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Preparing High School Seniors for College, Part One

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

Here, in California, another school year has finally dipped into the cool, blue Pacific. I've been reflecting on all that we've accomplished this year, including the fact that more than 90 percent of our graduating seniors will be going to college. I also can't help but think about everything that goes into the rite of passage that is graduation at Envision Schools.

Before students ever walk down the isle or throw their hats in the air, seniors gear up for their culminating defense: a public presentation of the College Success Portfolio. Students must defend their best high school work before an audience of parents and peers. Unless this work is completed, presented, and defended acceptably, a student will not graduate.

Seniors at Envision Schools work harder in the last six weeks than they do in their entire four years of school. Teachers work side by side with students, often staying late into the night, and hosting weekend sessions in their homes to get kids prepared for the graduation defense.

The completed College Success Portfolio can also serve as a pinnacle of a teacher's career, as many of them witness not only the academic growth of their students but also the transformation from childhood to adulthood.

This is in sharp contrast to the typical senioritis experienced by most students, who often burn out by January, much to the chagrin of their teachers. Instead, the students' mental muscles are primed and ready for college in the fall, unlike so many college freshmen who struggle in their first year.

Much of our collective success hinges on standards that are clear, selective, challenging, and attainable -- and that kids have four years to achieve. Former graduates from our schools often share with current students that completing the College Success Portfolio was more difficult than their first year of college. This project builds confidence for their next important milestone: college graduation and beyond.

Exactly how we prepare kids for college at Envision Schools will be the subject of my blog posts over the next several weeks as all of us reflect, regroup, and gear up for the coming school year.

Has your school used high-stakes assessments similar to the College Success Portfolio? What are your thoughts and ideas about the use of a culminating project such as this? Please share.

This is the first part of a two-part blog entry. Read part two.

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dkzody's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So glad to read about someone else using portfolios as a graduation requirement. Our academy, Fresno High Marketing Academy, a California Partnership Academy, has done this for 17 graduating classes. We are the only group in a large inner city high school that does this. The student may graduate from high school, but not from the Academy, without a portfolio. The portfolio, and the portfolio interview, is a requirement.

Janette Gamble's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Back in the early 1990s we implemented something like this at the end of 8th grade. It was called the 8th grade "Right of Passage" and, like the portfolio project at Envision Schools, it totally eliminated the end of year slow-down plus it clearly defined what needed to be done to receive an 8th grade diploma. (Including a portfolio demonstrating competency in various genres of writing.) After I left that school, I was teaching-principal at the small school in Yosemite National Park (Yosemite Valley School). There we implemented annual "Exhibit Days" where students K through 8 became docents at what other schools might call "open house". Alone or in small groups, students spend the final days of school focusing on what they learned over the school year, each selecting one subject area to recapture, and prepare a visual exhibit and verbal presentation for visiting parents and community. I retired in 2006, but this tradition still goes on today and is impressive to witness.

Daniel Hickey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an assessment researcher who is really interested in portfolio assessment. In my own work and in my reading of the literture and observation of the portfolio work of colleagues (especially in teacher education) I have observed that as we attach more and more stakes to the quality of artifacts in portfolios, that the learning of the underlying ideas gets set aside in favor of pefecting the artifacts. Students expect precise guidelines and demand levels of feedback on interim artifacts that instructors simply can't sustain. I worry that Bob will experience the same problem, and wonder how he deals with this issue.

My own responses to these concerns are central to the "participatory" portfolio assessment model we have been refining over the last couple of years, buidling on some nice ideas by several researchers in Norway (Lund, Witek, & Dyson). I have elaborated in a previous post on our blog and wonder if these concerns and solutions are relevant here.

John Bennett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Comments to date seem to miss a critical element of the reported effort: the defense of the portfolio.
I expect this to help motivation of development of a good portfolio.
It is OUR responsibility to motivate students to become engaged learners involved in effective learning (learning for long term retention and ease of application).
The students need to realize this is the only route to a successful and enjoyable career.
If we concentrate on these efforts AND demand / reward such efforts, the students will understand the importance of the portfolio and its defense.
It all depends upon our resolve to work for truly effective learning.

Marcia Hirst's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always been in favor of the integrated portfolio and still am. However, what do the students who are not going to college prepare? I do not read here, about them. We still have an enormous need for creative, skilled craftsmen/women for jobs that may be union or guild oriented; or students who will NOT be able to afford college.The framework of Envision schools looks exceptional and theoretically sound. Does it work for all students in a public school? How?

Tom Fanning's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the 7th grade Computer teacher at my middle school in Western Mass. As part of the one-trimester course we offer, students use MS FrontPage to create a portfolio web site. This activity serves to cover basic computer literacy content such as file management and web site design and administration. In addition, the portfolio part encourages these 12 and 13 year-olds to think metacognitively about what and how they learn.

Regarding your concern about over-emphasis on artifact completion I would offer the approach we use: simple one to two-page documents that discuss mini-lessons from their classes,(converting fractions to decimals, writing a shape poem, explaining how traits get passed on in genetics, etc.) For evidence of learning, these artifacts must contain images displaying students' own work. Either a digital image of student work or a video clip of the student at work. My feeling is that this lighter approach to artifact making can, over time, create a rich archive of each student's intellectual development.

We find that digital imagery of student work is the best evidence of learning, or more to the point, of depth of understanding. Teachers can learn a lot about what students know and about the effectiveness of their curriculum implementation from these artifacts.

The digital portfolios that our students create are not currently being utilized by the teachers of the so-called "core" courses, so we have no evidence of effectiveness outside of what students accomplish in the 7th grade computer course. However, my experience with students on this project has helped me converse with students on the critical topics connected to their own education: what is important to learn?, why?, how do I learn?, how should I participate in my own education?

Some of our students' web sites will be on display this fall on the National Writing Project's, "Digital Is..." web site. Check it out.

Tom Fanning

Susan Sneller Ms.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At Quest HS in Humble, Texas, students work on 2 culminating social action service-learning projects their senior year, one each semester. Working in groups of 3 or 4, students focus on a social issue of importance to them--implementing a money management course for high school students, for example, or studying domestic violence and advocating for a solution they've designed. This process of studying an issue that is of personal interest to them, and then moving to action on a solution to the problem allows students, whether college-bound or not, to understand their effectiveness in the world. They also must present their work to a panel to be judged before graduation. Through this service-learning activity, students synthesize their high school learning, understand their ability to create change, and become more involved citizens. It's a win-win for all.

Anne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We used a senior project as a capstone experience at our school. Juniors were encouraged to attend senior presentations in order to begin thinking about their own senior project. As early as October, we met with seniors to help them think about what they wanted to work on. They were given rubrics to complete during the remainder of the year that had to be signed off by their mentor teacher. At each benchmark, students had to show evidence of their work toward completion. The final presentations took place over several days and included the campus community, parents and friends. There are ways in which to make this meaningful for students not attending college, and in fact, gives them an opportunity to explore a trade prior to graduation. The project also requires an outside mentor that the student identifies and works with, bringing them closer to the community before graduation.

Although the entire process is time consuming for teachers and students, it becomes a right of passage, and allows authentic learning to take place. Grades are pass/fail, and there are many opportunities along the way for students to understand where they are in the process.

Finally, the public display of the artifact becomes an opportunity for the student to stand in front of his/her community and demonstrate the work toward not only completing this capstone project, but using the oration and presentation skills gained during the previous high school years.

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