The Schools to Watch (STW) program is a national, state-operated model school identification and school improvement initiative focused on recognizing high-achieving schools serving students in grades 5-8. Selected schools have established norms, structures, and organizational arrangements to support and ensure their students exit the middle-grades prepared for success in high school with an academically rigorous curriculum that will prepare them for post-secondary education and the workplace. Once identified, STW schools provide mentorship, networking, professional development and training to other schools.
The Schools to Watch program is an initiative of The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, a national alliance of over 60 educators, researchers, national associations, and officers of professional organizations and foundations committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents. To accomplish its goal of improved academic and developmental outcomes for all students in the middle-grades, the Forum identifies and disseminates best practices, articulates and promotes effective policies, recognizes and develops enlightened leadership, and informs and engages the public.
Forum members agree that high-performing middle-grades schools are academically excellent, developmentally responsive, socially equitable, and have developed organizational structures that support the school community’s continuous improvement efforts.
Based on these four characteristics, members of the Forum share the following vision for high-performing middle-grades schools:
These schools challenge all students to use their minds well.
High-performing schools with middle grades are academically excellent. They challenge all students to use their minds well, providing them with the curriculum, instruction, assessment, support, and time they need to meet rigorous academic standards. They recognize that early adolescence is characterized by dramatic cognitive growth, which enables students to think in more abstract and complex ways. The curriculum and extra-curricular programs in such schools are challenging and engaging, tapping young adolescents’ boundless energy, interests, and curiosity. Students learn to understand important concepts, develop essential skills, and apply what they learn to real-world problems. Adults in these schools maintain a rich academic environment by working with colleagues in their schools and communities to deepen their own knowledge and improve their practice.
These schools are sensitive to the unique developmental challenges of early adolescence.
High-performing schools with middle grades are developmentally responsive. Such schools create small learning communities of adults and students in which stable, close, and mutually respectful relationships support all students’ intellectual, ethical, and social growth. They provide comprehensive services to foster healthy physical and emotional development. Students have opportunity for both independent inquiry and learning in cooperation with others. They have time to be reflective and numerous opportunities to make decisions about their learning. Developmentally responsive schools involve families as partners in the education of their children. They welcome families, keep them well informed, help them develop their expectations and skills to support learning, and assure their participation in decision-making. These schools are deeply rooted in their communities. Students have opportunities for active citizenship. They use the community as a classroom, and community members provide resources, connections, and active support.
These schools are democratic and fair, providing every student with high-quality teachers, resources, and supports.
High-performing schools with middle grades are socially equitable. They seek to keep their students’ future options open. They have high expectations for all their students and are committed to helping each child produce work of high quality. These schools make sure that all students are in academically rigorous classes staffed by experienced and expertly prepared teachers. These teachers acknowledge and honor their students’ histories and cultures. They work to educate every child well and to overcome systematic variation in resources and outcomes related to race, class, gender, and ability. They engage their communities in supporting all students’ learning and growth
To achieve this level of performance, high-performing schools establish norms, structures, and organizational arrangements to support and sustain their trajectory toward excellence. They have a sense of purpose that drives every facet of practice and decision-making.
Once designated as a School to Watch, schools must continue their progress and qualify for redesignation every three years to remain in the program. Many STW sites have been redesignated despite leadership changes, district priority shifts and challenges in meeting the demands of high-needs learners.
To date, nearly 400 schools nationwide have been selected as a STW for their trajectory of upward improvement and commitment to mentorship with struggling schools serving diverse students in poverty. These models represent all sizes and types of schools with a range of student populations. Many include dramatic public education turnaround examples.
The Forum’s collective experience tells us that acknowledgement, recognition, networking, and support of the STW initiative can be the catalyst for middle-grades scale-up across the country. STW is poised to provide interventions with powerful strategies for replicating reform servicing as demonstration sites, centers of professional development, and research sites. In addition, STW is well-positioned as a national school improvement model that stands ready to assist schools throughout the nation to more effectively prepare ALL students to stay in school, transition to high school, succeed, and graduate college and career ready.
The National Forum deepened the STW initiative, when in October 2010, the Forum was awarded one of the highly competitive Investing in innovation (i3) Developmental Grants from the U. S. Department of Education. The four-year, $6 million project, Schools to Watch: School Transformation Network, provides multiple-tiered support and intervention in 18 low-performing schools in California, Illinois, and North Carolina and is the basis for creating high-performing middle-grades schools. Early findings show important academic performance changes as school culture and climate conditions improve.
The Forum was awarded a second i3 award in 2013 for Middle-Grades Leadership Development (MLD), a four-year project focused on leadership development in high-needs middle schools in Michigan and Kentucky. IEE is the Michigan project partner for MLD and we are facilitating the STW Leadership Matters model at six project schools in Michigan. We’re working with leadership teams at these schools to train school leaders to improve teacher effectiveness, implement school-wide student support systems, and develop positive learning environments. The MLD project is currently underway and will continue through 2017.
Apply for 2016!
Do you think your middle-school is a School to Watch? Check out the STW Rubric for more details on applicant criteria at www.michiganschoolstowatch.org. Applications for the 2016 award will open in June. We hope you’ll consider applying!