Ohio task force aims to reinvent student high school experience

An Ohio Department of Education task force will seek school and public input on redesigning the high school experience, in an effort to better prepare students for success in their adult lives.

The task force is an outgrowth from Ohio’s strategic plan for schools, and a response to repeated changes in the state’s graduation requirements. Both of those processes triggered debate among educators and legislators on what students should know and be able to do to earn a high school diploma.

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“I think for a long time we’ve looked at high school as that finish line, and it’s not,” said Sarah Wilson, college and career readiness administrator at the Ohio Department of Education. “You have your entire life after high school, and you need to be prepared to take that next step. So how do we make sure that high school is inspiring students, engaging students, preparing students for those next steps? That’s what I’m hoping that we can coalesce around.”

The task force, which spent several months working on graduation requirements, has been expanded and held its first session on high school redesign last week. The next session is Nov. 25 in Columbus.

The group hopes to eventually hold regional focus groups around the state, and it plans to “issue a call for Ohio schools and districts to share promising and successful high school models and practices.”

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Wilson said last week’s meeting largely laid the groundwork of the effort and featured discussion of the new “diploma seals” that are part of the graduation system for students in the Class of 2023 and beyond.

“The conversation really stemmed around student motivation, student engagement and student choice,” Wilson said. “Those were three main areas where we heard extensive feedback of driving principles of successful high schools and models.”

ODE was not able to provide a list of all task force members Thursday. The co-chairs are state school board member Martha Manchester and Mercer County Educational Service Center Superintendent Shelly Vaughn.

The task force will eventually make recommendations to State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria. Those recommendations could possibly call for structural changes in what classes are taken, and in what sequence, to get students more excited about school earlier.

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“It came up in conversation at last Monday’s meeting, to look at the school day, and student schedules and course-taking strategies as a piece of student engagement,” she said.

There is a push in some quarters to have students take more life skills courses in high school – personal finance, cooking/nutrition, basic tool use. Wilson said she doesn’t know if the task force will address that issue, but it has generally fallen to each local school to decide what courses to offer.

The proposal document for the task force says the group will seek input from current students, recent graduates, parents and school leaders, as well as reviewing national research for best practices.

Wilson said one key will be to better connect schools statewide to share successes and failures of what they’ve already tried, suggesting that we learn best from our peers.

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Asked whether high school success depended more on well-structured programs, or the simple effort of the people in the school, Wilson said she wasn’t sure how to respond, and that will be part of the group’s study.

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