Education: Competing Against the World
Six of 10 Florida ninth-graders don't go on to higher education.
Sarah Jones, 16
Coral Reef Senior High School
Family: Sarah's parents are divorced. She lives with her mother, who works as an assistant at the Swiss Consulate in Miami. She has six half-sisters on the side of her dad, who also lives in Miami and is originally from the Dominican Republic.
School: Sarah takes the bus to school, about 20 minutes from home.
Track: Sarah, who will be in 11th grade this year, has been in the International Baccalaureate/ International Studies program since 10th grade. IB/IS students take two mandatory language courses a year, in addition to an advanced curriculum designed along international standards.
Courses: German grammar, German literature, AP world literature, algebra 2, honors chemistry, AP European history.
Job: Year-round, part time as a receptionist in the business of a family friend, to help her mom out. College hopes: NYU, Columbia or Berkeley. Non-academic passion: Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist chanting: "It's not a religion; it's a practice."
Sarah is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate /International Studies program. She likes the academically demanding curriculum because it lets her specialize.
Sarah Jones, who puts in an estimated five hours a night on homework, has worked her way to the top tier of Florida's public high schools. The International Baccalaureate program is an academically demanding track with rigid requirements structured according to international norms. The International Studies component adds additional foreign language and global studies requirements.
Some Florida high schools, including Coral Reef Senior High in Miami, serve students like Sarah particularly well. But programs such as IB; Advanced International Certificate of Education; the Cambridge Program; Advanced Placement (AP); and Dual Enrollment need far more capacity statewide and should be offered to more students who might excel in just one honors content area, according to a report earlier this year by Commissioner of Education John L. Winn's High School Reform Task Force.
Sarah's mom, a native German speaker from Switzerland, wanted her daughter to be fluent in German but knew she'd need to hear it somewhere besides home. She enrolled Sarah in a German language program at Sunset Elementary, and Sarah has taken German every year since. She's also taken extensive Spanish classes.
In addition to having to spend lots of time on homework, Sarah says she has few options when it comes to choosing her classes because the IB/ IS program binds her to two foreign language courses each year. She used to play sports but gave them up as her academic career became more intense. Last year, she was president of Coral Reef's 10th-grade class, and while she's glad for the leadership experience, she thinks she'll forgo it for the rest of high school to focus on academic competitions.
Sarah believes her English teachers in middle school spent too much time preparing for the FCAT. In the IB program, the FCAT was "no big deal;" her teachers don't focus on it other than a few practice tests, time-management tips and a reminder to have a good breakfast. "Tenth-grade English was great because it wasn't all FCAT and FCAT style," says Sarah, who is currently devouring Isabelle Allende. "We read more and wrote more and did so many different sorts of things."
She calls midterms and finals in the IB/IS program "very stressful -- you've really got to study, concentrate and put your time and effort into them."
"I think around the world it's basically the same," she says. "The programs may be different, but all students go through stress. They all have their weak points and their strong points.
"What I like about American education is that it recognizes not everybody has the same strengths. We're allowed to choose where we want to specialize. If you're good at science, you can take two sciences. If you're a little smarter or get things easier, you can take these AP classes. Even if you don't have a ton of money."
Ashley Hughes, 16
Freedom High School
Family: Ashley's parents, divorced, both work at Disney. Ashley splits her time between her parents' homes. She has two older brothers.
Commute: Her dad drives her to school from his home; from her mom's she takes the school bus.
Track: Ashley is on a traditional Florida high school track.
Courses: English 1, integrated science, algebra 1, global studies, reading, P.E.
Strengths and weaknesses: Ashley grew up learning both English and Spanish at home: Her father is from New Jersey; her mother, Honduras. English is her favorite subject; she says the classes come easy to her. She plans to take Spanish to meet her foreign language requirement. She admits she's not so good at algebra, but her older brothers help her when she needs it.
Post-high school hopes: A four-year college degree and a technical job involving animals.
Non-academic passion: Horseback riding and spending time with her dog.
Ashley says she doesn't bother stressing over grades "too much." She wants to get a college education and then a job working with animals.
Ashley Hughes embodies the reputation of American high school students as carefree compared to some of their international peers. "I really don't stress out too much," she says. "I have some friends who stress about whether or not they're going to pass, but luckily I haven't had to."
If she is typical America, her high school, Freedom High in Orlando, is typical Florida. For one, it received a grade of C in 2006, the most frequent grade among Florida high schools. (In the statewide grading system this year, 143 high schools received a C; 93 a B; 70 a D; 64 an A; and 10 an F.)
Only 27% of Freedom's 10th-graders scored at or above grade level on FCAT reading this year. Statewide, 32% of 10th-graders scored at or above grade level. At Freedom, 60% of 10th-graders scored at or above grade level on FCAT math. The statewide average was 65%.
While Florida's elementary schools have seen marked improvement under Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ grading program, middle schools have been slower to improve, and high schools still lag significantly. The state ranks 47th in SAT scores nationally. Considering not only statewide grades but national and international comparisons, Florida's high schools are in "dire" need of reform, according to the High School Reform Task Force.
The task force found the state's high schools are particularly failing young people like Ashley. She has a clear idea of what she'd like to do with her life: An animal lover, she wants to earn a college degree to become some sort of veterinary technician. She doesn't have a strong sense that her high school course work connects very well with her goals, and she says she'll try to find a part-time job with a local vet this year.
The task force recommends Florida "change high school as we know it," with a new diploma based on student interest that includes more rigorous core requirements. The task force also recommends smaller learning communities, including career clusters or academies that lead to industry certification or other advanced academic studies. Like other schools in Florida's fast-growing regions, Ashley's school is so enormous that it's easy for students to get lost in the crowd. Ashley's school has more than 3,200 students. That's more than twice Florida's average high school enrollment of 1,565 -- which is more than twice the national average, 753.
Ashley says while the biggest motivation she feels to go to college comes from her parents, her teachers work hard to remind students how much their grades will matter when it comes time to filling out college applications. She says she and her friends fret more about the dress code than academics. "Mostly I try not to worry about it," she says. "I do want to do well so I can go to college and get a job and work with animals."
Billy Devlin, 16
Eastside High School
Family: Billy's father is a pharmaceutical rep; his mother owns a cross-stitch business; he has one younger sister.
School: Billy drives to school, about a half-hour from his home.
Track: Billy, who will be a senior this year, started Eastside's Culinary Arts Program in ninth grade. He takes two culinary and four academic courses a year.
Courses: Two culinary arts classes, honors chemistry, honors algebra 2, AP American history, honors English literature.
Job: Year-round as a line cook; part time during the school year and full time in the summer, for more hands-on kitchen experience.
Post-high school hopes: The Culinary Institute of America in New York or Johnson & Wales restaurant management program in Miami.
Non-academic passion: Paintball: "At school, I'm president of the Ice Sculpting Club, but I really want to start a Paintball Club."
Billy has already racked up $18,000 in college scholarship money as a result of his performance in national culinary competitions.
For Billy Devlin, the connection between high school studies and career was never an issue. From age 4, when his mother and grandmothers let him hang out in the kitchen and help pour, mix and taste, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. When he reached ninth grade, he entered Eastside High School's Culinary Arts Program, and today he and his fellow students in Chef Billie De- Nunzio's (Chef De's) culinary classes can whip up a perfect risotto, carve a shimmering dolphin from a block of ice and answer brain-bowl-type questions on food sanitation and safety.
Chef De's program, which she started nine years ago, is considered a gem among Florida's high school career-track programs, which are lacking, according to numerous reports by business and educational groups. While nearly 1 million students statewide have had some sort of vo-tech instruction in high school, only a fraction begin a true career path like Billy's. DeNunzio says 95% of her seniors go onto successful careers in the hospitality industry.
Billy has done so well at national culinary competitions that he has $18,000 in college scholarship money racked up from the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. The restaurant association sponsors similar programs in more than 180 high schools statewide. "You may not be good at anything else, but if you can cook, people like you," says Billy.
While words like ratatouille and béchamel roll off his tongue like a Provence native, Billy says his academic weakness is foreign languages. "I took French for one year in middle school, and I didn't do so well," he says. "Luckily it's not a requirement for graduating from high school."
Billy admits he spends little time on homework. Instead, he's focused on his future career by working restaurant night shifts throughout high school, soaking up everything he can from Gainesville-area chefs. "My parents don't want me to work as much as I do, but I want to learn from the masters," he says. Billy's biggest complaint about Florida's public schools? "The cafeteria food is quite bad. The culinary kids cook their own lunch."
'Not Going Anywhere'
Amy Wick Mavis was checking out at a Bradenton Wal-Mart this summer when she saw the cashier was a former student from her PACE Center for Girls. The nonresidential anti-delinquency program helps stabilize girls in crisis with 15 months of counseling and provides high school classes in an intimate setting with 10 students to a teacher.
Mavis congratulated the girl for sticking to public high school. The girl responded "with utter despair in her voice," remembers Mavis, director of the Manatee PACE center, one of 20 such centers around the state. "I'm not going anywhere," the girl said. She knew she couldn't read near well enough to pass the 10th-grade FCAT. Dropping out was a matter of time. "And she knew she'd be working at Wal-Mart forever," Mavis says.
Six of 10 Florida ninth-graders don't go on to higher education; five of those six don't earn a traditional high school diploma. Not even half the students who enter ninth grade in Miami-Dade, Pinellas or Broward counties walk out four years later with a diploma, according to a major new study on the nation's high school graduation rates and policies by Education Week, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The study put Florida's statewide graduation rate at 57.5%, or 42nd in the nation. The national rate is 69.6%. African-American students are especially vulnerable to dropping out, both in Florida and nationally.
National studies consistently cite graduation rates more dismal than those reported by Florida's Department of Education, 71.9%. Many experts say state reporting methods exaggerate success. Florida and other states are working with the feds to come up with a uniform calculation based on the number of students who enter ninth grade and leave high school with a diploma four years later. But both educators and policy-makers in Florida say that even if a third of the state's children don't earn high school diplomas, it's too many.
In many cases, abuse, poverty, neglect, pregnancy or other circumstances make young people's lives outside of school "just so unimaginably difficult that they can't make academics a priority," Mavis says. "They don't see a hope or an option" -- even though high school graduates earn 34% more income (college graduates, 132% more) than dropouts and that dropouts are far more likely to wind up in prison, on welfare or dead, according to Education Week.