De-Tracking Interlake High School: Principal Sharon Collins Tells Us How and Why
Principal Sharon Collins chalks her school’s success up to the ambitious de-tracking effort she launched when she became principal. The school eliminated the lowest-rung courses and urged students into the more challenging AP and IB routes. Key to this strategy was early and sustained support for struggling students. We recently chatted with Collins by phone:
Principal Sharon Collins chalks her school’s success up to the ambitious de-tracking effort she launched when she became principal. The school eliminated the lowest-rung courses and urged students into the more challenging AP and IB routes. Key to this strategy was early and sustained support for struggling students.
We recently chatted with Collins by phone:
Public School Insights: I understand that about ten years ago, Interlake was the lowest-performing school in the district. What changed?
Collins: Well, there were quite a few components that came into it. One of them [is that] the school went through huge remodel. We got an opportunity to reinvent ourselves when we moved into the new building.
When I first came there, I met with every staff member for a 20-minute interview. We talked a lot about curriculum and climate. Those two things were the focus for the school. I instituted a whole committee to work on the climate of the school, putting in common procedures and common ways that we tell kids they’re doing well…and we all have common expectations for the way students behave. And at the same time district was implementing a common curriculum. There were three parts of that, [including] having a common curriculum for [students], having teacher training to make sure that the teachers are up-to-date on professional development, and having strong student support systems.
I’m also very fortunate that I have an incredible staff here. They are very willing to collaborate with each other and…our main goal is preparing all our students for success in college. That’s the goal for…every kid in the building. If the kids decide they want to do something different, that’s okay, but they’re prepared for pretty much anything if we prepare them for being successful in college. They can choose a different pathway if they want to.
Public School Insights: On the point of preparing them for college, I understand that one of the things you did to help turn the school around was begin to adopt much more challenging coursework.
Collins: Interlake was an International Baccalaureate school since at least eight years before I got there. But what was happening, for instance, the first year I was there, [was that] we only had 16 students going for the IB Diploma. And so we started really encouraging many students to at least take 1 AP or IB class. And encouraging even more than that to go for full IB diploma. Since we’ve really put that push on [the students] they have started rising to the challenge.
Public School Insights: But was there ever any fear amongst parents or faculty that you would be actually diluting these courses by encouraging more students to participate?
Collins: Well, the IB curriculum is pretty set. There’s internal and external assessments in the IB program all along the whole year; it’s not just preparing them for one test at the end of the year. So it would be pretty difficult to dilute the classes and still have the kids do well. Of course, there’s always that fear, but the [faculty], in order to teach an IB class…have to be trained by the IB organization, and [IB is] pretty clear about what the curriculum’s going to be and what the assessments are. It’s a year-long course; not just doing whatever curriculum the teacher chooses.
That’s why it’s really important that you have the three components. You have a really standardized curriculum that [sets high expectations and goals for students]. You have training where the teachers are getting professional development and are experts in their content area and the curriculum. And then you have a very strong support system for students. And that might mean that [students] have an extra math class during the day so that they’re ready to take that honors-level math course. The support class that we offer at the school pre-teaches them what they’re going to get in their honors class the next day or over the next week. It pre-teaches the investigation they’re going to do, some of the vocabulary they’re going to do, the basic skills they’re going to need for the unit coming up. So when they’re sitting in their honors-level class, they’re a little bit ahead of their peers because they’ve already seen the curriculum and the work, and they’re kind of getting a double dose of it.
We have…before-school work, which is from 6:30 to 7:20 for students who may be struggling across the board. Our counselors work with them on organizational skills and [things such as] having them check their grades online, looking at their assignments [and] making sure they’re set for the week. A lot of students who struggle have a problem figuring out where to even start.
Public School Insights: So a strong support system for students who may have a bit more trouble succeeding in those classes. From the results I’ve seen, you’ve had pretty astonishing success from all sorts of students in your IB and AP classes.
Collins: Yeah…we increased the number of AP and IB tests taken over the course of the last three years. In 2006 we had 544 AP and IB tests taken, and 62% of the kids were earning credit when they took the test. This last year we had 1113 tests taken, and 70% of the kids earned credit. That’s a pretty big improvement, considering we doubled the number of tests we’re taking.
And you would think…sometimes when more people are taking these high-level classes, that maybe the results go down a little bit. But our students are performing better than they were three years ago, and we have a lot more students taking the classes. So having a strong support system for the kids and really developing a culture where kids [prioritize] academics are important.
Public School Insights: You just mentioned this notion of academic culture that you’ve begun to infuse into the school. Do you think it’s merely a question of raising standards and then providing support, or were there other aspects of this culture-building exercise that you were able to use?
Collins: Well, it’s also about…climate, and creating a positive school climate. That means kids enjoy coming to school. They know that there are adults at the school who care about them. They know that they’re being recognized for positive work and positive behavior.
When we opened the new building, we instituted what’s called Safe and Civil and Productive Schools. The staff really bought into that. We survey our kids every spring about how they feel with different areas of the school and if they think their teachers care about them. We track that data, and when we see that maybe we’re falling short in certain places, then we put together a task-force…to develop different strategies to help kids feel more like their teachers do care about them. They know there’s an…adult they can talk to about things.
It’s a matter of making sure that the students enjoy coming to school, feel like people are there who care about them, [and who] are keeping them focused on going to college. So, being very strategic about that.
[Students] do different kinds of personality tests, and figure out different [aspects of] jobs they might be interested in, and they make their four-year high school plan…what classes they’re going to take. And they research different colleges that offer those kinds of jobs. And they look into each of those different colleges [and] what the expectations are for getting into those colleges. So they start out in ninth grade putting out a plan for where they’re going to end up…[they’re] not just [starting at] the end of the junior year.
Public School Insights: I’ve also read that, in the spirit of starting early, you work with middle school teachers to determine which students are going to need help and support on early on so they can get on this more advanced track you promote.
Collins: Absolutely. Starting in spring, we go to the middle schools where our kids are seeding into Interlake and we target about 25 or 30 students that have struggled in middle school. And what we found is that if we can get them hooked into school the first six weeks of high school, [that’s] really important. [Y]ou start kids off on the path of success…and then keep following up with them.
[For] kids that have typically gotten Ds and Fs in middle school, we’ll work with [them] a couple of weeks before school starts. I have five teachers who come in and they work with the 25 or so kids [during this time]. They just do the summer reading packet with them, they do the first week or so of the curriculum in math and biology, and their ninth grade courses. We call it “Starting Strong.” It basically gets the students completely ready so that when they start school they’ve got their planner all together, they’ve got their notebook ready, they know where all the classes are, and they’ve already done their first few assignments. They’re totally on top of everything…and for some kids who’ve struggled in middle school, that hasn’t been the case before.
In the first year we did it, it was okay for the first quarter, and then [the students] went back into their old habits. We learned we couldn’t just give them that little “Starting Strong” part, we also had to have the other part where they meet from 6:30 to 7:20 in morning with their counselor and follow up with them. So the second year…we started this follow up piece which has been a lot more successful.
Public School Insights:It sounds like what you’ve done is to minimize tracking in your school to get more students into that advanced course of study. As you’ve talked to other educators who may be considering this, and they’re worried if they have families or even teachers who say that you’re going to be diluting the quality of our courses by doing this, what do you tell them?
Collins: I always ask people the question, “Do you want your son or daughter to be in the low track?” [If not] then no one should be in the low track. I’d go much farther than saying we need to minimize tracking: I would say we need to eliminate it. The kids need to be taking the highest level classes they can and we need to figure out how we can support them so they can be successful. It shouldn’t be only a few kids taking the challenging, high-level curriculum. It’s good for all kids. We’ve got to figure out way, and we might need to be creative.
And having said all that, I don’t think we’ve completely “figured it out.” We still have lots of kids who aren’t making it, and we keep trying to figure out how to get them there.
You can’t just plop [students] into an AP or IB class and expect they’re going to do well if they don’t necessarily have the same instructional background as some kids who have been going along that way.
Public School Insights: So support is the key to the de-tracking agenda?
Collins: Yeah, and being creative about how you offer it. Supporting the high-level curriculum. I think one of the other mistakes people make in education is that we think we need to remediate, so the support class turns into a remediation class. It [actually] needs to be a “support the high-level curriculum” class; pre-teaching [students] what they’re going to learn, frontloading them, giving them the vocabulary, giving them strategies and critical thinking they’re going to need to be successful in [the advanced course].
We’ve also broken down the data so that we can look at our kids that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to see if we’re getting them into at least 1 AP or IB class. If we aren’t, we better figure out why not, and start encouraging them to do it. So, encourage [all students], and let them know you believe they they can do it, and [that] you’re going to give them the support [they need] to be successful.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
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- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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