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Let Your Students Be Your Guide

Friday is proud to launch Highlight, a unique digital tool that helps K-12 schools identify conditions gaps — critical factors that hinder achievement in the classroom — so that educators can work with students to identify solutions.

IN 2017, AFTER A DOZEN YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, Dr. Jeffrey Hunt was a coach for high school principals at the Fresno County Superintendent’s office, when he got a phone call: Teenage girls on one of the district’s campuses were fighting with one another on a regular basis, generating suspension after suspension — and classroom tensions made it difficult for teachers to do their job. After questioning the girls themselves, meeting with the leadership team, and interviewing campus safety staff, school leaders couldn’t figure out what to do.

“The principal was new to the school and she didn’t really have a feel for the students’ perceptions of campus climate,” says Hunt. “So I thought: Let’s look at the bigger picture — there may be more to this problem than individual fights breaking out — there could be bullying, gang tension, who knows?” Hunt worked with the principal to generate a short student survey to identify issues around campus culture. The results were telling: “We quickly discovered that 9th-grade girls felt really safe on campus, and 10–12th grade girls didn’t feel safe at all,” says Hunt. “We held small focus groups with some of the students, and the older girls said that the 9th-graders, who had just come from middle school, seemed to feel the need to make their presence known on campus.”

That discovery led faculty to focus more attention on the needs of the 9th-grade girls, and it planted a seed for future years: Hunt connected the high school principal to the middle school principal, to smooth out the transition from 8th grade to 9th grade. They established a new orientation program that paired the younger girls with senior buddies, getting them to visit the campus before they were enrolled, so they feel like they’re part of the school well before their first class. “That whole experience was a real ‘aha’ moment for me,” says Hunt. “As a 40-year-old man, what do I know about being a 14-year-old girl on a highschool campus? Too many adults are trying to guess at the experience and the mindset of kids, so my thought was: Let’s just ask them.”

A few years later, that deceptively simple approach is the foundation for a new tool called Highlight, which Dr. Hunt and Friday are rolling out to K-12 schools — and if it works, it’ll do a lot more than end conflicts between students. Hunt has worked with Friday’s Annie Crangle, a leadership strategist who’s also a former teacher, to create a new tool that identifies conditions gaps. If achievement gaps capture lower performance outcomes across race, gender, and socioeconomic factors, conditions gaps start to address the root causes: identifying problems in the learning environment itself. It’s an equity tool and a whole lot more.

“These days, equity is baked into everything, but too often those efforts are solely focused on adults’ attitudes and behaviors,” says Hunt. “If, for example, you’ve got a high school history teacher who has had ongoing issues with English learners or certain racial groups, you can’t just focus on teaching him about racial bias and cultural humility — you have to understand how hundreds of kids are experiencing his classroom every day.”

Hunt and Crangle met when he spoke at one of the leadership sessions Crangle led for new K-12 principals and vice principals, and the two quickly recognized there may be a systematic way to identify conditions gaps and act on them. After researching specific measures that are most critical to student success, the two came up with five conditions that seemed the most promising: “We saw that if kids are more hopeful about their future, they’re more willing to work hard,” says Crangle. “If they have a higher level of self-efficacy, they’re more likely to overcome obstacles. And if they have their basic needs met, like food and physical safety, they’re more engaged in the classroom. We believed that if we could create a tool that allows students to share their daily experience at school, it could help schools focus their energy in the right places and see if those efforts are making a difference.”

Highlight has evolved in the last few months, and a successful pilot project has helped refine the approach even further. For instance, as they started developing the student questionnaire, Hunt and Crangle included items around home life and parental support — until a statistician pointed out the value of focusing on issues that the schools could actually control; they removed the questions. And when the two introduced the tool to 20 charter schools in California, they discovered that most younger children were unable to answer some of the demographic questions, such as their parents’ highest level of education or their own ZIP code; one school cleverly printed the answers on index cards for each child, a solution that’s been adapted by many other schools since.

The survey now contains 25 questions (several of which are included below) with the goal of measuring five critical conditions: basic needs, belonging, self-efficacy, rigor, and hope. After administering the survey just before the pandemic, every school enrolled in the pilot project found the data eye-opening.

“Schools are telling us that their 5th-grade girls have significantly lower levels of hope than their 8th-grade girls, or their 8th-grade Hispanic boys have much lower levels of self-efficacy than 8th-grade Hispanic girls,” says Hunt. “Those are conditions gaps — pockets of kids that are experiencing school differently, and those conditions are creating barriers to learning.”

Data generated by Friday’s new digital tool, Highlight, which poses simple questions to students to identify conditions gaps that may be hampering their ability to learn.

Crangle says school leaders have told them that they’ve never seen data like this before: “Schools are identifying trends for much smaller groups of students — say 3rd-grade girls who speak English as a second language and live in a certain ZIP code — and while that may only represent 3 or 4 students, school leaders know it’s their job to serve every single student based on their distinct needs,” she says. “That’s the definition of equity.”

Of course, the data represent the first piece of evidence in an investigation. But if you know, for instance, that certain groups of students lack self-efficacy and hope, then it should come as no surprise when they fail to complete assignments and don’t respond to punitive measures, like suspensions. To improve their outlook, you’ve got to change their mindset — which means changing the conditions that contribute to that mindset.

Given the success of the pilot and the surprisingly low number of schools that regularly capture student feedback across these critical conditions, Friday just launched the tool nationwide. Hunt and Crangle are determined to equip more schools with this baseline data to better identify and understand conditions gaps, but they recognize this only step one. The team is seeking partners that they can engage to design interventions that amplify student voice.

“If this project gets the attention that we expect it will, we hope to unveil a network of interventions that uplift students as partners in school design, informing everything from simple class-level approaches to high-level strategic-planning, and even staff development,” says Crangle. “As a starting point, we’re encouraging schools to administer the questionnaires, and providing them with tools and resources to engage in data analysis that includes the entire school community.”

“A lot of school districts have been tapping into the student voice for years, but the work isn’t based in quantitative research, and those student voices aren’t influencing decisions in a meaningful way,” says Hunt. “Individual meetings with students are also insufficient — and in many ways, it’s unfair to expect one black male student to represent every black male student in a school. But if you can bring an entire data set to that meeting, include five or six young men, and say ‘We’ve discovered that 40 percent of our black males feel unsafe at our school — can you tell me more about that?’ then you’re using qualitative data to explain quantitative data, and that’s a really powerful thing.”

Highlight is now live. If you’d like to learn more, contact Annie Crangle at annie@friday.us.

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Education, opportunity, and community: three areas of work critical to shaping the future of society. www.friday.us

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Scott Kirkwood

Scott Kirkwood

Freelance writer. Formerly at National Parks magazine, National Geographic, and the Humane Society of the United States. www.scottkirkwood.work

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