be innovative and push the norm in terms of what is possible in education. We utilize current research and implement strategies that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable at times while still holding onto some of the traditional methods of helping our students learn. Both adults and students are engaged in a continuous cycle of inquiry and learning. We aspire to help our students not just tomorrow but in their lives 10 years from now.
A big aspect of our school is voice and choice, which means constant critique, revision, and feedback. As such, several years ago we started the tradition of gathering parent, student, alumni, community partners, and faculty feedback for an annual state of the school address. The purpose of this address is to take the underlying themes of our community’s feedback and celebrate our successes, reflect upon areas of growth for the next year and beyond, and find a lingering question that we do not have an answer for as of yet. In education there is a term called parallel pedagogy, which essentially means practice what you preach. The process and product is our attempt at truly practicing what we preach and welcome an open dialogue about how to best serve all of our students. As Thomas Jefferson stated “The purpose of public education is not to serve the public, the purpose of public education is to create a public,” and the only way to get there is to throw open our doors and educate our youth together.
Things to Celebrate:
- Elective Offerings
Creating a new daily schedule in the 2016-2017 school year allowed us to increase elective offerings for students. This proved to be a great success, providing students with greater choice in their classes and the ability to dive more deeply into subjects they love. While we are a small school, which was rated 4.65 (parents) and 3.41 (students) for staying at AHS, and are not able to offer the selection of larger schools we had a very positive experience with our electives this year. 85% of our parents were satisfied or very satisfied, with only 1 percent not satisfied, and 78.2% of our students were satisfied or very satisfied, with only 2 percent not satisfied. This means a lot to us especially considering most of our teachers have never taught an elective while at AHS. While we had SIGs and exploratories, but those classes were pass/fail and not entirely academically focused. Adding an extra class to prepare, grade, and teach is a lot to ask and our staff pulled it off this year.
- Financial Stability
Animas High School is a financially stable organization with a well-functioning budget and strong community support. We are here to stay. Thanks to the efforts of the Stronger Schools, Stronger Community campaign we were able to secure a mill levy override that will help make our school that much more financially stable. It will amount to roughly $333 per student above what we get from the state. This combined with our operating in the black the last couple of year and being able to create a contingency fund above and beyond what the Colorado Department of Education recommends, has put us in a very good financial position. We are committed to being a small school and having small class sizes. It is our belief, as well as a top reason families and students stay here and supported by copious amounts of research, that small class sizes equate to better learning. That being said we are still in the lower 10% of school funding in the state and until we either receive the same amount of funding as traditional schools or are able to reside in a mortgage free building (like just about every district run school), our budget will always be on a shoestring.
- Satisfaction with the School
The vast majority of our students and families believe that Animas High School is meeting its mission and feel that AHS provides a safe school environment where students feel they belong, which helps them feel confident recommending AHS to others. On a scale of 5 we had a parent rating of 3.64 and a student rating of 3.29 for overall satisfaction, 3.64 (parents) and 3.41 (students) for meeting our mission, and 3.82 (parents)/ 4.01(students) for likelihood to recommend. I would also like to point out that one of the most important aspects of school that we tend to forget about is the sense of belonging and feeling safe. Our ratings were 3.98 (parents) and 3.74 (students) for sense of belonging and support; with feeling safe at school rated 4.35 (parents) and 4.16 (students). While these are all areas of success and celebration, we also know that we can and will do better.
- College Prep
AHS students receive the support, guidance, skills and knowledge necessary to enter and succeed in college. While content understanding is important it is becoming less and less important to succeed in the post-secondary world. Instead students need to know how to communicate their thinking and questioning, they need to know how to collaborate, they have to be resilient and flexible, they have to be able to ask questions and critique as well as critically think, and be able to advocate for their needs. All of these skills are taught on a daily basis at AHS. We know that the focus on these skills works as our data (quantitative and qualitative) begins to filter in from our alumni: 90% of our college going students remain in college, outpacing the 69% national average. Last year our students brought in roughly $20,000 per senior in scholarships, which rely heavily on written and oral skills. Our internal data also shows that families and students are satisfied with our college counseling, 3.75 (parents) and 3.41 (students). One thing I would like to add is that our alumni come back and tell us that they struggle with notes, the grading, exams, and some of the other traditional aspects of college or careers. However, after a half year or so they not only catch up but the skills they learn at AHS put them ahead of their classmates/colleagues. They already have skills such as highly competent interviewers, working with others (collaboration), advocating for their needs, presenting in front of groups, and being able to ask the right question that much more veteran students or colleagues have never learned but need.
Areas of Growth:
- Math Program
With recent changes in our curriculum, we recognize that our math program is in a stage of development and we are committed to improving it. While there are some successes with our move to grade-level math and math electives last year, we know that there is still work to be done in clarifying and communicating about what students are learning in each grade level, how we know they are learning it and how this will prepare them well for college and career. A couple of years ago I sat in front of our community and said our biggest area of growth was Spanish. For all intents and purposes, our language department needed a lot of work. This past year, our language classes were rated among the best in our school. I utilize this story because that is where our math department currently lays. We are making changes to our math curriculum that get at our core values, chief among them Education Equity and Engaged Learning, as well as better prepare students for college and career. When changing a program, it takes a couple of years to get to where we ideally would like. In the meantime students are getting a better education, but because people do not like change perceptually it does not feel like it is better. As our Spanish program demonstrated, once our vision is fully implemented, students and parents have a higher degree of engagement, learning, and buy-in. When the board approved our schedule change last year, there were a couple of factors to the math switch. One being that most students come into high school math hating math, even some of the students who are good at it. The way that most schools teach math is the equivalent of Darwin’s survival of the fittest in that only the students who can survive math get to the upper level math courses. We need more people going into the math and if only a fraction of students make it out alive, we as a school are failing them in addition to the fact that math really is fun. Another factor was that we saw an inequity in the way math was working at our school. Math was essentially tracking our classes. What I mean by this is that students who were in advanced math were taking the same classes throughout the day, which goes against one of our core design principles of common intellectual mission. Our students were not benefiting from various perspectives and insights that like minded people are not able to bring. We also looked at research coming out of Stanford’s mathematics department that supported heterogeneous math classrooms benefiting all students. Lastly, having non-grade level math made it nearly impossible to have interdisciplinary projects.
This past year we had a parent satisfaction of 42% and student satisfaction of 48%. Both of these percentages are slightly down from last year, but something of note is that new students to AHS had an overall positive experience 54% (parents) and 64% (students) were satisfied or very satisfied. Both of these are better then our results from the 2015-2016 school year.
In order to improve in this area we have a couple of programs that we are working on this year. As a school we hired a math consultant who has experience working with schools with similar goals. Our math department is coming back to school early for a specialized training and will continue to meet throughout the year. Individual teachers are also taking professional development courses. Two documents that will help both external communications but also ensure internal alignment will be completed this year: Habits of a Mathematician (which delves into the skills and dispositions that we want our students to have upon graduation) and the Mathematics scope and sequence (a precise rendering of the content being taught in all of our math classes).
One theme that came through in our student and parent surveys is that we are not communicating well enough with our community. Our sense was that there are a few keys areas that we need to improve our communication: what is happening in my kid’s classes, how do I know how my kid is doing, what do I need to know to help my kid get into college, and how can I help overall. One piece of advice that I have received is that your message is not understood until the recipient can either repeat back the message or is utilizing the language you have been using. While we have a tremendous amount of communication through our teacher’s digital portfolios, students portfolios, infinite campus, News from the Nest, Facebook, our website, and advisors, we clearly need to do a better job of letting parents and the community know about the inner workings of AHS. One parent made the comment that on average they probably get 20 minutes of undistracted dialogue with their student each night. As a parent myself, a 20 minute conversation does not get into much detail and at the end of the day tends to hit the most positive and most negative of the day, with a natural skew towards the negative. One of our core values is teacher-as-design which enables our staff to truly do what is best for a student in the moment; it also means not as much uniformity at times. We are moving into our 9th year and will be working towards common definitions for the key pillars of an Osprey: personalization, professionalism, rigor, college prep through project-based learning, innovation, habits of heart and mind, and others.
The Big Question:
Going into our 9th year and beyond, a benchmark timeframe in non-profits, how do we uphold our status as a school of choice, that by definition has to be different(innovative), in order to remain relevant?
- One quote that always sticks in the back of my mind is that “every school/institution reverts back to the norm, unless someone or something is constantly pushing to be better.” We can’t just be a better version of a traditional school, as the data shows the norm is an inequitable setting that is not preparing students for the unknowns of the 21st century. We have to be accountable for a student’s failure to secure a job after accumulating $30,000+ in student loans and or not being able to adjust to a job market that will see them switch jobs roughly 10 times over the course of their career. Afterall, public education had them for 13 years of their life. The conversation can not just be about the standards, test scores, getting into a name brand college, and other qualifiers of success from a generation ago. Instead we have to talk about college fit, skills that employers want that colleges are not giving, and making learning fun as our students have to be life long learners as they will not be not be in the same careers for life like most of their parents and grandparents. None of which are in our current measures of school success. The current measures are short sighted and easy to manipulate, if a school is not concerned about their students future success. This is the cross roads that we as a school are at: how much tradeoff do we make in order to check off the traditional measures of success in order to satisfy people before it takes away too much from really preparing students for post-secondary success?