Collaborating to Empower Students

Four years ago, the first students walked through the doors of Innovation High School in Jersey City, N.J. Although the school was new and unproven, families were applying through the school’s lottery selection system for the chance to send their children to the school because its curriculum focused on S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math).

Innovation’s faculty encourage continuous self-assessment among students, teachers and administrators; collaborate to build a sense of ownership and accountability that students have over their education; and maintain adherence to high standards.

That’s why teachers and parents were so proud to celebrate its first graduating class in June of 2018. With a graduation rate of 92 percent (nearly 15 percent higher than surrounding schools in the district), 72 seniors flipped their tassels as they crossed the stage and prepared for the next chapter of their lives. Of those who graduated, 89 percent were accepted to a four-year college with 44 percent earning scholarships and 75 percent receiving some form of financial aid.

“This graduating class was very special to us,” said Dr. Wachera Brown, principal of Innovation High School. “After spending years with these students, they felt like our own children.”

The school attributes its success to a positive school culture that focuses on ensuring that all students have equitable educational opportunities and to its partnership with the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) and the implementation of its seven-principle approach to teaching and learning.

College Prep Teaching & Learning

One of the principles that undergirds ISA’s approach is every student should receive college preparatory teaching and learning. In order to achieve this goal, Innovation partnered with New Jersey City University (NJCU), a local college located across the street from the high school. Through the partnership, juniors and seniors at Innovation are permitted to take up to eight classes each year at NJCU, with class credits counting for both high school and college credit. As another aspect of this collaboration, students who meet the requirements to attend NJCU after graduation are able to receive a full tuition scholarship. This program provides an opportunity for local students to continue their academic journey, and provides incentives for them to work towards graduation.

As further preparation for college, Innovation adopted a scheduling system similar to that used in many colleges, where on alternating days students have longer class periods which allow teachers to give in-depth, project-based assignments and students are able to devote more time to their work.

“Students enjoy the block schedule, because it better prepares them for what a college experience is like,” Brown said.

Additionally, Innovation was one of only 100 high schools to be selected to participate in the launch of the pre-Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum, a program run by the College Board to prepare students for the academic rigor of college. This program is designed to provide access to educational opportunities for students who might otherwise be underserved. As part of this extensive course offering, all teachers at Innovation attended training to ensure that their teaching is aligned with state and AP requirements.

Distributed Counselling and Parental Involvement

The staff at Innovation also fully participate in “distributed counseling” where all teachers are encouraged to have a personal relationship with their students so as to ensure that students always feel they are part of a support system. In addition, all students take part in what are called “advisory classes” that don’t cover a traditional curriculum such as math or history, but create opportunities for students and advisors to talk about issues and accomplishments. When students feel like their teachers are their allies, they are more confident and more successful.

“This advisory program is a differentiating factor for Innovation, and our students really appreciate that they each have a mentor that they can go to for anything – school related or not,” said school counselor Nancy Ortiz.

Innovation also maintains regular communication with students’ families, so that parents and guardians are part of their children’s academic careers and can work with the school to provide a strong support system.

Continuous Improvement

Another ISA principle is using data to support continuous organizational improvement focused on student progress and achievement. As Innovation works to equip students with the academic, social, and emotional skills needed to excel academically in high school and beyond, the faculty and staff are also committed to consistently evaluating progress and making necessary adjustments.

“Being on the stage for graduation was a great experience,” said Brown. “All of our hard work over the past four years, coupled with the emotional connection that we hold with our students and school showed.”

At its first graduation, students and their families talked about their positive experiences with Innovation, and how much they were going to miss the school and its staff with whom they formed genuine relationships. Therefore, it was no surprise that Innovation’s graduation ceremony was filled with emotion and pride – for all in attendance.

“One student kept his eyes shut throughout the entire ceremony, and when his name was called to receive his diploma, tears of joy started streaming down his face,” said Eliud Amaya, the school’s crisis intervention teacher.

The proof of Innovation High School’s success is evident – and shows that all students can succeed when in schools that have rigorous learning and caring environments. Since its opening, the school staff has overcome struggles and growing pains, and worked hard to build an environment that fosters student success. But Innovation’s recent graduation ceremony is just one step on its journey to ensure all students are ready for college and careers. The school is looking forward to continuing to provide a rigorous and supportive educational experience for many more students, resulting in many more graduations in the years to come.