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Promising Practices: Using Data and Rigorous Coursework to Help Students Navigate College and Career

By ACT CEO Janet Godwin, featuring quotes from Domingo Montenegro and Grecia Martinez

Are you ready for the understatement of the year? 2020 has been tough, especially for teachers. 

It’s hard juggling the demands of teaching in a “normal” school year, with near-constant shifts in curriculum, accountability measures, and limitations on school funding for necessary resources. But this year, as COVID-19 rages on around us, teachers have reached a new level of tired. That’s why I’m especially grateful and thoroughly impressed by teachers’ continued passion and dedication to helping their students succeed this year, despite the chaos.

To all the weary educators out there, please know I am with you. You are doing amazing things for your students and should be proud of your work to keep students engaged and inspired. Your work is critical to the social, economic, and political wellbeing of our world. You are changing students’ lives, for the better. ACT’s commitment to being a resource for teachers and providing a platform for teachers’ voices has never been stronger.

Last week, I spoke with two educators who are doing amazing work in their communities, and we discussed the “promising practices ” they are championing at their schools. I was so inspired and energized by this powerful webinar discussion, I wanted to share it with you.

Below is a snapshot of what I learned from them. I hope their words warm your heart and offer you hope (like they did for me) as we head into the holiday season.

Access is Not Enough

For years, ACT has demonstrated that access to high quality, rigorous curriculum and coursework is critical to the academic success of students. However, Grecia Martinez, lead secondary interventionist at Williams Preparatory School in Dallas, Texas, reminded me that access is not enough.

Grecia’s school serves a majority Hispanic and first-generation population. “Low socioeconomic students should not be provided lower coursework—that’s an equity issue,” Grecia told me. And she’s right. When we set the bar high for students, they exceed our expectations.

In addition to helping students who’ve fallen behind get on grade-level and encouraging high-performing students to compete at national levels, Grecia’s school provides students critical context on the social systems and theories that determine quality of life, and teaches students how these structures inform their experiences. They do this to teach students the skills to choose their path post-high school, whatever that unique journey may be.

“Being first-generation is an asset,” she told me. “We’re able to use cultural experience and cultural wealth to keep students motivated in the curriculum.”

It’s like the adage that you can’t “be” what you don’t “see.” More glass ceilings must be shattered.

Domingo Montenegro, language arts department chair at Doral Academy Charter School in Doral, Florida, put it equally as eloquently: “The ability to express yourself opens doors… When you’re able to participate in written and spoken language and understand all of the beautiful things that have been written, it opens up your world.”

Teachers like Domingo model the importance of continuous learning to keep students climbing towards their goals. It takes grit to keep going, and there is no shortcut to success. Rather it’s a steady grind, doing a little every day to work towards your goals and dreams.

It’s All About Engagement

Domingo, in his 22nd year of teaching, said that non-stop collaboration, between groups of students; students and teachers; and students, teachers, and parents, is critical for moving the achievement needle.

All of my fellow parents out there know that raising children does indeed “take a village.” Strong support systems ensure the work of teaching and guiding isn’t placed on one individual.

Domingo also discussed the culture of collaboration and shared resources between teachers, and the opportunity and time for teacher professional development he felt accelerated his school’s success. Grecia agreed, noting how the stakes are a lot higher for the first-generation students they serve, which is why families and communities rally behind these students.

After all, the success of the student is the success of the family and the community when students reach great heights.

Setting high expectations and having support from family, teachers, and the community helps continue motivation and activates engagement and accountability from all stakeholders. We all play a role in educating our future leaders.

Data Drives Learning

I was encouraged to hear that both Domingo and Grecia emphasize the importance of data in developing a baseline, setting (and resetting) goals, and encouraging student growth.

“We constantly teach and assess, teach and assess, teach and assess,” Domingo told me. And it’s not just the teacher providing feedback and data to the student. A student’s ownership of their data is critical to their growth!

Grecia’s school creates three different tracks for their students, based on test scores, GPA, and their post-high school goals. Early conversations and mentoring guide that goal setting for students and families, and where they go is ultimately their decision.

It’s not a one-and-done, though. There is a constant re-assessment of growth and goals to guide the student along, and form new plans, if necessary.

As a firm believer in the power of Lean-Agile methodology, I love this iterative and bite-sized approach to learning and navigation, empowering the student to take ownership of their future.

“The students who are most successful are students who have teachers they can trust with their education, to create and share plans,” Grecia told me. “They know that there's a purpose, and it's to help them grow.”

Learning Takes Many Forms

Throughout our conversation, Domingo and Grecia shared many strategies around the student experience that are making a difference in students’ lives during this challenging time of blended and remote learning. Both of them told me that a focus on foundational skills, wellness check-ins, and student engagement in the community are important to the success of students today.

“Active involvement in the community and clubs…is essential for the survival of democracy and the improvement of quality of life for years to come, given economic, environmental, and political challenges,” said Domingo. “There are convulsions. How do we deal with that? In a high school, a lot can be done to engage students, to put them at ease and to say, this too shall pass.”

From my own conversations with school leaders, I know that now more than ever, teachers are worried about learning loss and student engagement during the pandemic. They are finding creative ways to make learning come to life for students by giving them a student experience that will keep them engaged and inspired through tough times.

It’s a difficult and daunting task, but we have to make learning “real” for students by going beyond academics. More than a hub for learning, schools are also community centers to learn about and practice civic engagement. Students must see how they fit into the system and how they can apply what they learn in school to other areas of their lives, to be successful in all facets of life, including economically, politically, and socially and emotionally. Learning never stops.

Dive Deeper

If you’d like to learn more from and be inspired by these brilliant educators, watch the webinar recording, and read this brief that highlights promising practices shared by some class of 2020 exemplary high schools that other schools and districts may wish to adopt. Interested in diving deeper? Take a listen to this podcast regarding the brief and our 2020 graduating class data.

And to all the teachers out there, weathering the storm, thank you for your service.