Sometime in the late aughts, principal Jeff Gilbert attended a meeting at Stanford Graduate School of Education with his administrative team from Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California. They were seeking input on how to redesign the school’s upper grades. Linda Darling-Hammond, a prominent education policy researcher who now serves as president of the California State Board of Education, made a remark that stuck with Gilbert: “She said the flaw in American high schools is their lack of coherence.” In most public high schools, students must adjust to a new learning environment every 45 to 90 minutes, understand the expectations and grading systems of about eight different teachers and navigate dozens of social settings throughout each day and year. “So how do you simplify? How do you make it more elegant? How do you decrease the number of connections and systems that students are trying to decode?” Gilbert asked.
At Hillsdale, looping became one of the answers. In their first two years, students have the same teachers for four subject areas — English, science, social studies and math. As juniors, they switch to new teachers, who, in most cases, stay with them until graduation. (Gilbert noted that there’s more variability in upper grades because of advanced placement classes.) This two-year looping process is part of a small learning communities model that the school implemented 20 years ago. It creates coherence that enables teachers and students to dive deeper into both academic and social-emotional learning. “It just really strikes you … at the beginning of the second year where you see classes working just immediately,” Gilbert said. “This teacher knows every student. They know every family. Students are in groups. Students know each other. It’s really powerful.”