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A sad truth about education in American is that not all high schools prepare their students for success after graduation. No matter what path a student takes after high school — be it going straight into the workforce, vocational study, or college — it should be the student’s choice. But when high schools don’t prepare students for more advanced study, the options for new graduates are limited. Students who aren’t prepared for college end up in remedial courses, paying college tuition to learn things students are expected to master in high school. Others may feel overwhelmed, fall behind, and drop out. While a college degree is not the right choice for every student, every high school student should have the right to graduate from high school with many options open.

A few years ago, GreatSchools.org published important new data about how well high schools are preparing students for college. (This includes college entrance exam scores and participation rates as well as graduation rates, remediation rates, college enrollment data, and college persistence data.) As a result, we changed how we rate public high schools. Now our ratings weigh how well schools are preparing students for life after graduation more heavily than standardized test scores. In 2018, we used this data to launch the College Success Awards. These awards identified 814 high schools across nine states in the U.S. that are preparing their graduates for success after high school. You can read our methodology here.

While we relied on data points to identify these winning schools, we did not stop there. We surveyed winning and non-winning schools to learn more about what winning schools seem to be doing differently. We also visited eight diverse, high-performing, winning schools that serve low-income students to understand their best practices. From our survey data and qualitative research, we identified the following six educational strategies. Whether you’re an educator, parent, or teen looking to understand or improve the quality of your local high school, these six approaches are a promising place to start.

6 strategies of award-winning high schools

  1. College counseling

    When it comes to preparing students for college, the research is clear: The support of in-school college counselors during the high school years is vital. Students who receive personalized guidance from a school-based college counselor, including help filling out applications and providing financial aid resources, are more likely to enroll in a four-year college. This support is particularly important for low-income students and other groups with a lower incidence of college enrollment. Read more about what a well-rounded and effective college counseling program is like.

  2. Emphasis on — and access to — advanced academics

    Opportunities for rigorous coursework and extracurricular activities in high school do more than boost GPAs and add sparkle to students’ resumes. Students who take advanced classes are more likely to graduate high school, enroll in a four-year college, earn higher GPAs while there, and graduate in four years. Award-winning schools not only have robust advanced academics, they make these classes widely available. They are less likely to require a minimum GPA, a teacher recommendation, or any other obstacle to accessing these classes. Read more about the benefits and structure of this educational approach.

  3. Reaching out to at-risk students

    Providing at-risk students with adequate support has been one of the nation’s biggest and most unyielding educational challenges. Every year, one in five high school students drop out before graduating, and for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, the numbers are even higher. Research shows that students who are at risk of failing academically benefit greatly from extra support: from one-on-one tutoring, to emotional counseling services, to support groups. Our survey found that both winning and non-winning high schools target at-risk students for intervention in 9th grade — a pivotal year for student success. But award winners take this many steps further. Read more about how and when these schools reach out to struggling students.

  4. Having high expectations for all students

    More than five decades of research show that teacher expectations profoundly affect student outcomes. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, researchers from the Center for American Progress found that 10th graders whose teachers had high expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students whose teachers held lower expectations. Read more about how some schools hold — and communicate — high expectations for all students.

  5. Encouraging all postsecondary tracks without hierarchy or stigma

    Offering vocational training along with rigorous college prep classes seems to be a key factor in how well a school prepares students for college. Surprisingly, GreatSchools’ 2018 College Success Award survey did not find that a college-for-all philosophy was a predictor of student success. In fact, non-award-winners were more likely (70 percent) to report having a “college-for-all” philosophy than award-winners (58 percent). Although it may seem counterintuitive, the award-winning high schools we spotlighted offer a glimpse at how college success and vocational programs (including everything from nursing and culinary programs to business classes and environmental science) need not be at odds. A majority of these schools have robust vocational programs that are stigma-free. Read more about how encouraging and supporting all postsecondary tracks helps all students.

  6. Closely linked middle and high schools

    Many of the award-winning high schools we spotlighted had a closely connected middle school. There isn’t a lot of research on the impact of combined middle and high schools on college enrollment. However, several winners of GreatSchools’ College Success Award told us their sixth to twelfth grade models or close relationships with adjacent middle schools were part of their success. This not only allows them to communicate a college-going messages early but to build academic skills aligned to the high school curriculum. Though many high schools do not have the opportunity to had a dedicated middle school, administrators should note that building an academic bridge between middle and high school helps students develop college-going ambitions and skills at a formative age. Read more about the value of middle school and high school being linked.

GreatSchools 2018 College Success Awards celebrates 814 high schools that have a successful track record of going beyond simply graduating students to helping them enroll in college and succeed once they get there. Check out the list of award winners, read our report and read more about what we learned about the educational practices that winning schools have in common.

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