Innovations High School: A Conversation with Taylor Harper

Q&A   26 January 2018
By Taylor Harper, Innovations High School

 

When I would go and present to the school board and state, I brought kids with me…It seemed that at the close of every meeting, people were hugging the kids and crying, mad that we had created a system that made them feel this way.

Taylor Harper
Lead Learner (Principal), Innovations High School

Q: What path led you to your leadership role at Innovations High School?

A: My story is one about following the path and following the signs. When I graduated from college with my degree in Elementary Education, I desperately wanted to be a 1st grade teacher. I received my first teaching job at an “at-risk” school in Washoe County School District in Nevada. It was a brand-new school, so I got to help open it up.

It was an eye-opening experience. My soul would not allow me to ignore the inequity all around me. As a brand-new, baby teacher, I was hyperaware of it. I was at that school for 10 years and was always the squeaky wheel—advocating for kids and pushing back against the administrators and practices I knew were not helpful.

In October of my 10th year teaching there, while I was also in my master’s program for administration, the Deputy Superintendent came into my sixth-grade classroom. He said, “Taylor, I need you to leave your teaching role and come take over this other school.”

 

I didn’t know what I was looking for. I simply knew I was looking for something better. I was looking for a place where I could actually walk in and see kids in situations where they weren’t stressed, unhappy, and angry—where they were loved.

Taylor Harper
Lead Learner (Principal), Innovations High School

I took over the elementary portion of the district’s disciplinary school—a program for third through sixth grade kids who had been emergency suspended from their other schools. At the time I took this program over, the staff were doing things like withholding food from kids as punishment.

It ripped my heart out to walk in and see this.

I was able to flip that program around and effect systemic change at the district level. People were no longer simply allowed to give up on kids. There had to be a really good reason for sending them to the program I was running.

Then, I took over the whole disciplinary school, which was called Inspire. This was where a lot of my work with restorative practice—seeking ways to change the inequitable systems that funneled kids into crappy learning environments—took off.

At that time, I started seeking out something different from what I was seeing in Washoe County School District. Whether it was with my own money or money from the district, I was traveling everywhere. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I simply knew I was looking for something better. I was looking for a place where I could actually walk in and see kids in situations where they weren’t stressed, unhappy, and angry—where they were loved.

As I was traveling around, all the schools with that feel and vibe were Big Picture Learning (BPL) schools. I went to Saint Louis, California, Philadelphia, and Rhode Island. It was always the same feeling.

 

That’s what I was facing: a lot of close-minded people. That was the hill I was climbing. But, it was a hill I was willing to die on.

Taylor Harper
Lead Learner (Principal), Innovations High School

When I came back and shared my experience with the BPL schools, everyone thought I was crazy. Even though the support was lacking, I continued vocalizing my belief in rebranding and transforming our “disciplinary” program into a one that looked like the BPL framework. I was told “no”—luckily, I’m used to being told “no.” So, I kept pushing and eventually got the district to approve a feasibility study with Big Picture Learning.

As we were getting ready to start implementing the following year, I was asked to take on yet another opportunity within the district: “Taylor, we want you to do the same thing you’ve done at Inspire at Washoe High School—turn it around.” At this point, I honestly wondered if the superintendent was putting me on this sinking ship, so that I could be their fall guy. Washoe High School had an eight-percent graduation rate.

We’re talking about hundreds of kids. The high school had satellite campuses all over the district. There were reengagement centers, schools within schools, night classes, day classes. And, we were graduating many of these kids, but the majority were fifth-years. Since they didn’t complete in their four-year cohort, the state considered them dropouts.

When you looked at the kids who attended Washoe High School, you would see what you would probably see in a lot of alternative settings. You would see kids who were predominantly brown, “different,” or pregnant. All of them had the same story about how they ended up at Washoe High. They were basically told they had to come here—they weren’t going to graduate on time, they were pregnant, their school didn’t like brown kids, etc.

I took the position five years ago. At the time, we were the only Title I priority school in the district, so with that came some money and a lot of accountability. However, upon taking the job, I told them, “This will become a Big Picture school. That’s how we’re going to turn it around.” It was that commitment that eventually had Washoe High School become Innovations High School.

Q: With an 8% graduation rate, why was it so difficult to convince the powers that be to try something new?

A: With this declaration to become a BPL school, I had to once again convince a new platform of state-level people who thought I was crazy.

The practices and systems that I was facing were archaic. The people who were (and some who are still) at district- and state-level positions always came back with the same response, “We’ve never done that before. We’ve always done it this way.”

I’ve had my boxing gloves on since the day I started in administration. It’s always a fight. It’s always a power struggle to remind the people who have been in this work for decades that it’s about the kids. It’s not about the system—this hamster wheel that you’re on.

That’s what I was facing: a lot of close-minded people. That was the hill I was climbing. But, it was a hill I was willing to die on.

When I was in that seeking phase and wondered aloud how I could make this happen when I was always having to fight a new boss, Dennis Littky—co-founder and co-director of The Met School, co-founder of Big Picture Learning, and founder and President of College Unbound—asked me a blunt but powerful question: “Are you willing to get fired for what you believe in?” The question scared me because I was young, but the answer was “Yes.”

When I came into this position, I thought as long as I’m in a leadership position, I’m going to advocate for these kids and for BPL. And, if they don’t like it, they’re going to have to find someone else. I wasn’t going to bend.

Q: Take us through the timeline of events from when you came into Washoe High School to when you officially became Innovations High School, a Big Picture Learning school. Where did you have to place your priorities?

A: In the first year, I was doing many different things. I was assessing the adults who were responsible for facilitating education for these kids—90% of them are now gone. They weren’t learner-centered. They weren’t connectors. I had to flush that system. And, when I came in, most of the staff were gearing up for a fight. A lot of these people had been at Washoe for 25 years.

At the same time, I was using every opportunity available to get to know the kids. Every one of these kids had a unique story to tell. At some point, our system gave up on them. Our kids had become marginalized.

Much to the irritation of many teachers, I spent a lot of time with the kids. I would survey them and ask questions like, “Has an adult ever asked you what you want to learn or how you want to learn? Do you feel like people care about you? Do you want to come to school?”

I started gathering their responses and their stories. Before I could go higher up and convince people to give the BPL framework a shot, I had to know if the kids even wanted it. Long story short, of course they did.

 

One of my main messages throughout this whole process was letting the various leaders know that they couldn’t help me and they couldn’t help improve this school until they connected with the kids, too.

Taylor Harper
Lead Learner (Principal), Innovations High School

Beyond what was happening inside the building, I had a new boss. We had an interim superintendent and a new school board. As a Title I priority school, I was already under the microscope.

Nonetheless, I was a noisy rebel saying, “Oh no, we’re not going to do it that way.” Yes, I know we have to increase graduation rates. Yes, I know we have to increase attendance. Yes, I know we have to do everything written in that Title I priority plan. Additionally, I truly believed the state really just wanted to shut us down. There was a lot to manage.

While I was politically trying to identify my allies, those wanting to bury me, and those who didn’t really care about the kids, I was also trying to convince everyone of this model.

I started by speaking with my area superintendent and my local superintendent. I requested they visit a BPL school and talk to some of the leaders in the Big Picture network. I said, “Please trust me,” and they did. They believed in me enough to follow me to a leadership conference and visited a few schools. They were hesitantly excited and convinced.

Then, we had to convince the state. The purse strings are always so tight. There’s tons of money, but you can only use it for certain things, and Big Picture was certainly not on the menu.

Despite all this, in my second year, the state performed a feasibility study, and we became the first Big Picture Learning school in the state of Nevada. At that time, we were rebranding the school to Innovations—getting Washoe out of the name. It’s still a process because Washoe High School was a part of this community for 30 years. In our community, not many people leave. Since Innovations is in the same building, a lot of people still associate it with Washoe—”that school.”

Q: How did the stories you gathered from your kids help with convincing the school board and state to try this new idea?

A: When I would go and present to the school board and state, I brought kids with me. And, when they told me I couldn’t bring kids with me, I brought videos of kids and found a way to sneak it into the conversation. My hope was that I would find those individuals in leadership positions who really do care and have just forgotten how much impact they can have on children. When they’re up in those positions, they don’t hear these kids’ voices—they don’t hear their stories.

That’s a big part of how we got where we are now—because the kids got to talk. Every time, you could feel people’s souls and heart strings being pulled. It seemed that at the close of every meeting, people were hugging the kids and crying, mad that we had created a system that made them feel this way.

Q: How did you create these moments beyond the district- and state-level meetings? Do you still experience resistance with your colleagues?

A: One of my main messages throughout this whole process was letting the various leaders know that they couldn’t help me and they couldn’t help improve this school until they connected with the kids, too. I told them they needed to come in and hear the kids’ stories. The kids needed to know the faces and names of these leaders. That alone helped move mountains. As the leaders formed connections with our scholars, it empowered them to go back up and start shaking up the system like you would not believe.

My comprehensive school colleagues are rarely happy with me because I took something away from them. Through the approval of my bosses, they no longer get to send kids to us without good reason. This used to be a place where schools could send their kids and pad their graduation rates. Now, none of our kids come here because someone else told them they had to. That’s a huge systemic change.

Q: Even with all of these breakthroughs, the expectation of achieving against traditional benchmarks remains. How have you worked your way through these limitations?

A: We start with our focus on the learners. In those first few formative years here, when kids were brought into interview committees, they were the ones who were helping us hire staff. They were the ones sitting at the table with the accountability and state departments when we wanted to change our schedule from quarters to trimesters. They were the ones helping us develop what workshops were going to look like and what content they wanted to see in them.

Even though we’re still stuck to seat time and making sure every kid has 22.5 credits to graduate, we have found ways to bring our kids’ voices into positively manipulating the system so we’re getting what we want.

A big question is how do you manipulate the system so you can do more qualitative assessment. We have to get creative and do it on our own. For example, I better be checking with kids at the beginning of a trimester and asking them what they want to learn, what they’re excited about, how they learn best, what they need from me, etc. And, we do the same thing at the end of the semester.

Another helpful tool has been the Hope Survey, which asks kids how they feel when they come to school. Love is the number one ingredient in our secret sauce (which is obviously impossible to measure), but every single human in our building will use the word “love” when they describe how they feel about this place.

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