Closing the Opportunity Gap: Initial Success and Remaining Challenges at Schools for the Future Detroit


Ephraim Weisstein, Educational Consultant

We all know the statistics; earning a college degree or postsecondary certificate is the new high school diploma. More startling are the evolving requirements for those directly entering the workforce after high school and how they compare to what is required of college freshman.

According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET),* the new requirements for jobs such as electricians and upholsterers are comparable to those required of college freshman. O*NET classifies jobs using five zones, each defined by particular education, training, and experiential requirement. Job Zone 3 is the minimum zone likely to offer a wage sufficient to support a small family.**

An analysis by the ACT has benchmarked the degree of difficulty required for freshman to succeed in college (without the need to take one or more remedial courses) as comparable to those for qualifying for entry jobs in Zone 3 (as measured by the ACT’s WorkKeys). Both require a score in the 19-23 range in reading for information and an 18-21 on applied mathematics.

The good news is that our past default response – “not everyone needs to go to a four-year college” – is true. The bad news is that a pre-requisite for earning a decent living likely requires acquiring knowledge and skills roughly comparable to college freshman.

So how are “our” students doing using this gauge? Speaking for students in Detroit (and probably most inner cities), not very well. Scoring a 21 on the ACT in recent years has been viewed in Detroit as something of a “holy grail.” Even the best schools (with the possible exception of those with special qualifying standards) have been unable to help their students average a 21.

Enter Schools for the Future (SFF) Detroit, a charter high school serving over-aged and under-credited 14-18 year olds. Our students begin high school even further behind than the “typical” Detroit student.

In order for any student to meet the ACT 21 benchmark for success, we typically expect that freshman enter high school somewhere in the vicinity of a 17 and would gain 1 point for each of their four years in high school ending with around a 21. At SFF Detroit, using the ACT Pre-Explore, our students entered with a composite of 10.5. In other words, our students need to gain roughly 3 points per year (our over-aged students would typically spend three years with us) to get close to a 21 – three times the progress expected of the average student nationwide.

Now for the good news! In year one (SFF Detroit opened September 2014) our students gained 2.5 points on average across all subject areas, including a 5.6 jump in English. The latter is considered an unofficial record among charter providers nationwide. The challenge, of course, is that SFF Detroit students need to not only maintain this pace, but to increase it.

None of us planning for next year are deluding ourselves into thinking that this will be easy, but we are doing everything possible to get better. But first let me share with you a little about what worked this past year for our students. Here’s my top 5 list:

  1. Strong school-wide culture
  2. Strong school-wide culture!
  3. Strong school-wide culture!!
  4. Emphasis on building literacy skills
  5. Flex schedule and blended instruction that contribute to a competency-based approach

Having spent considerable time visiting the school, I can say without hesitation that SFF students feel the difference at SFF compared to their previous schools. According to one student, “Our teachers are just not like other people – they’re like a new generation of principals and teachers.” Teachers also feel it: “This is my seventh year of teaching and this is the most fun I’ve had with a group of students. You’ll be successful here because we really work with you. No matter where that student is coming in from, we meet that student where they’re at.”

This is backed up by a soon-to-be-released third-party student survey in which nearly all students answered yes to questions such as: “My teachers expect nothing less than full effort” and “I am given opportunities to know my strengths and weaknesses so teachers can adjust instruction to meet my needs.”

On every visit I observed students supporting each other, talking easily with teachers, making decisions, and in general, getting along with each other in their SFF community. One result was that there was only one fight (minor) and few suspensions all year.

In terms of literacy, teachers and other staff integrated strategies like questioning into everything. And the flex schedule and blended instruction enabled us to nimbly redeploy staff and to change the schedule on the fly to adjust for under-staffing (we did not meet our first year enrollment goals and therefore could not staff up as planned).

In August we start again with two weeks of staff development and planning. The goal remains the same – every student will graduate college and career ready. Getting there will be extremely difficult but there is no acceptable alternative.

* O*NET is a comprehensive national database of job and worker attributes developed for the Employment and Training Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor

** Ready for College & Ready for Work: Same or Different? 2006 by ACT, Inc.

Ephraim Weisstein is an educational consultant, and founder of Schools for the Future


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