High Schools Where Everyone Knows Your Name

July 12, 2002

Overwhelmed by family problems, Jennifer often considered quitting high school. But in a hospital internship monitoring patients with high-risk pregnancies, she discovered a passion for nursing and a reason to stay in school. "This was not the time to end anything," she said, "it was just the beginning." True to her word, Jennifer took on her senior year the formidable task of establishing a school-based health clinic.

A zealous outdoorsman at 17, Jason spent much of his senior year assembling outdoor excursions for other students and a climbing wall for his school—getting a chance, in his words, "to explore things I could never have imagined."

Kim, whose mother had HIV, also interned at a local hospital. As she presented her senior project on teenagers and HIV/AIDS to a room packed with doctors and nurses, "she was presenting to the experts," her advisor noted, "and she had become one herself."

Like most of their classmates, these students at the Metropolitan Career and Technical Center (the Met) —a unique state-funded high school in Providence, Rhode Island—reached beyond what they or anyone else thought possible for them. But as each senior delivered a graduation valedictory speech in what has become a Met tradition, none felt like the exception.

One Student at a Time

Neither "vocational" nor "college prep," the Met's program centers on workplace internships and independent projects tailored to students' interests. With input from a parent and teacher-adviser, each student designs a personal learning plan, reviewed and revised quarterly, to plot progress towards the Met's goals and requirements. Schedules, too, vary for every student, every day of the week.

"There's no such thing as a typical day," one student explained. "It's never boring because every day is different."

With the motto "One student at a time," the Met relies heavily on teachers' daily guidance of students. Instead of seeing six or seven sets of instructors and classmates each day, students spend intensive time in an advisory group of one teacher and 13-14 peers. Students and advisers develop close relationships, as much personal as academic. "We've laughed, we've cried, we've argued," said Nadia about her advisory group. "It's just been so great, because we're able to understand each other so well."

Students gain additional support from adults outside school in their projects and internships. A senior said about her project mentor for the year: "She always challenged me in ways that I wanted to be challenged (even though I would never tell her that). She set these really high standards for me, and I loved that just because it made me feel that I can do so much more than what I was doing."

Learning at Every Turn

The Met's student body mirrors that of the Providence public schools: 52 percent qualify for free lunch; 22 percent are African-American, 38 percent Hispanic, and 38 percent white. Though most start high school at the lower end of the achievement scale, all have met the exacting standards required for the school's graduation portfolio. And all Met graduates go on to college.

Met students may cover less academic content than their peers, but their detailed, multi-dimensional examination of fewer topics offsets that. The wilderness-loving Jason, for instance, interned at the zoo and a hydroponics farm, then completed an eel grass restoration project with Save the Bay, a local conservation group. Prompted by the school to consider vacations as learning opportunities, Jason spent successive summers sailing the North Atlantic in Maine, hiking and camping in the Colorado Rockies, and studying wildlife and habitats on a Caribbean island. For the college class all students take as part of their senior year, Jason opted for an environmental science course at Brown University.

Such challenging, real world projects and internships boost students' faith in themselves, altering attitudes and work habits alike. "Now I do more, I concentrate, I go into depth," said Maya. She added, "I'm so engaged that I really want to work my butt off for the next four years again—and do the same cycle and get somewhere after that."

These students' words and actions raise important questions about the boundaries between formal and informal learning, about what should "count" for a high school diploma, and, finally, about the combination of knowledge, skills, and personal qualities youth need to succeed in higher education and beyond.

"What I will remember most is the ups and downs that we all went through," said Nadia in her graduation address. "It's a great feeling to know that we succeeded together." Surrounded by 42 other valedictorians ready for college and career, she declared, "We're all the success story here."

Best Practice: Good Teaching Front and Center

Six ninth graders sit around a table at Best Practice High School (BPHS), arguing about how much they will read every night in S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. With the due date three weeks away, one girl proposes two chapters a night. "That way we can finish early, before our physics project hits." Her friend counters with one chapter; she doesn't read that fast. After five minutes, the group settles on two nightly chapters.

When their teacher hears the schedule, she praises the group's ambition, then adds, "Keep tabs on how everyone is doing. Remember, the point is to share different opinions but to all be on the same page."

"Literature circles" are just one way this 420-student school, started in 1996 on Chicago's West
Side, harnesses the energy of adolescent learners. Students choose the book they will read together and set the pace. As they read, they jot reactions and questions to share with their circle, which meets twice a week. Sometimes students assume special roles: the "Word Wizard" keeps track of new vocabulary words, the "Passage Master" identifies significant parts for discussion.

With innovations like these, BPHS is beating the averages in a school system where most students are poor, graduation and attendance rates are low, and violence levels are high.

Steve Zemelman is one of three faculty at Chicago's National Louis University who helped found BPHS. "More than anything else," he explains, "we wanted this school to show how good teaching, 'best practice,' could enable a cross section of normal urban kids—not the cream of the crop—to become productive, thoughtful, and confident citizens."

Last year, Best Practice sent 73 percent of its graduates to college; while only 67 percent of students citywide completed high school.

Rigor Without Mortis

While many small, innovative high schools focus on a special theme—like the sciences, the arts, or technology—Best Practice makes good teaching the centerpiece. And good teaching, the school believes, begins with high expectations for students, offering them what another university partner, Harvey Daniels, calls "rigor without mortis."

Rather than start with biology, for example, BPHS freshmen study physics, turning the traditional science sequence upside down, or right side up, according to Nobel prizewinner Leon Lederman. The advantage, he points out, is that "science has a story line when the opening chapter is physics." The approach pays off, as a notable number of students name science as their favorite course. Says sophomore Markesha, "I had no idea I'd enjoy chemistry so much or could feel so motivated."

Good teachers ask students to think deeply about important issues, pushing them to share their thinking in multiple ways. Four times a year, teachers and students spend a week immersed in multidisciplinary units with names like "Island Nations" (combining geography, English, and art) or "Isms," an examination of the nature, origins, and solutions for discrimination.

Good teachers also give students choice and voice, making their interests central to learning. Each Wednesday, students split the day between internships throughout the city and seminars of their choice, back at BPHS, on topics like probability or French films.

Lastly, good classrooms are sociable and collaborative—places where young people, working in pairs or teams, learn to lead, carry their weight, and support others. "Often you have an idea or sentence on the tip of your tongue," explains Markesha, "and it's your group that helps you get [it] out." Another student observes, "Small groups teach the power of compromise."

Pushing Limits

Charged with active learning, BPHS teachers and students alike reach beyond the comfortable, stretching their perceptions of abilities and potential. "I couldn't imagine doing physics," says 15-year-old Jenny, "but our teacher, he gets to you, he gets you, and there's no turning back."

Curtis, a senior with an eye on architecture as a career, agrees. His music teacher, he says, "doesn't take ?normal.' Instead she pushes you beyond where you think you can go. She doesn't just teach music, she forces out your best."

Despite such praise—and the school's beliefs—teachers at BPHS, like those everywhere, have good days and bad, lessons that flop as well as soar. But unlike other schools, BPHS has built in underlying structures that support faculty as they model the risk taking they expect from their students.

Teachers work in teams, for instance, benefiting from mutual support and common planning time, while also tracking the struggles and triumphs of small groups of students. Teachers also meet daily with advisees, staying connected to the same kids over four years.

As a result, Marilyn Bizar, the third university partner, likes to say, "Even when it's not working, it's working."

Jaisy, a Best Practice junior, is asked frequently about her school's unconventional name. She answers: "Because here we practice the best." Pressed to single out the practice that matters most, she says, "There's a real sense that there's a 'we' here—a 'we' that includes students and teachers, working together."

This story first appeared in What Kids Can Do.