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Sunday, August 31, 2003

Reinventing high school: readers share views



What's wrong or right with high schools? This is the question we asked readers last week in response to our Aug. 24 report on efforts to reinvent traditional public high schools.

Last week's Forum section featured a report on "Reinventing high school" and how two local school districts, Cincinnati Public Schools and West Clermont Schools, are part of a nationwide effort to remake large, comprehensive high schools into smaller, speciality high schools better suited to the needs of today's students and the world that awaits them upon graduation. We will track progress of these new high schools throughout the year.

Here are excerpts from some readers' responses to the topic.

YOUR THOUGHTS
    What should the government be doing now to ensure that America has enough good jobs in the future?

    Send us your thoughts by noon Wednesday and we will publish a representative sampling next Sunday. Send your comments to: Jobs response, Editorial Page, Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, e-mail (letters@enquirer.com), fax (513) 768-8610. Include your name, address, neighborhood and a daytime phone.

Depth not essential while in high school

Specialty high schools simply do not make sense. High school is not the time to specialize. It is the time to try new things and to branch out. Without the requirements for a specific major, as in college, students are free to take a variety of classes to explore a variety of interests. Taking college-level courses on music theory, Virgil's Aeneid, and calculus would be impossible at a reinvented "themed" school. But at my "big, comprehensive, public high school," these classes are offered and enjoyed.

Specialty high schools are perfect for confident teens who know, without doubt, exactly what they want to spend the rest of their lives doing. For the rest of us, let's keep the array of subjects offered by my "old factory model." Specialty high schools trade breadth of knowledge for depth at a time of life when depth is not essential.

Kate Hattemer, Hyde Park

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Lasting reforms take time and patience

The Enquirer on Sunday (Aug. 24) brought forward two thought-provoking opinion pieces on school improvement that deserves comment.

First, the column "Reinventing High Schools" carefully examined how the old high school model of large, impersonal schools does not fit the needs of students today and the expectations we have for them and the educators who serve them. Learning is about developing relationships between teachers and students, and those are exactly the reasons that KnowledgeWorks Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and our partners are spending nearly $40 million over five years on high school restructuring in Ohio - the largest ever private grant for public education in Ohio.

Notably, the Cincinnati Public Schools is ahead of the game on high school restructuring, having already put funding from the Gates Foundation to work on converting its large urban high schools.

That brings me to the Aug. 24 editorial "So many questions," in which the Enquirer asked where CPS is on system-wide reforms as the state's Report Card labels the district in "Academic Emergency." I am in agreement with CPS Superintendent Alton Frailey that the label does not accurately show the progress occurring across the district. I also agree that school systems must be restructured in order to better promote learning and also meet the mandates of the standards-based accountability systems.

Cincinnati is no different than other urban schools in Ohio. With the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts must find a balance between encouraging autonomy and innovation at the building and classroom level while providing the support and direction needed for educators across the district.

Real and lasting school improvement takes time and patience, as we are seeing in our Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, and while the public deserves to know how well reforms are progressing, educators also deserve understanding and support from the public that this challenging work will be given time to succeed.

Chad P. Wick, President and CEO, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, Cincinnati

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Parent unhappy with West Clermont reform

After reading the article "Reinventing High School," the Enquirer apparently believed the propaganda about West Clermont School district's "reinvention" and new high schools. This restructuring has actually diminished the amount of top-level classes available to our students. Fine arts venues for most students have virtually disappeared. I am more afraid for my child's physical well being because the rivalry between the small schools has increased the tension among the different factions.

I have tried working within the school system, and all they do is try to smoke screen the real problem - a shortage of teachers who can perform well in the classroom.

Denise Kamps, Clermont County

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Mother of Mercy gets it right

As a parent and teacher, I'll mention a few of the things that are "right" at Mother of Mercy High School. We are the complete opposite of the "conveyor belt" school. Mercy is on a "block schedule," allowing teachers to meet for 85 minutes with each class; our science labs are 130 minutes. Students only have three to four different teachers a day. The block encourages much more personal commitment from both students and teachers. Mercy has three dedicated counselors, one principal and two vice principals for fewer than 700 students.

The school operates on a tight budget, nowhere near what a public school has. Mercy would be an excellent blueprint for building a new school.

However, what about the part of a teen's life a school has no control over? It is well and good to re-invent schools, but this is a tall order if the only things changing are the high schools. The nurturing needed in a teen's life should come from all sides, family and school. We are lucky to have families who get their children to school and pay attention to their needs. These "new" high schools will also have to be ready to educate families on being supportive role models.

Chris Kroner, Westwood

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Desire to learn crucial for success

I find it ironic that it's time again to reinvent high school to make it a place of interest and pleasure for the student. We must make learning "fun."

As the product of a boring Northeast institutional high school who graduated with a B average in the mid-'70s, it seems to me this liberal view on education has gotten us to this position in the first place - a time when many high school graduates are unprepared to begin college work. Maybe we should go back to the '50s- and '60s-style institutions which seemed to have more structure and focus, and if a student had the will to learn, he would have a basic foundation to start college.

Learning anything new always requires work. High school sets the foundation for learning and to succeed you have to have the desire to learn.

Terry Bell, Alexandria

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School boards must raise expectations

The article "Reinventing High School" cited problems and possible solutions, but failed to address the core problems. Administrators and teachers may be part of the problem, but one of the real culprits are local school boards. In our county there are three school districts and three school boards. One administrator states, "we are doing an excellent job." Yet, all three school districts are below the state average in SAT and ACT scores for the last seven years. Hardly an excellent job.

Review of the school board minutes fail to show any proactive initiatives or "original" thinking concerning expectations of the board, administrators, teachers or parents. "Bricks and mortar" problems far outweigh the educational problems in their priorities. Because the area has been for the most part chronically economically depressed, this has become the standard response to justify poor student performance.

The Enquirer cited several school districts in which changes have been instituted with anticipation of better outcomes in education. The school board either initiated the change or rubber stamped an administrator's recommendation for a change. Entrenched school boards that have members serving 20 to 24 years fail because of tunnel vision inherent in long service. The public needs to wake up and place proactive individuals on school boards.

Frank L. Frable, Aurora, Ind.

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Successful schools engage their public

The Aug. 24 Forum article entitled "Reinventing High School" should have read "Reinventing Community." What was once more personal, more compelling and attractive than the Internet or TV was our interest and involvement in the well being of our communities.

"Small school" advocates are calling for reform in underachieving high schools and are essentially outlining what successful school districts already know and do. Successful school districts actively involve the community and respond to the concerns of community members. They are able to garner community support for public education because they foster academic excellence in their students and develop community enriched programs.

What "small school" advocates are doing is playing on public sentiment that smaller is better. Regardless of the size of a school system, if community involvement is not encouraged and valued within the school system by all teachers and administrators, what will result is exactly what has happened in West Clermont and in Cincinnati Public Schools. You get large numbers of underachieving students and apathy in the community for public education.

Doug Young, Withamsville

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Respect, effort make school a success

I recently graduated from Oak Hills High School, one of the largest schools in Ohio. I'm taking a few years off before college, but I look back on my high school and realize I learned so much about life and had many job opportunities. Oak Hills has over 3,000 students and not once did I feel like a number. I was an individual and a member of a large group that has accomplished much in four years.

My senior class had over 700 students and our senior meetings went well, with not one incident of indecency or disrespect. The teachers listen and talk to students and offer help when needed.

Oak Hills should be a leader for other Cincinnati schools. School is a community effort.

Joe Tallarigo, Oak Hills

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