Sunday, August 24, 2003

Reinventing High School

The old-fashioned model is out-of-sync with the needs of today's students and the world that awaits them at graduation

High school as many of us knew it is becoming a dinosaur. The big, comprehensive public high school that's cherished in many communities, is an old factory model ill-suited for today's teenagers and out of sync with demands of the real world. Never mind that we adults have sentimental attachments or idealized remembrances of high school. Never mind local traditions attached to sports teams, or the billions of tax dollars we spend annually on these schools. The truth is, these big institutions no longer work for too many young people.

That's why there's a growing nationwide push to reinvent high schools. Evidence is mounting that we must do a better job of preparing students for college, work and informed citizenship.

Nationwide, experts say about half of high school students graduate unprepared for college of any kind or for jobs. About a fifth or more don't graduate at all. In some Ohio districts, fewer than half graduate.

What's right or wrong with your high school and how would you change it? Send your comments with your name, address and daytime telephone by noon Wednesday:
• E-mail to letters@enquirer.com;
• Mail to High Schools, Editorial Page, Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202; • Fax to 513-768-8610.
We'll include a selection of responses in next week's Forum.
Consider today's high school experience from a student's view, says education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University: "We put children on a conveyor belt and move them from one overloaded teacher to the next, from 45-minute classes to 45-minute classes, to be stamped with separate, disconnected lessons six or seven or eight times a day. We dare them to learn in schools where they have little chance to become well known over time by any adults. They're supposed to get 'personal' support from a counselor with a caseload of 500. They work alone and passively, listen to lectures and memorize facts at separate desks." This kind of schooling comes at the time adolescents most need affiliation and adult connections to thrive. Many students describe high schools as uninspiring, impersonal places of frustration, failure and occasional violence. When Cincinnati Public Schools surveyed students at its neighborhood high schools in 1999, only 30 percent said their teachers "would miss them if they didn't come to school for a week." Only 20 percent said students at their school "care about learning" and fewer than a third said students leave their school well-prepared for the future. Fewer than half said "there is at least one adult at my school that I can talk with about my problems."

While many large suburban high schools rate high on state proficiency tests, student surveys done by national researchers report apathy and alienation even among suburban students and teachers. Many students say schools fail to turn them on to learning or are unable to teach them in ways they can learn. They say they don't grasp the relevance of what they're studying. They tune out or drop out.

High schools need to change and Cincinnati is in the middle of the national push to remake big, cafeteria-style high school into many smaller, themed, autonomous schools. Millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, coupled with federal, state and other private money, are paying for the creation of new-style experimental high schools in Cincinnati city schools and in Clermont County's West Clermont suburban district.

There's a smattering of similar projects nationwide intended to eventually replace the big high school with smaller schools designed to educate all students (not just the best and brightest) to higher skill levels. The Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation, Ohio's largest public education philanthropy, is Gates' local partner in the high school makeover experiments here. This trailblazing will provide lessons and models for Ohio and other states.

High school reinvention starts with downsizing. Researchers say, that all else equal, in comparison to large schools, small schools tend to have better attendance rates, stronger academic achievement, fewer dropouts and failed courses, greater participation in activities, less vandalism and violence, fewer behavioral incidents and especially strong academic results for low-income and minority students.

Change is necessary because today's graduates need more education and training than their parents did for a crack at the American middle-class-or-better dream. The new economy requires that nearly every student be educated well enough to enter college or some other post-high school training.

This doesn't mean that so-called comprehensive high schools in every community ill-serve every student. But nationwide, experts estimate these public schools educate about a third of their students well. This is not good enough anymore.

Consider West Clermont schools in Clermont County. Its two high schools, Glen Este and Amelia, have relatively low dropout rates and good achievement by Ohio standards. But district leaders believe "average isn't good enough." They want better for their students. They're redesigning two large schools serving 2,600 students into 10 small "schools within schools" themed around everything from technology to the arts.

Cincinnati Public Schools are remaking five large failing high schools into about a dozen smaller, specialty schools.

Research shows students are more likely to be active participants in learning when the coursework is built around their interests. In such schools, students come to class more regularly, have fewer discipline problems and achieve higher academically.

So how are redesigned high schools different?

They include smaller, autonomous "schools within schools" in the same buildings, or they may be attached to museums, hospitals, businesses, even zoos. Goodbye big, boxy classrooms with one teacher lecturing to rows of desks. Teaching will incorporate service and group projects, book and Internet research, on-the-job internships, experiments, construction of models and products and more use of technology. Teachers learn to teach with more real-world applications and teaching styles adjusted to individuals' backgrounds, talents and interests.

The new schools incorporate career/technical training and work experience into students' education, while making sure they meet higher required academic standards in basic subjects. Some students will do college work after three years; others may need a fifth year before the transition.

Smaller schools also support better relationships among teachers and students. Advising is placed into the hands of teachers, who are given time to work with small numbers of students and build relationships over several years. Some schools may have one paid adviser/counselor for every 20 students. There's also more after-school and weekend tutoring.

This summer, the Ohio Board of Education named a task force to rethink all public high schools in Ohio. So the makeovers in progress now in Cincinnati and West Clermont are high on everybody's radar screen.

Reinventing high school is hard but necessary work. If we listen to enough high-schoolers, we'll hear many who are discouraged or downright disinterested in learning. It's natural then to ask "what's wrong with all these kids?" Maybe it's time we also asked "what's wrong with the high schools they depend on at this critical time in their young lives?" There is a huge disconnect between what we know adolescents need, what colleges and the work place demand, and what many schools provide.

High school reformers say we must create high schools that are more personal, more compelling and attractive than the Internet or TV. They say we need places that provide both learning and nurturing for teenagers. That's a tall order. What we need now is a sense of urgency to do it.

Linda Cagnetti is an editorial writer for the Enquirer. Contact her at (513) 768-8527. Email her at lcagnetti@enquirer.com.

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