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School organization: Q&A

Q: How do you define or measure “student engagement”?

A: Student engagement is a slippery concept. We went about the process by measuring things that indicated students were or were not actively involved and excited about school: Drop-out , attendance, and graduation rates; school safety;  student participation in school activities; anecdotal evidence of motivation and boredom; and changes in student behavior.

Q: What forms of school organization improve student engagement? 

A: Smaller schools and schools-within-schools have proven to be effective in many settings. Creating a small learning community can personalize relationships between and among teachers, students, and school staff. When members of a school community care about one another, teaching and learning can become more effective.

Q: What programs/school structures have been most effective in easing the transitions from elementary to middle and middle to high school for at-risk students?

A: Research shows two major ways schools might organize to engage at-risk students and reduce drop-out rates: Ninth grade academies and longer grade spans. Ninth grade academies isolate that grade to focus on at-risk kids making the transition to high school. Longer grade spans also generally go hand-in-hand with smaller school size; large student bodies tend to mean short grade spans. Often two or more K–5 elementary schools will feed a six through eight middle school, and two or more middle schools will feed a large nine through twelve high school. Research suggests advantages to adjusting the grade spans to K–12 or to K–6 and seven through twelve with more buildings and fewer students per building.

Q: What organizational structures can smooth the transition between high school and college for at-risk students?

A: Middle college high schools and early college high schools both focus on helping at-risk and/or underrepresented students graduate from high school and begin postsecondary studies. Both types of schools tend to be housed on the campus of a partnering institution of higher education, so students can begin to feel comfortable in a college environment. The main difference between the two models is the length of enrollment: Middle colleges often span six years, during which students complete a normal high school program and continue in the same school for two years of college credit. Early colleges collapse the same academic experiences into four years by arranging for college classes to carry dual enrollment credit for high school. 

Q: How does online learning affect student engagement?

A: Virtual schools and online courses have become almost a fact of life in U.S. high schools, where they may be the only way a school can offer Advanced Placement courses to students. In rural and remote areas (Alaska, for example) or certain family situations (migrant workers and military families), online delivery of instruction may be the most practical way to go. Many face-to-face classes have moved toward “blended” learning, where some pieces of content and/or some learning activities are delivered online. 

When teachers know good online teaching practices, students in online courses do just as well as students in traditional classrooms. For students who need remediation or enrichment, online courses offer students the possibility of learning at their own pace without the pressure of keeping up with, or waiting up for, the rest of the class. In other words, student engagement in online courses can be as good as—and sometimes better than—engagement in classroom environments. Not every student can succeed in an online environment, however—strong independent study skills and self-discipline are required characteristics.

Q: Why aren’t charter schools considered as an organizational type?

A: Most charter schools essentially differ from public schools only by the way they are governed; that is, the locus of control is outside the public education system. Otherwise, charter schools use no organizational approaches that aren’t being used by other public schools.

 


This Q&A was prepared by Edvantia, an education research and development not-for-profit corporation founded in 1966.

Posted: September 4, 2008

©Center for Public Education

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