It’s Hammer Time, Mixed Messages, and Broadway Bound

By Rich Shea — May 13, 2005 3 min read

Need to motivate your students to take standardized tests? Just whack a cinder block with a sledgehammer—that should do the trick. Next week, before administering Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, teachers at Bel Air Elementary will symbolically “smash the SOLs” for their students outside the school. With each passing year, kids across the country face increasing pressure to pass state tests—so as to eventually graduate while keeping their schools NCLB-friendly. And in Virginia, test pep rallies, mascot-led chanting, and SOL “thinking caps” have become de rigeur in the days leading up to the big test. “It’s just to say, ‘Good luck’ and ‘We’re cheering for you,’” says Melinda Carper, principal of Rolling Ridge Elementary. At another school, one kindergarten aide has gone so far as to paint his hair gold and label himself “SOL man.” Get it?

Here’s something that’s not so easy to understand: The high school that Newsweek just ranked 10th best in the country received a D from its home state. Hillsborough High, in Tampa, Florida, falls short of both state and federal standards, but the annual Newsweek ranking does not take into account test scores, graduation rates, or a school’s achievement gap. It simply divides the number of students taking AP and International Baccalaureate tests by the number of graduating seniors. The reason? To recognize schools that encourage run-of-the-mill kids to tackle tough courses. That’s certainly a worthy measure in and of itself, but putting a “best” in front of these schools sends mixed messages. William Orr, principal of Hillsborough High says, “We knew we were good. But we didn’t know how good.”

Another honor was bestowed upon four California middle schools. They’re among 15 “Schools to Watch” nationwide, according to the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, which emphasizes academic excellence and sensitivity toward that transition time known as adolescence. When students enter middle school, “they go there as children,” says John Harrison, vice president of the forum. But “by the time they leave 8th grade,” he adds, “very often they’re young adults.” One honoree, the Robert A. Millikan Middle School & Performing Arts Magnet, allows the almost-grownups to join “academies” focused on subjects such as physics, robotics, and, of course, the arts. It’s a format that principal Norman Isaacs says was introduced years ago, after the then-failing school was almost shuttered. “We’ve tried to create an atmosphere,” he says, “where students are really involved and enjoy being here.”

The atmosphere in many high school theater departments these days is Broadwayesque. That’s due to the ramping-up of musical productions—with huge casts presenting technically complex shows like Sweeney Todd, Evita, and Les Miserables. Case in point: Indiana’s New Albany High School, which staged a $165,000 production of Beauty and the Beast this past fall. Several factors come into play: Bigger shows mean bigger audiences, resulting in bigger box office revenues. Plus, schools aren’t relying on overworked English teachers to throw together You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; instead, they’re hiring recent arts graduates who bring with them the technological tools and know-how that make such productions possible. While some worry about the nuances of theater being lost in the mix, others consider the shows a great opportunity. Guy Tedesco, a professional who designed the costumes for New Albany’s Beast, says, “This is really a magical time, when they’re still doing it for the joy of it. From here on out, it’s prostitution.”

A teacher who evidently didn’t want to prostitute himself is Larry Neace, formerly of Dacula High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia. The physics teacher was fired for refusing to raise the grade of a student who was allegedly sleeping in class. Neace, who’d taught at the school for 23 years, sliced the football player’s homework grade in half because he believes the student had napped on the day it was assigned. When reminded by school officials that Dacula doesn’t allow using grades to discipline, Neace still wouldn’t budge; so he was relieved of duty, then fired by the school board. Although the case appears clearcut, it’s touched a nerve nationwide, raising questions about how to handle “pampered” students who waste class time. “I am getting support from all over the country,” Neace says. “I got an e-mail from a professor at Rutgers University that said he wishes more teachers would do what I was doing.”

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