School & District Management

Rochester Plan Adds Flexibility To High School

By Robert C. Johnston — August 02, 2000 7 min read
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With a plan that will allow students to map out their routes to a diploma over three, four, or five years, the school district here is hoping to shake up one of education’s most tradition-bound institutions: the public high school.

The “Pathways” plan, proposed by Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and approved unanimously by the Rochester school board July 20, will give students the option of staying in school an extra year, or finishing up a year early. By formalizing those diploma options, officials here want to give students the time they need to master state-mandated material before falling hopelessly behind—as many now do.

Students who finish early under the plan, which is scheduled to take effect in the fall of 2002, could go on to college or remain in high school for enrichment programs or college-level courses during a fourth year.

“This is an idea whose time has come, not only in Rochester, but in other communities,” Mr. Janey told board members of the 37,000-student western New York district before the vote.

The superintendent, who is involved in national efforts to close the achievement gaps between minority and white students, said new strategies are needed, especially in high school. Assumptions about how long students need to learn, he said, are a good place to start: “We should no longer be prisoners to our own seduction with time.”

The four-year structure of high school, and the association of the diploma with how much time students have spent in class rather than what they’ve learned, has long been the subject of criticism.

Many experts say it rewards students primarily for showing up, and gives them little incentive to excel. At the time, critics argue, the inflexible schedule all too often allows struggling students to fall between the cracks.

Yet frequent calls for an end to the emphasis on “seat time” have, for the most part, been overlooked in policymaking efforts to improve American high schools.

Time for a Change?

Mr. Janey’s plan—unusual in that it sprang from the district level—has attracted national attention this summer.

President Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers last month proposed a “transitional year” of schooling, either in high school or before, to give students additional time to work through difficult material or develop basic skills.

The courses would be taught by specially trained teachers, “because most secondary school teachers have never been trained to help older students overcome basic-skills deficits,” Ms. Feldman said in her speech July 3 at the union’s national convention in Philadelphia. (“Union Heads Issue Standards Warnings,” July 12, 2000.)

As logical as the Rochester plan sounds, however, it raises potentially complicated questions about sports eligibility, class rankings, and even proms. Moreover, some critics see the underlying idea as simplistic, and question the wisdom of pushing 16-year-olds on to college, or of keeping 20-year-olds in high school.

To Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and a well-known critic of the traditional high school, Rochester’s approach is about half right.

“I’m very skeptical about any elongation of high school, because of the quality of instruction and curriculum,” he said. But, he added, the idea of letting students who have met the requirements finish high school early shows promise.

“The sooner we get out, the better,” Mr. Botstein said. “So, the three-year idea sounds great.”

Rochester has reason to hope the plan works. About one-quarter of the district’s 1,300 students who were eligible to graduate in June failed to meet the requirements.

Many of them will take more time to finish up. Others will eventually get their General Educational Development diplomas. Some will do neither.

The plan, as it is outlined, would let students in the 8th grade begin taking high school courses. Ninth graders, on the other hand, could request longer courses and a fifth year in order to help them catch up.

Students could change their “pathways” at any time.

District leaders have taken great pains to avoid associating the longer schedule with traditional notions of “failure” or repeating a grade, saying they merely want to prevent students from moving along too quickly.

And they also argue that students from all achievement levels could benefit from the fifth year, whether to explore college options or career interests.

Mr. Janey spent the better part of this year courting ideas and support for the program from school and business officials, parents, and community leaders.

Cathy Little, a local PTA parent liaison, believes the plan will help, though she has some reservations. “My only concern is: How do we get across to parents that the five-year plan does not mean failure?” she said.

‘You Fit’

Within the school district, the plan has won broad support.

“I think this [five-year option] is revolutionary because we have abandoned kids in the past because they didn’t fit,” said Ed Cavalier, the principal of East High School. He added, “Now we will be saying, ‘You fit.’”

He noted that there was some precedent for a five-year diploma at his school, where a popular firefighter-trainee program often takes five years to complete.

Tom Gillette, a spokesman for the Rochester Teachers Association, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, sees the new diploma program as only the beginning.

“When this is successful in meeting high school student needs, hopefully we will look at students down the line in all grades,” he said.

The school board president, Bolgen Vargas, who spoke little English when he emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 17, sees another benefit: “This will be good for someone like me who comes from another country and has a special challenge.”

At the other end of the achievement spectrum, high schoolers who want to move at a faster pace will be offered accelerated classes and summer school options to complete their diploma requirements in three years. Last year, 28 Rochester students finished in three years, though no formal program was offered to help them.

Students on the three-year plan will not automatically go on to college. The district will offer such students Advanced Placement courses, apprenticeships, or the option to travel during a fourth year of high school.

Taking a break from her summer school mathematics course, Rochester 10th grader Janeese Stevenson hailed the idea. “I’d want to graduate in three years,” she said. “My regular classes go too slow. While the rest of the class is going over their work, I’m done.”

Nearby, junior Syrrynthia Anderson, who is also in the class, said she wouldn’t leave in three years, even if she could: “I’d stay here an extra year to walk across the stage with my friends.”

National Model?

Rochester’s experiment will be closely watched, as high schools have arguably been the laggards in national efforts to improve schools.

Any effort to reinvent high school and its ritual-bound culture, experts say, is noteworthy.

In addition, states are raising graduation requirements and grade-level-promotion standards. As a result, may educators worry that the roughly 415,000 U.S. students who drop out of school each year will rise in number unless dramatic steps are taken to meet their education needs.

Still others see the additional year as a chance to help college-bound students hone basic skills, an option that many see as especially helpful for minority students.

According to 1997 federal data, 43 percent of college freshmen in heavily minority colleges nationwide had to take remedial courses in colleges.

“This has the potential to assist the problem with remediation,” said George L. Mahaffey, the vice president for academic leadership for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington.

Like some other experts, though, he said questions remain about whether younger graduates will be ready for college.

Working Out Details

Mr. Botstein, who calls modern high schools obsolete, argues that if the goal is merely to prepare students for “bad tests,” a fifth year will do little good.

On the other hand, he believes colleges should find ways to open their doors to younger students. “Students who develop sooner intellectually are being held back by high school,” he said. “Colleges must respond.”

For now, Rochester will focus on the many small questions that must be answered to implement the program. District officials acknowledge that it will be a logistical challenge, with many students enrolled in a wide range of “pathways,” and new programs needed to meet their needs.

Maurice Bell, the supervisor of high school programs for the district, said one priority would be to schedule individual counseling for 8th and 9th graders on their options. New schedules with overlapping long and short periods must also be drafted.

He added, however, that the district’s costs should not go up because the state will continue to reimburse the district for any student in school.

As for sports, Mr. Bell said, the question he keeps getting is, “Will five-year students have the traditional eight semesters to compete in sports from the time they become freshmen?” Probably, he said.

He’s less certain about how fifth-year students will be ranked for college admissions, when they will attend junior proms, or how the state will handle grade-level scores on standardized exams. “Planning this could be a full-time job,” he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as Rochester Plan Adds Flexibility To High School

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