Pathways to High School Success

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Students in urban districts across the country continue to demonstrate that when given appropriate instruction and support, they will do well in rigorous courses and perform more than satisfactorily on state assessments.

As we make changes in curricula and standards, we must also make corresponding changes in our approaches to ensure success for all students.

My own district of Rochester, N.Y., is a good example. We have more than doubled the number of students taking and passing higher-level coursework such as the state regents' courses. In the 1998-99 school year, 56 percent of our high school students took and passed these more rigorous courses, an increase of 108 percent from 1994-95.

But in Rochester as in other urban districts, we know that not all students perform to the high standards expected of them in the same period of time. Some require more time to demonstrate their knowledge and competence, and some less.

We also know that by 2003, all of our students will have to pass the New York state regents' examinations in all core subjects to graduate. So as we make changes in curricula and standards, we must also make corresponding changes in our approaches to ensure success for all students.

This is why the Rochester school district has created the Pathways initiative, allowing students to earn a diploma in three, four, or five years. We think it is a model that other districts across the country may find useful as they struggle to chart a realistic course for attaining higher standards of achievement for all of their students.

In the existing high school program, only some students are expected to be engaged in a richer, more challenging learning environment. Others are not. But the "seat time" is the same for all students, regardless of the school's capacity to adapt to each student's individual needs.

By allowing students flexibility in how they earn a diploma, we are affirming their right to succeed.

By affording our students the opportunity to learn how to succeed in a more rigorous academic environment, and allowing flexibility in earning a regents' diploma, we are affirming students' right to succeed, rather than giving them permission to fail.

Statistics affirm the need for such a change.

In 1996, there were 2,255 9th graders in Rochester's high school class of 2000. By September 1999, only 1,247 remained. Of those, 446 are not performing at a level sufficient for graduation. These are students for whom an additional year of high school could make a significant difference.

Of the 1,008 students who left, 143 dropped out and 109 entered a General Educational Development program. These students were not equipped to handle the requirements of the traditional high school program, and could have been redirected and supported if offered a nontraditional option.

This is also a problem at the national level. From 1990 to 1997, the number of students earning the GED and other nontraditional diplomas doubled, from 6 percent to 12 percent.

For many students, four years of high school is not enough.

In addition, 43 percent of the freshmen enrolled in colleges with high concentrations of minority students must take remedial courses, an indication that for many students, four years of high school is not enough.

Here are some of the features of Rochester's Pathways initiative, along with the logic that supports such a departure in traditional high school structure:

  • The five-year program. This extended route to a high school diploma will involve two different groups of students: those in grades 8-12, who will be allowed to begin taking their high school courses a year early; and those in grades 9-13, who will attend an extra year of school and take courses for a longer period of time each year. These students will be offered a five-year high school experience that is not predicated on failure.

By increasing the amount of time students spend in each course, the five-year program will allow them more time to focus and to succeed. Students could be scheduled, for example, for double periods in the subjects in which their academic need is greatest. After making the necessary progress, they could take additional courses in their fifth year, including advanced courses toward college or a career.

The five-year program must be viewed as an academic option, not a sign of failure.

Acceptance of this type of program, however, will require a culture change in the community, where extra time spent on schooling is more often seen as a punishment than as an opportunity. The program must be perceived as simply an academic option, not an indication of failure. Students entering school in the five-year program would progress each year with their peers and graduate together, just as those entering the four-year program would graduate with theirs.

  • The three-year program. Just as some students require more time to reach standards, others require less. In 1999, for example, 28 Rochester students completed their graduation requirements after only three years of high school. The new three-year high school program will provide a formal means of allowing students such as these to take four years of high school in three years, including summers as an option.
Just as some students require more time to reach standards, others require less.

Students who currently complete high school in three years generally do so with the minimum number of credits needed. In contrast, this program will allow them, in an optional fourth year, to further develop their leadership skills, obtain additional credit toward college, and gain meaningful work experience.

Both programs will offer credit-bearing courses in the summer months, using a "trimester" schedule similar to the school calendar at many colleges. Planning for the Pathways initiative will begin this summer, and the programs will be in operation by September of 2001.

David T. Kearns, the former chief executive officer of the Xerox Corp., told me recently that business leaders are more concerned about the quality of high school graduates than they are about the amount of time spent in school. This is true also of higher education. Rather than holding time constant and varying quality, we must hold quality constant and vary time.

Business leaders are more concerned about the quality of high school graduates than they are aout the amount of time spent in school.

Doing this is particularly important now, as the standards for excellence in school and at the workplace continue to increase. As educators, we must consider bold new approaches—systemic approaches—for inspiring and enabling young people to complete high school with the skills they need for success in college and careers. In this age of global communication and international economic development, rapidly advancing urban communities, such as ours in Rochester, need to attract and retain as many native sons and daughters as possible to be the leaders of our future.

Clifford B. Janey is the superintendent of the Rochester (N.Y.) City School District. A version of this essay previously appeared in The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

Vol. 19, Issue 43, Pages 45, 68

Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as Pathways to High School Success
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