Adults and students high five each other in the halls.
Or at least smile and say hey. What you’re looking for are signs, warm greetings being just one, that the adults and students on campus actually like and respect each other. Are students comfortable popping into a teacher’s office or classroom on a break, just to check in? Do they trust the adults at the school enough to share what’s going on in their lives outside of school? This is more important than you might think. Research increasingly suggests that having strong, caring relationships with adults in a school setting increases students’ motivation and academic success, and this is especially the case for students at risk of failing or dropping out.
There are enough college counselors.
Or, there are enough adults that do intensive college counseling. At some schools, this role is filled by attentive, skilled academic counselors. At others, designated teachers help out. Some schools even have local college students supporting high school students through the process. Does every student have at least one caring adult who can help with college applications, financial aid and those tough conversations about the future? Is that person available to help as often as the student needs it? If a school does not have at least one counselor for every 250 students, ask how they make personalized college counseling (and that includes some handholding) available to all students.
If a high school is doing its job, every student knows what it takes to graduate college and career-ready. That means there’s a well-maintained and updated system that students and parents know how to use to check on their progress before report cards come out. It also means that the difference between simply graduating and graduating college-ready is crystal clear. Too often students graduate from high school with decent grades only to find out that the classes they took do not make them eligible for the local state college. So students need to know at all times how they’re doing, not just in each class, but also in the bigger picture of graduating with the classes that they need to pursue their plan. Which brings us to number 4.
No child left without a plan.
High-quality high schools not only believe all students can succeed after graduation, but they make sure each and every student knows what they’ll do after that mortarboard is tossed in the air. Whether a student is going to college, pursuing a trade or career, or going into the military or some other program, good high schools make a commitment to help each student prepare for life after graduation. This means giving all students access to rigorous academics and meaningful career options throughout their four years, plus extra support for applying to college, finding an apprenticeship, or some other pursuit.
Signs that everyone’s voice is being heard.
When you walk through the halls, you want to see that all of the students are valued as individuals and as members of the community. That they’re stakeholders, as the experts like to say. Do students get to participate in decisions that affect their learning? Do the adults and students at the school feel that their personal identities (including cultural, racial, and sexual orientation/gender) are valued and respected? Do the teachers and school leaders actively make sure a diverse array of student voices are heard? If the answers to these questions is yes, you’re likely to see signs that people are happy to be there, and that student life is represented by a wide variety of student clubs and groups.
When you ask a kid, why are you doing that? They have an answer.
Sure, if you’re a teenager pretty much everything is boring and irrelevant except YouTube and TikTok. But at a quality high school, students should be able to say why they’re spending their valuable time programming a robot, testing the water at the local creek, or designing a museum exhibit. Of course every single assignment will not elicit a clarity of purpose, but the more you hear a coherent response to why, the more it’s likely that students are engaged in authentic ways of learning how to solve complex, open-ended, real-world problems.
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