I love this picture above. It was taken at the Pathways GuideEd Expo a couple of weeks ago with a room full of 8th graders and their parents. These parents are making the decision about whether or not to enroll their child in the first “pathway” at our comprehensive high schools next fall, a strategy that I believe presents the opportunity for radical and positive change for our high schoolers.

Three years in the making, with the support of community partners and key stakeholders, we are excited to get Personalized Pathways off the ground. The strategy is pretty straight forward. A student who signs up for a “pathway” will be assigned to a smaller learning community of 120-150 students, will learn the skills needed to prepare them for college through linked coursework aligned to theme, and will engage in a series of experiential learning opportunities, like hearing from guest speakers, going on college trips and job shadowing, that help them meaningfully explore college and career options. Each student’s experience will be driven by their own unique academic and career plan which will be continually refined throughout their high school experience with the support of staff and family members.

The ultimate goal is for every student to graduate high school with a clear post-secondary plan aligned to their hopes and dreams and the agency to put the plan into action.

What is the problem we are trying to solve?

The problem is that our schools aren’t yet designed to help students attain the well-rounded skill set outlined in our vision for an MMSD graduate. We want our students to attain not just the academic skills to be successful, but the interpersonal skills, creativity, self-awareness, cultural competence and confidence to be successful in life after high school.

When it comes to design, high school in Madison hasn’t changed much since I graduated high school almost 30 years ago—and I’ve shadowed two high students over the last couple of years to understand it more. There are great classes, amazing teachers, and incredible extra-curricular options. Really, in what other stage of life do you have access to so many opportunities?

But our students still move from class period to class period in a disjointed way. It can still be overwhelming and isolating because of its sheer size. It is still too much about the accumulation of credits as opposed to a holistic learning experience that prepares our students for the post-secondary option of their choice. The elements described above are happening in pockets in our high schools, but not yet in a way that ensures access for every student.

And too many of our students aren’t graduating — or aren’t graduating with the best possible plan for after high school. Granted, our grad rates are going in the right direction with 80% now graduating, but 20% aren’t. And based on our most recent data, of the 80% of students who graduate, 20% of them don’t have any sort of plan for continuing their education after graduation. And of those who have a plan, a good portion of them don’t actually follow through on it. This is unacceptable to me — and I’ve got to assume it is unacceptable to our community.

The creation of Personalized Pathways is about making sure every single child graduates ready for college, career and community. It is an equity strategy that is essential for some, but beneficial for all.

What is the potential?

The potential here is huge—for our students, our parents, our teachers, and our community.

The first “pathway” will have a Health Services focus and each high school has identified an over-arching “theme” for the pathway. For example, La Follette’s theme is focused on making a difference in the health and wellness of our community. West High school’s theme is focused on health equity for social justice.

That means students will learn the skills they need for success after high school while engaging in rich, challenging, integrated projects – across English, history and science. For example, they’ll get to explore together how to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic, examine the impact of federal and state government on medical research and practice, or investigate issues related to universal access to health insurance.

And in future years, as future pathways are introduced, students will have access to coursework that explores other thematic areas like the Arts, STEM, IT and more—depending on our students’ interests. They’ll also still have opportunities to explore interests outside of their pathway through elective options and we are committed to expanding these options through better scheduling practices in the years to come.

It means parents can be more plugged into their student’s experience through the development and refinement of an academic and career plan that helps their child better articulate their interests, hopes and dreams.

It means teachers can work together in ways that are more satisfying professionally. They’ll share a cohort of students with their colleagues within the pathway, thereby fostering a closer relationship with their students. They’ll also get to develop integrated projects together that get their own creative juices flowing.

And it means that our community can play a more meaningful role in our schools and with our students. Through our many partnerships, including our new partnerships with Madison College, the Chamber of Commerce, the Workforce Development Board, the City of Madison, and Dane County, we’ll be able to connect students with businesses, non-profits, government agencies and colleges to learn more about their college and career options.

What are the risks and what should we do next?

One of the major risks as I see it is the natural reaction to perceived loss — which is to be protective. I agree that we need to preserve the aspects of our schools that are working, like each school’s unique identity and existing course options, but let’s have the courage to change the things that aren’t working. The other major related risk is the proliferation of misconceptions and inaccurate information. For example, I’ve heard repeatedly that Pathways is about tracking students into a “major” in 9th grade or that Pathways is not designed for students who are on the competitive college track. Neither of these ideas is true. These risks should not be underestimated and have the potential to derail us.

This is why I need your help. Since we’ve communicated more details about the strategy this fall and have invited our first cohort to apply, I have been thrilled about the level of engagement and productive feedback we’ve received. By design, this feedback makes our approach stronger. I invite you to reach out, share your excitement and concerns, and most important, support our high schools in being successful.

Ultimately, I invite you to spread the word — share the strategy, share the potential, help clarify the misconceptions. Something big is happening in Madison that will put every child on track for college, career and community.

I can’t say that I’ve ever wished I could go back to high school as a freshman, but right now, I wish I could.