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Published in Print: September 27, 2000, as Free High Schools From Traditional Borders, Panel Urges

Free High Schools From Traditional Borders, Panel Urges

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Adolescents should have a range of learning opportunities outside the confining walls of school, but still be required to meet high levels of academic rigor to earn their diplomas, recommends a new report that urges high schools be "completely redesigned."

"The community and educational system must partner to ensure that all students have access to supportive networks to allow them to pass through adolescence safely and with high levels of achievement," according to "High Schools of the Millennium: Report of the Workgroup," released this month by the American Youth Policy Forum.

For More Information

"High Schools of the Millenium" is available online. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.) It may also be ordered for $4 from the American Youth Policy Forum, 1836 Jefferson Place N.W., Washington, DC 20036, (202) 775-9731.

The menu of options available to students should include programs such as magnet schools run by museums, and academic credit for workplace and volunteer experiences, the report says.

"What we're interested in is a tremendous amount of flexibility in the way courses are designed," Betsy Brand, a co-director of the Washington- based group, said in an interview last week. "We want people to see what's out there and use it to the extent they can."

Such real-life experiences, the report stresses, should not come at the expense of academic achievement. Students should be required to meet academic standards of the highest levels to earn diplomas, it says.

"'A High School of the Millennium' sets high academic standards that are challenging and that reflect the community's expectation of the knowledge and skills needed for full and meaningful adult lives," the report says.

Gaining Attention

The report reflects a growing interest in how high schools serve teenagers as they prepare to enter higher education or careers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley recently appointed a commission to study the senior year of high school and recommend ways to change it. The federal Department of Education is also running the New American High Schools Initiative, which recognizes innovative comprehensive, vocational-technical, and pilot schools.

In July, the 37,000-student Rochester, N.Y., school district confronted the issue of how long students should stay in high school by adopting a plan that gives students the option of graduating in three, four, or five years. ("Rochester Plan Adds Flexibility to High School," Aug. 2, 2000.)

And the Chicago district has announced plans to offer an extra year of study to students who need it to graduate.

The American Youth Policy Forum, which advocates what it sees as effective policies for adolescents and young adults, assembled a panel of 59 policymakers and educators to discuss how to change high schools.

The group included Patricia W. McNeil, the Education Department's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education; Ms. Brand, who held that post in the Bush administration; and representatives from Washington groups representing school administrators, chief state school officers, and business leaders.

In addition to balancing real-life experiences with academic rigor, high schools need to be reorganized into "small, personalized, and caring learning communities for students," the panel's report says.

The product reflects the diverse group of people on the panel, who sometimes had competing agendas, one participant said.

The "contradictory pressures" of offering real-life experiences and a demanding academic program will be difficult for schools to balance, according to John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based think tank that backs standards-based initiatives.

Squeezed Out

"I don't think there's a resolution to that yet," he said. But with more than half the states poised to institute high school exit exams, "the primary pressure is going to be on kids to take more difficult courses," he said. "What that is resulting in is squeezing other things out, like vocational education."

The value of the report, Mr. Jennings said, is that people in positions of authority are starting to pay attention to the quality of high schools after years of emphasizing early reading and math skills.

Ms. Brand predicted that the report would spark a debate that so far has been lacking. Until now, "a lot of people have been shaking their heads at high schools and saying: 'Too big, too difficult. Don't want to worry about that.'"

Vol. 20, Issue 4, Page 5

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