February 25, 2024


Splendor In The Class

Education focus moves beyond FCATs to rigor, relevance and student engagement.

Neil Skene | 9/1/2006

"We're going to do fewer things with our students and do them extremely well," says Jeanette Johnson, principal at the new Lorenzo Walker Technical High School in Naples.

Jeanette Johnson and her faculty at the new Lorenzo Walker Technical High School in Naples are thinking way beyond FCATs. Working in seven portable classrooms, they are stoked about creating a new kind of high school for their first class of 150 ninth-graders this fall.

"We make no pretense about being a comprehensive high school," says Johnson, who was recruited from path-breaking McFatter Technical High School in Broward County, where she was assistant principal. "We're going to do fewer things with our students and do them extremely well."

Just another "vocational" school? Definitely not. Lorenzo Walker is a high school of the future.

All students will be required to meet college-prep requirements; career-oriented classes will be electives. Forcing a choice between career and college tracks, Johnson says, means "the classic high achievers haven't developed the marketable real-world skills," while kids in career tracks "don't develop their intellectual capacity, the broader skills of analysis and comprehension." College-bound teens "can't come through our program and know only how to 'do school,' " she adds. And the others? "We want them to be the boss in five years."

Reinventing high school is important to her and a growing number of educators because of a stark truth that is obscured by rising reading and math scores: Middle schools and high schools are letting their students down.

The situation is "shocking," as Florida K-12 Chancellor Cheri Pierson Yecke put it to the state's High School Reform Task Force last year. An international test showed the nation's fourth-graders scoring at the international average in math in 1995, she noted, but in 1999 as eighthgraders, they scored 22 points below the world average. Florida students score near the U.S. average ["Competing Against the World," August, FloridaTrend.com].

The educators and policy-makers deeply involved in reform show a surprising consensus about what to do at the school and classroom level. Gov. Jeb Bush's new A++ program puts it in terms of "rigor and relevance" in the curriculum. Business leaders press educators for more real-world skills. Others talk about "reinventing high school" and giving students more "focus" for their studies (in A++ it means declaring a "major").

"Research shows that when kids focus, they do better," says Johnson. "It almost doesn't matter what they focus on."

But Florida still is not operating at moon-race levels of urgency. Yecke's comments noted the galvanizing effect on education from the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. "We have to have a greater sense of urgency than supporting a lot of pilot programs," Florida Education Commissioner John Winn says.

State school spending has grown faster than overall state spending, 45% vs. 36%, since fiscal 2000. Per-student spending is up about 25%. Winn all but dismissed the notion that we're skimping on financial investment:

Q: "Would more money be useful?"

A: "Not just by itself."

Q: "Right, I know. But you've got a program here ... "

A: "Well, we asked for $112 million for reading coaches statewide, and we got $112 million for reading coaches statewide, so why would I complain?"

He said he'd like to pay "the best teachers" more, but the Legislature shot down his performance-pay plan as too restrictive.

A few days later, retiring Leon County School Superintendent William Montford told the Capital Tiger Bay Club that Leon has "a wonderful school system." Down the dais, two candidates to succeed him begged to differ. "How many of you would take your car to a mechanic that had a rework rate of 22%?" asked candidate Rosemary Palmer. "That's how many Leon County school graduates who took a college-prep curriculum, passed the FCAT and graduated, had to take remedial courses before they could take credit courses in college."

Florida gets better results from its school spending than some states that spend a lot more. In fiscal 2002, Florida spent less per student than seven other Southeastern states but outperformed five of them in student achievement, according to a study by Florida TaxWatch. But North Carolina and Virginia spent about 3% more than Florida and "far outperformed" us.

Building relationships

The popular instinct about education is that the early years matter most. But it's in the teen years that things fall apart. Physical, social and educational changes hit students all at once. "Kids are tuning out. They're not engaged," says Raymond McNulty, executive director of the Successful Practices Network, in which reform- minded schools participate for a fee. "We're not going to close the achievement gap until we close the participation gap."

"We don't spend enough time letting kids know how important they are to us," adds Russell Quaglia of the Quaglia Institute on Student Aspirations. "Relationships" are a third R to him, beyond "rigor and relevance" -- paying attention to students' interests and instilling confidence. Quaglia urges more curiosity and creativity in high school classes.

Lower performers are the targets of Bush's original FCAT-centered program, but they aren't the only ones at risk. "We may not be stretching the upper half," says Willard Daggett, a consultant and motivational speaker on school reform who developed the mantra of "rigor and relevance."

"Re-creating ninth grade" is a recurring theme. To improve student-teacher relationships, some propose "looping," or having eighth-grade teachers follow students to ninth grade, then go back to eighth and repeat the process. More electives would let students pursue areas of interest. Daggett talks of teaching math in art classes, reading in history class. Gulf Power Co. CEO Susan Story, who is active in education, tells of students in a welding class who "didn't know they were doing geometry until somebody told them."

Think "Dead Poets Society," "Mr. Chips" and "Mr. Holland's Opus" rolled into one.

"There is no easy solution," says Daggett, "but there are successful practices." Most critical, he says, are higher expectations and a curriculum focused on analytical ability and the application, not just accumulation, of knowledge.

More of those "successful practices" are already appearing in schools scattered throughout Florida.

Lorenzo Walker's new math teacher, Brandi Hanson, is developing "hands-on projects" for her students. She intends to use the 90-minute class period to get students outside the classroom more. Teachers will take turns leading study halls during lunch and tutoring after school.

Johnson, who also oversees an adulteducation center at Lorenzo Walker, says she follows the aphorism "hire for attitude, train for skills."

With a new school and students picked by lottery from applications, Johnson won't have to undo entrenched approaches to teaching. The challenge for Florida and for local school boards is not just "scaling up," as Winn put it, but instigating remarkable change in leadership and teaching at every middle and high school.

As Jeanette Johnson says of her school, "If we reach for the stars, maybe we'll get to the moon."

Tags: Politics & Law, Southwest, Education, Government/Politics & Law

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