Lessons from Seward 
Lessons from Seward

All schools strive to ensure the success of their students, but there is always room for improvement and new ideas. I recently read an article, in Principal Leadership, about a tiny school in Alaska that's ranked as one of the top schools for student performance in that state, as a result of implementing changes in their high school that are not common practice in most schools. So what is Seward High School’s secret to success with their students, and what are they doing that other high schools are not?

According to high school principal Trevan Walker, the first step to changing Seward was to challenge the school’s existing “factory model.” While this educational model has existed for decades in most schools, it's a system that doesn't account for the different ways students learn. Some students, for example, need more hands-on learning, while others need to work individually or like opportunities to work in small groups. The factory model also emphasizes rigid scheduling that provides little variation in instruction and competition among students. Numerous high schools today still have students compete for the highest grade point average and class ranking. Invariably students who fit the model succeed, while those that do not either seek other forms of schooling, such as cyber and charter schools, homeschooling or they just drop out.

To make the transition from a classic “one size fits all” prototype to one more in line with needs of their current students, Seward began to focus on the success of all its students. They became more diverse in their scheduling, their instructional strategies, and their course offerings. For instance, now their high school offers a variety of course selections, and they have embraced the use of technology. And students can participate in courses that are not a part of the standard high school schedule. Students can get credits through other means, such as distance learning programs, dual credits through local community colleges and on-the-job training for students who work in the community. Another key component is providing more flexibility that allows students to come and go as they need to, making the high school environment similar to a college campus.

For Seward, technology has helped them to become more diverse. As an example, about a quarter of Seward’s teachers use blended instruction to offer credit for courses. As Walker describes it, teachers see their students face to face for half of their instructional time and the other half is facilitated through a computer learning management system. Students can also take online courses through partnerships with local colleges. Technology provides flexibility to when, where, and how students can be actively learning. All of these changes challenge the factory model theory that a student’s learning style should fit with what the high school offers. Now, the school is adapting to the needs of their students.

Quite a few high schools in Berks County are already applying some of the same strategies as Seward High School. However, we’re still leaving too many remnants of the factory model — high schools continue to place emphasis on teaching by lecturing, focusing on facts instead of problem solving, and scheduling that limits student choice and flexibility.

Seward’s changes have impacted their students’ learning in a positive way. Recent state test scores showed that 88% of the students are proficient in reading, and 82% are proficient in math. So how do we, in Berks County, fully break away from the factory model once and for all and commit to making our schools diverse places for learning?

We need to continue to look at successful schools like Seward and question the effectiveness of our approach to learning. We need to take into account that learning today is becoming more individualized and no longer is defined by time and place. With improvements in technology, we need to recognize that students can take more responsibility and initiative with their learning and areas of study.

There is no doubt that all school districts in Berks County want their students to be well educated and successful in the 21st Century. This is why we have to acknowledge that the factory model no longer has a place in our educational system, and dabbling with changes here and there won’t get us where we want to go … lessons learned from Seward High School.
Posted by JBuettler On March 24, 2016 at 9:24 AM