Two Colorado high schools are among eight in the nation recognized as Schools of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

Schools of Opportunity are institutions that go above and beyond to help all their students succeed. Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at CU’s School of Education, said the program is designed to counter the “Best High Schools in America” rankings from U.S. News & World Report and similar lists.

“At the top of these rankings, what we see — year after year — are two types of schools,” Welner said. “First, we see schools located in wealthier communities. Second, we see those choice schools that are known to enroll the highest-scoring students in their communities. So these schools illustrate a fundamental rule: The best way to have high test scores is to enroll high-scoring students. Such schools, however, do not necessarily provide exemplars of best practices.”

Socioeconomic factors outside of school continue to play a strong role in how well students do in school. Schools of Opportunity use methods and strategies that should close some of that gap, even if it doesn’t show up in test scores, Welner said.

“A lot of things that schools do won’t show up in test scores right away, but they’ll show up in other things, like more students showing up to school, and in life beyond school, what the student takes with him or her,” Welner said.

Denver’s South High School received a gold rating, with reviewers making note of heritage classes in Arabic and Spanish that help students achieve literacy in their first language as well as English. The school also received praise for a peer-mentoring program that has significantly increased the number of students of color taking Advanced Placement and college-level courses.

“The first thing you have to start with is your mindset,” South Principal Jen Hanson said. “It’s very important that people in the building see diversity as an asset.”

Hanson said teachers and administrators focus on the assets students already have, rather than what they lack, and build from there.

Aurora’s William C. Hinkley High School received a silver designation. A restorative justice program there has transformed the school culture, according to students interviewed by the committee that made the awards. It’s part of an overall “culture of care” that includes teacher training that focuses on collaboration and building relationships.

Principal Matthew Willis said all these efforts go toward “helping students access a better life.” Disciplinary referrals are way down, and graduation rates are way up at a school that serves a lot of students from low-income families. The school has one of the highest rates of concurrent enrollment – high school students taking college courses – in the state.

Welner said he hopes other schools serving students from low-income families, students of color, and students who are learning English will read through the applications and find ideas that can work at their school. He’s also used these ideas to help the Office of Civil Rights come up with remedies when schools are found to violate their students’ civil rights.

South High School

Student body: 1,605
Students of Color: 67 percent
English Language Learners: 42.9 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 58.7 percent

Almost 70 percent of South students are students of color, but in the 2015-16 school year, just 73 students of color enrolled in AP classes. Hanson said administrators knew something must be wrong. A student group called “Rising Rebels” was enlisted to recruit their peers to sign up for AP and college-level classes. Teachers also reached out to students and their parents to encourage them to sign up. This school year, 423 students of color are signed up for AP courses, and the school has a tutoring program to make sure those who need extra help get it.

“If you grow up with a parent in your ear saying you’re going to college and you’re going to take that class, that’s great, but if you don’t have that parent, it’s our obligation to provide that,” Hanson said.

Denver Public Schools as a whole is pushing to get more students into advanced classes, with some success, but students of color are still underrepresented.

South has a large refugee population representing students from more than 50 countries, many of whom have had their schooling interrupted. South is a designated Newcomer Center, and soon all of its teachers will be certified to teach English Language Learners.

Hanson said sending the right message from the top is important, as is teacher training, but administrators also need to look closely at the structures and systems at their schools, at discipline and schedules. Do these structures support equity or do they give an advantage to some students while discouraging others?

Hinkley High School

Student body: 2,184
Students of color: 91.9 percent
English Language Learners: 29.7 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 75.2 percent

Willis said the restorative justice program is just one component of a larger “culture of care,” but it’s the oldest and perhaps foundational piece.

“Many referrals can be boiled down to relational problems between two individuals that can be solved with facilitation,” he said.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Kennon Baldwin, a Hinkley High School senior, works on an online course during night school.

The school also arranges schedules so that teachers who work in the same subject area can meet and share ideas. A first-year teacher can share recent research, while a veteran teacher might know the signs that a student needs help. Topics for teacher training are chosen with student needs in mind, Willis said. Right now, many Hinkley teachers are giving up a planning period to work on ideas to better serve students with disabilities.

When students stay in class and when teachers work hard to understand their students, a lot can happen, Willis said. It’s taken years to get here, and Willis said any school leaders who want to make big changes also need patience.

“There isn’t a magic pill or silver bullet,” he said. “When we talk about the culture of care, cultural transformation takes time. Each year, this philosophy coalesces more. We work together as a staff to see how we can take that next step. We’re never completely satisfied, and I think that’s why you see this continual progress toward improving our school.”

“There are many ways to improve a school, but sticking with one approach long enough to actually see the fruits of our labor is really important,” he added.

You can see the full list of winners and read more about them here

Nominations are being accepted for the next round, and organizers said they’d particularly like to see more nominations from rural schools.

This story has been changed to correct a minor error in a quote from Kevin Welner. The correction does not change the meaning of the quote.