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For these six schools, pandemic-era innovation demanded “know thyself”

Ever since March 2020, there’s been plenty of buzz about reinventing schools in the wake of the pandemic. But those with experience doing that work know that innovation doesn’t happen at the snap of a finger—it’s a muscle built over time. For schools that had already begun flexing that muscle pre-COVID, what impact has the pandemic had on their efforts?

We set out to learn answers to this question as part of our Think Forward New England study, with support from the Barr Foundation. Over the past year, we worked with six high schools in New England to learn how they’re reimagining the high school experience. Each school has a history of challenging old assumptions about high school in order to equitably prepare every student for postsecondary success.

Without question, the crises brought on by COVID, racial reckoning, and economic insecurity forced all six schools to react and adapt in unique ways. But each school did so within the bounds of a clear north star for student success, and with a set of established systems and structures designed to support students’ individual needs. In fact, what made these schools innovative in the first place is also what enabled them to weather—and sometimes even thrive in the midst of—the pandemic. 

Today, we’re releasing the final two innovation profiles, making a set of six:

Each school’s profile spotlights a different theme, reflecting a wide variety of approaches that helped them navigate troubled waters. At the same time, the common thread through all six profiles is that each of these schools adhered to their distinct commitments and ways of supporting students—and used pandemic discoveries to strengthen them. 

Most of the schools we profiled had established a shared community vision for young people leaving high school. Sometimes called a “graduate profile” or “portrait of a scholar,” this clearly articulated vision provided direction amid disruption. For instance, at Nokomis Regional High School, in Maine, the community sought to cultivate graduates who are independent learners and creative problem-solvers—a vision that led them to create authentic, immersive learning experiences, such as community internships and interdisciplinary projects. Even when faced with the logistical limitations of remote and hybrid learning, the school developed an additional interdisciplinary unit, expanded job shadowing options by shifting online, and opened every class with a project-based learning experience in the fall of 2020.

In addition to a clear vision, many schools we profiled had also invested time and energy into developing coherent instructional models. Since its 2012 founding as an open-enrollment option for Boston students, Margarita Muñiz Academy has come to focus on three core commitments: dual-language immersion, antiracism, and expeditionary learning (an instructional approach emphasizing real-world curriculum and deeper learning). Although the pandemic disrupted so many of the logistics of teaching and learning, the school held fast to its mission. 

“We’re doubling down on what works,” said Assistant Head of School Dan Abramoski. For instance, as racial injustice drew greater attention in the 2020-21 school year, Muñiz Academy brought a more intentional cultural and antiracist lens to its practices, reconsidering its approach to assessment and dual language learning. Rather than continuing to specify when students should speak in English or in Spanish, teachers began experimenting with “translanguaging,” an approach that affirms students’ lived experiences across cultures by inviting them to move between both languages as they see fit.

Schools whose instructional models prioritized flexibility were uniquely prepared to respond well in a crisis that demanded adaptation. Map Academy, in Massachusetts, is designed for students whose complex needs and life circumstances prevent them from thriving in a conventional high school. The school’s competency-based, blended learning model provides a highly customizable learning experience complemented by strong peer and adult relationships. Since most instruction was already asynchronous and online, the school didn’t struggle much to transition to remote learning. And its assessment and progress monitoring system was already built on the premise that student learning would proceed at a variable, not uniform, pace—a helpful practice given the personal and practical disruptions of the pandemic. Those building blocks allowed Map Academy’s pandemic-era innovations to focus more on systems for checking in regularly on every student, even while remote.

The schools we profiled had also reinforced their visions and instructional models with systems and structures, which turned out to be essential ingredients in their pandemic responses. For instance, Common Ground High School, in Connecticut, employs staff—a “Pathways team”—to help every student get involved in opportunities to exercise their leadership and raise their voice, including through paid jobs on campus and at local environmental nonprofits. During the pandemic, the Pathways team worked with other teachers and community partners to adapt, wherever possible, students’ opportunities to have their voices heard and contribute to their communities. The school’s commitment to student agency, voice, and leadership remained active through COVID-19 in part because they had built tangible systems to reinforce those commitments.

Likewise, Great Oaks Bridgeport, in Massachusetts, was able to leverage one of its most unique structures to support student learning and well-being. The school’s fellowship program employs recent college graduates as fellows to provide intensive tutoring, which was particularly valuable during remote learning and in pandemic recovery. As the school sought to address students’ unfinished learning, they more tightly integrated fellows into classroom learning so that students could learn in smaller groups, alternating between teachers and fellows. The high-touch support helped the school maintain students’ attention and catch learning gaps when they arose.

At Holyoke High School, in Massachusetts, students can opt into a range of high school educational pathways, the result of a high school redesign process focused on creating personalized pathways to college and career. Prior to the pandemic, the school’s three campuses had developed a range of systems to support student engagement, which set the stage for scaling the most successful approaches when student needs increased. For example, Opportunity Academy, the high school’s alternative education pathway, had always ensured that each student had a personal connection with one of the school’s three success coaches, whose roles centered on keeping each student on a viable pathway to graduation. During the pandemic the school took this a step further: Every adult in the school had a caseload of students with whom they checked in daily.

Each of these schools’ innovation profiles makes clear that “pandemic innovation” looked different in every school, suggesting that there’s no single recipe for reimagining high school. But the key ingredients in each case included a clear, defined vision for student success, a coherent instructional model, and systems and structures built to respond to student strengths and needs. With those elements in place, these six high schools were able to adapt to new circumstances, and, in many cases, discover promising lessons along the way.

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