When David Schuler was in his first year of teaching, he noticed that six students in his third-period U.S. History class were failing. Schuler went to his principal to share concerns about those students.
“David, in every garden, there’s a couple of weeds,” his principal said.
“We would never say that now, thankfully,” Schuler told members of AASA, the School Superintendents Association Tuesday. Now a superintendent himself, Schuler said school leaders should encourage their teachers to be “allies for their students’ success.”
His comments came at AASA’s Learning 2025 National Summit, where Schuler’s High School District 214 near Chicago was one of 13 districts recognized by AASA, for their commitment to improving school systems.
AASA partnered on the program with Successful Practices Network, an organization that works with school districts and educators to curb dropout rates and provide career and technical education resources. The program aims to encourage districts to push each other to enact positive change.
“Everybody writes white papers about how education should change and how we should redesign the system to do things differently and nothing happens,” AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech said. “There are examples of districts that are already implementing these very innovative practices.”
The Learning 2025 Network is a group of over 120 school systems nationwide that work together in hopes of improving student outcomes and driving education policy. AASA considers the 13 “lighthouse” districts to be “exemplary educational systems” that stand out among the rest of the network for their work to transform school culture; improve student social, emotional, and cognitive growth; and provide resources for educators, according to a news release.
“[The recognition] is an affirmation of all the great work all of our teachers and staff are doing,” said Randall Squier, superintendent of Coxsackie-Athens Central School District in upstate New York. “We have been doing this work, and now it’s just saying, ‘This is the right work to be doing for kids to get them ready for their future.’”
Redefining college and career readiness
Squier, Schuler, and superintendents from the other 11 districts shared their strategies for improving student outcomes during the summit.
In the past few years, Squier and his team have worked to have his district of 1,180 students offer the same opportunities as a larger, metropolitan district. They’ve done this by providing staff incentives for professional development, implementing research projects for every student at every grade level, and having students participate in workplace internships and programs.
All of those strategies taken together ultimately help Coxsackie-Athens’ students complete “commencement level indicators,” a set of educational and social markers that indicate they’re ready for college, career, and life overall.
The indicators include typical academic markers like achieving a GPA of B- or higher or taking the SAT exam, but they also involve life skills. Students can earn recognition for registering to vote, taking a personal finance course, or participating in career exploration classes.
“If our kids can demonstrate some of these—not all of them, but some of these—we can feel confident that when they graduate … they’re ready,” Squier said, adding that the district gives green, yellow, and blue tassels to students who meet the requirements.
Schuler has taken a similar approach at High School District 214. Students are required to identify a career area of interest. Those students then build their schedules based on that area of interest.
After making that requirement, the superintendent and his team went through the process of eliminating classes that didn’t align with a career pathway. The idea was to give students something valuable they can take from every course in high school.
“We want to redesign instruction, re-engineer what happens in the classroom, and ensure that kids have a voice in their journey,” Schuler said. “They’ll be much more successful if they’re co-authors of that journey.”
The AASA summit is also the first chance many superintendents have had to network in person since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. It’s an exciting time for school leaders to be able to share ideas to improve student outcomes and school systems overall, Squier said.
“If you can leave any conference with at least one ‘aha’ moment then it’s probably worth it,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”