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Better High Schools

Better High Schools


Let teachers mentor
Ravel Holland, student,  Livermore High School
Having gone through the California education system, attending more than 19 schools, both private and public schools, including six months in a Louisiana elementary school and two different high schools, I have seen the best and worst of our education system. And one thing that I have learned is that there is nothing easier to do than to fall through the cracks. With 30 students per class, six classes per day, it’s an insurmountable task for any educator to reach all the 180 students they have. But, as one of the students who was reached and saved, I cannot stress enough the importance of trying. If there is anything to be done to create better high schools for our children it would be to instill in every educator a sense of pride, importance, duty, and potential. The hope is that these educators would pick a few students each year and pass on these same values to them.

Extend the School Day
State Senator Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), chair Senate Committee on Appropriations and Select Committee on Schools and Community, 2010 candidate for state Superintendent of Public Instruction
As the result of my recent visits to schools around the state, I decided that we must extend the high school day and the school year. Additional classroom time can give our educators the opportunity and the flexibility needed to meet 21st Century demands and increasingly rigorous graduation requirements.

We must be realistic about the funding required to give our students the chance to have the skills needed to compete globally and share in the great California Dream. While we have made strides in recent years, we still invest less in our students’ futures than 34 other states.

Overhaul the system
Chris Van Schaack, Principal of Grenada High School, Livermore

Our education system was built for another era—one in which students who developed only basic skills still had the hope of finding employment that would pay a living wage. That type of system does not meet our 21st century needs and must be changed. But minor modifications and tinkering around the edges will not produce the results we desire. We cannot patch our existing system. We have neither the time nor the money to do it. We must be willing to change the system itself.

Fortunately, we know what works. We know that students learn best when the curriculum is challenging and meaningful to them, when they develop strong relationships with school staff, and when they are in an environment in which all students are expected to achieve at a high level. Ensuring that these elements exist will require creative solutions to key issues, including the use of time and teacher training and compensation.

We have become prisoners of time. Not only do we expect all students to learn, we expect them all to learn at the same pace. This does not reflect reality. Our current system requires a specified amount of “seat time” for credit to be earned. We hold students back when they are ready to move ahead. This stifles motivation and excitement. We also push students ahead when they are not ready. This leads to frustration and disconnection. Basing credit on achievement rather than time would allow students to progress at a rate that reflects their needs. Achievement must be the constant and time the variable, not the other way around.

Research indicates that the single most important factor in student learning is the teacher. Attracting and retaining our best and brightest to the teaching field is critical to improving our system. Poorly prepared teachers leave the profession quickly. We must ensure that new teachers are well trained, supported, and compensated in a way that reflects the value that we place in them.

Create apprenticeship programs
Janice Castagnini, English teacher, Foothill High School, Pleasanton
We need to address the fact that not all of our students are interested in higher learning and that some may be more focused on going directly into the workforce. I would love to see apprentice programs for students so that they can have choices. Preparing them to face the reality of making a living in a world where the service industry is still in great need is essential. For some reason, many parents believe that their son or daughter has to attend college, which is unrealistic.

With an apprenticeship program, students can experience the industry that interests them and decide if they want to take that path. I'd like to see the first two years of high school more like college—take the general education courses necessary to become more well-rounded and then choose a path of interest. If a student wants to become an electrician plumber, or auto mechanic, he or she applies for an apprenticeship in the community and fulfills hours of completion for college graduation, learns a skill, and is ready to make a living upon graduation. I know that this will take planning and an entirely different mindset, but we need to think about all students and not just those who understand the world of academia.

Foster flexibility and creativity
Mike Archibald, student, San Ramon Valley High School, Danville
Keep schools evolving, instill new ideas with classic ways of teaching, and provide more opportunities. Hire dreamers as teachers, those who are willing to break mental boundaries and explore thought. The ultimate school can have both strict teachers who provide discipline and structure and teachers of thought and reasoning. Imagine the graduates who can see both sides of the card, who can think outside of the box but recognize how the box was built?

Beef up standards
Stephen L. Hanke, superintendent, Dublin Unified School District
The set of skills our high school students need in order to be successful in college or the world of work is converging. Yet we exist in an educational environment that is a paradox. On the one hand, more than 90 percent of students and their parents are clear that their goal is college. On the other hand, low percentages of teachers believe that all students are capable of and prepared to perform at the level required to enter universities. There is a clear expectation gap. One of the ways to create better high schools is to solve this paradox.

The Dublin Unified School District is among the few districts in California where the decision to address this paradox has been made. We believe that we must close the achievement gap of our students. How we approach this dilemma is the center of our reform efforts.

In 2005, the Dublin Unified School Board directed staff to form a Best Practices Team and charged them with developing recommendations that would raise the rigor and relevance of education in Dublin. It became clear from the outset that there needed to be a significant shift in thinking. That shift formed the basis of the team’s recommendation that all students be held to a higher standard. Simply stated, all students would be held to taking course requirements for entry into the California State University and University of California systems.

Last year, the board approved increasing academic graduation requirements for the class of 2013. This change means all students must increase their math from two to three years in grades 9–12 and include Algebra 2; increase their science from two to three years including two years of a lab science; take one year of applied or fine arts; and complete two years of a foreign language. Our current seventh-grade class will be held to these new requirements.

The team continued its research this year to identify specific recommendations that would support the newly adopted standards. Among those brought to the board for review and direction were: creating a culture of high expectation and support, using data to monitor student performance and inform instruction; enhancing parent and community support; and providing ongoing focused professional development.

Make schools more attuned to kids’ real needs
Patricia Briggs, parent, San Ramon Valley High School, Danville
School hours should be noon to 7 pm. Scientific studies show that the human teenage body does not run the same as an adult’s body clock. When my child arrives at school, I want them to learn, not sleep through first and second period. And it is said that kids get in the most trouble from 3 pm to 5 pm before the parents get home. I can guarantee they will choose sleep over trouble in the wee morning hours.

Students should be required to perform 200 hours of community service as part of the graduation requirements. Community service is a great way to show compassion, and students have a lot of to offer. In turn, they will learn more than any textbook can offer.

They should also take a mandatory group class that teaches coping skills.  Students need an outlet in which to share their feelings in a safe environment. I know many parents will be thinking, “That is why we send our kids to counseling.” But why do kids have to get to that point before we even do something?

Teachers should be rotated every five years throughout the district. Why? Because they also show signs of fatigue when they get in a rut. and everyone deserves a good teacher and mentor. Bad teachers should be fired, just like real life. As long as we let them hide behind their unions and tenures, they will be a negative influence in our child’s life.

Create more consistent and equitable sources of funding
Erik Honda, teacher of English and public speaking, Acalanes High School, Lafayette 

We need to put our money where our mouth is. Californians say education is their No. 1  issue year after year, but they are not willing to vote for anyone who tells the truth: that is, we will have to raise taxes in order to increase funding for public education. As a result, our per-pupil spending is one of the lowest in the nation, on par with Louisiana and Mississippi. Our test scores are much higher than those states partly because students in our affluent suburbs (like Orinda, Moraga, and Lafayette) are well served. But high schools in those areas are only able to do what they do because there is a massive infusion of local cash: parcel taxes, parent's clubs, and foundation grants etc.

On a broader level, our current funding structure is racist. The average voter in the state is old and white. The average public school student is poor and brown. Is it any wonder that those voters don't want to pay more money to educate people who don't look like them or their grandkids? So we divvy up the pie locally, let the poor students suffer in under-funded schools, and the wealthy ones luxuriate at places that are as elegantly appointed as their homes (like the school where I teach).

We need to take a hard look at what we are doing and change things. Why should I make $20,000 a year more than a teacher in San Francisco? They should make $20,000 a year more than me since their job is that much harder. A recent step forward has been the California Teachers Association deal with Governor Schwarzenegger to pay back the $7 billion he misappropriated from schools over the last few years. Much of it is going to poor schools. Let's hope we continue down that path.

Lighten students load—literally
Austin Boehrer, student,  Granada High School, Livermore
My favorite idea to improve high school is to do something about all of the heavy books students are forced to carry around at school each day. Everyday I load up my backpack with all the materials I need for my classes, and carry it around at school all day. I recently decided to weigh the contents of my backpack and was shocked by the results. I knew my backpack was heavy, but I never imagined it could have weighed 40 pounds. Not only is having a heavy backpack an inconvenience, it can lead to serious back issues.

I believe the two best solutions are to get lockers for our high school or to have the school district get double sets of textbooks. Lockers would provide a secure place on campus for students to place their heavy books when they aren’t needed. Double sets of textbooks would enable kids to keep one book at home and one at school, eliminating the need for kids to lug their books back and forth each day.

Launch a major reform effort
William H. Dunlop, board president, Livermore Joint Unified School District
Recently a very comprehensive study, “Getting Down to Facts: School Finance and Governance in California,” was published. The succinct message of the report is this: “There is no evidence to support the idea that simply introducing yet more new programs will produce the desired achievement gains … Quite simply, the finance and governance system is broken and requires fundamental reform.”

I believe that a real reform of the education system in California that would benefit the students, teachers, and administrators should not be left solely to the legislature. The issues are too important to be sidetracked for election campaigns and for political positioning. We need a way that will provide more certain and speedier relief to the schools in California. 

I would propose this kind of an approach: the governor and the legislature could admit that this is a very difficult political effort that needs immediate and expert attention. They could appoint a committee of highly respected education experts who know what needs to be done. This committee should have representatives from various viewpoints—but  no ideologues. They could approach reform in a series of steps based on a general plan (or analysis of what needs to be improved), which could be the recently completed "Getting Down to Fact" study. The committee would present their plan for Step 1 to the legislature and the governor, and it could either be accepted or rejected. If rejected, the group would try again. If accepted, the group would go on to Step 2, etc. I think this approach holds far greater promise of an acceptable and helpful reform.

Of course this would be very hard work for the committee members.  But people who are willing to take on very difficult issues are the kind of people you want on such a committee. Many of them could be drawn from the people that did such an outstanding job on the “Getting Down to Facts” study.

Make the curriculum more flexible
Christine Wentker, parent, San Ramon Valley High, Danville
Too often, the state-mandated curriculums encourage teaching but not actual learning.  Teachers are given a curriculum that they are expected to meet during the school year.  Often, it is so rigorous that it doesn’t take into account the option for review or remediation. I firmly believe that the majority of teachers truly want their students to learn and retain the information that is being taught to them. Teachers can be as frustrated as students when they can’t take the time to review materials that they clearly know their students haven’t learned. If teachers had the flexibility to adjust the curriculum where they see fit it, it would truly benefit our students. Conversely, if a teacher sees that the majority of the students are fully grasping the material they could accelerate or enrich their curriculum to meet those needs as well. 

Change school hours
Bev Hodges, math teacher, Northgate High School, Walnut Creek
I would like to see high schools students have more choices in their starting and ending school times to suit their individual needs. In order to achieve this, high schools would have to establish longer operating hours so that some teachers would be teaching from 7 am until 2 pm while others would teach from 2 pm until 9 pm. Students who are early risers, who need to get a job after school, or who are involved with sports could start high school early, while the night owls would be able to sleep in and begin their school day when they are more awake and alert. With additional funding, high schools could pay teachers to teach more electives allowing students to explore interest areas. Schools could also open up some courses to the community to meet the needs of our increased immigrant population.

Stop shortchanging schools
Carolyn Plath, principal, Ygnacio Valley High School, Concord
Students in California live like stepchildren in the home of a resentful stepmother. Subject to her moods and whims, they may or may not have what any child needs to thrive. Fund schools commensurate to the mandates imposed upon them and secure money. Federal and state laws, for example, require public schools to provide special services to students with special needs. These mandates encroach into general purpose funds to the tune of millions of dollars annually since they come with inadequate funding of their own. Schools stretch money from traditional sources to cover the unfunded mandates, shortchanging general education and special education alike.

Tenuous funding for schools holds them in a position of uncertainty. “One time” grant money, restricted-use money, and routine retractions of money keep schools operating in an atmosphere of insecurity and distrust.  Schools must plan programs, acquire materials, and hire and train staff from year to year with no assurances that what is required today will be possible tomorrow.

Individualize learning
Ron Graydon, founder and director, Orinda Academy
I believe we can create better high schools by following models found in many independent schools and in some special public school programs. We need smaller classes, quality teachers that provide engaging student-centered classes, and instruction and evaluation that considers individual student learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses. A meaningful advisory program is also essential.

Smaller classes provide the opportunity for more interaction between all members of the classroom. The teacher can be cognizant of the student’s learning styles and make reasonable accommodations when necessary so that all students have the ability to succeed and work to their potential. A small class of eight to 15 students per teacher allows the teacher the flexibility of providing enough personal attention to all the students so that truly “no child is left behind.”

Counseling also needs to be done on a much smaller scale. One counselor per 200 students does not meet the needs of many students who are striving to meet graduation and college requirements. Schools need to have a meaningful advisory program that makes sure no student is slipping through the cracks.

Evaluation methods need to be varied also so that students with varying test taking abilities do not suffer. Some students do not perform consistently well with [standardized] tests. Other methods, such as oral presentations, debates, projects, papers, and take-home tests, can be utilized. Teachers need to be trained to recognize learning  differences and how to make accommodations to meet the academic needs of their students. 

Get more parents involved
Michelle Schrey, president, Acalanes High School Parents Club, Lafayette
I believe one aspect of a good school is parent involvement. Parent monetary donations through direct solicitation help fund areas that the district can't, which can include electives, supplies, extra periods, health education, etc. Parent volunteerism also makes up for the lack of funding by providing a volunteer force that logs thousands of hours to help support the efforts of the school. And an involved parent is an aware parent that can engage in another level of communication at home with their student.

Offer different learning opportunities
Kathi McLaughlin, trustee, Martinez Unified School District; delegate, California School Boards Association; co-chair, Contra Costa Mental Health Commission; chair, Mental Health Commission’s Children’s Committee
Creating better schools for our high school seniors means recognizing that not all of our students will continue their education by attending college, vocational, or trade schools. The Martinez Unified School District recognizes that our students need to have many avenues to learning available to them and that we need to instill in them a love of lifelong learning. We have some of those programs available now, and we are on the path to building even more that meet our students’ diverse needs. 

In addition to our four-year comprehensive high school (Alhambra High), we also have several non-traditional options. Vicente Martinez Alternative High School offers a more flexible schedule, service-learning opportunities, such as the Medical Careers and the Educational Careers Academies, hands on activities, and the opportunity to earn credits at an accelerated rate. The Briones Independent Study Program offers students who have difficulty with the social distractions of a traditional high school campus the opportunity to meet weekly with a credentialed teacher to receive assignments and have one-to-one help. During the rest of the week, they work independently on a schedule that best meets their unique needs. I want to stress that our many alternative programs, while geared to our students’ unique learning needs, are also academically rigorous.

We need to recognize that our students with special needs may not be able to graduate when they are 18. MUSD now has a new program designed to support these “transition age” students, those in the 18– to 22–year range, who need more services to prepare them for life on their own. These students will be learning a variety of independent living skills and job skills that will enable them to lead fulfilling and productive lives and become assets to their communities.

Make schools healthy learning communities
Jim Negri, superintendent, Acalanes Union High School District
Experts are predicting that today’s graduates will have seven careers, not seven jobs, in their lifetimes. Our challenge is to create a learning environment—curricular and extra-curricular—that prepares students to be life-long learners who have both the skills and content knowledge to adapt in an ever-changing, global society. A critical first step is to identify the learning and thinking skills needed to be successful life-long learners. These include critical-thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration skills, communication, creativity, and innovation skills, and information and media literacy.

It is essential that such skills be incorporated into all curricular areas. Being able to use technology to learn content and develop the skills is critical. In addition to the core subjects, curricular content must include global awareness, economic and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy, and health and wellness. The curriculum must also include life skills such as ethics, people skills, personal and social responsibility, adaptability, and leadership.

We must establish schools as healthy learning communities. Teaching wellness in all aspects of a student’s life includes addressing student, parent, and staff stress—a major issue in many high schools today. Changing the structure of the school day and school year are two ways to address stress. We can and must create better high schools for our students. The changes will not come easily but they must be made.

Wire schools
Denise Watkins, president,  Pleasanton Schools Education Enrichment
Pleasanton recently conducted a study on how to achieve excellence in our schools. Two key recommendations for high schools were to reduce the counseling ratio (students to counselors) and improve technology and technology support.

Investments in technology for our schools, such as wireless LCD projectors, DVDs, digital scanners, wireless networks, and modern labs is available only through sporadic funding from parent clubs, special state funding, and the occasional grant. There is no steady funding for improving or maintaining technology in our schools. As a result, school technology is a hodge-podge of outdated computers with aging operating systems that are exceptionally difficult to maintain and utilize in an integrated fashion. How many businesses still have computers running Windows 95? That’s not uncommon in schools. Once technology is purchased, there needs to be an on-going investment to maintain it. Although this is well understood in business, most schools desperately need technical support personnel and maintenance dollars. Specifically, we recommend that $50 per student a year is needed to help maintain existing technology which would include replacing failed components, upgrading operating systems and programs, and replacing consumable items (bulbs, cartridges etc). Technology support personnel should be staffed based on the numbers of computers, (200 computers to 1 support person), they are expected to maintain and support. The ratio is more like 60 to 1 in private industry.

The current focus for many schools is to create “smart classrooms” which include teacher laptops, LCD projectors, and other equipment that allow the teacher to most effectively communicate the concepts being taught. Smart classroom technology can run at least $4000 to $5000 a classroom. With more than 100 classrooms at a typical high school, significant funds are needed to install this critical technology.

Encourage respect and social responsibility
Barbara Oaks, principal, College Park High School, Pleasant Hill
At a school where everyone shows respect for the other—staff for students and students for staff—the optimal in academic progress can be achieved. Administrators can effectively run the school supporting staff and curricular issues, teachers can deliver instruction in a most productive manner, and students can access instruction with appropriate support and guidance from staff. A school where social responsibility is a priority also gives students the optimum learning experience. Staff and students care about each other, for their learning, safety, and social and emotional well-being. Both of these ideals promote a positive school environment.

A diverse school population also gives students the opportunity to become best prepared to live in our diverse world and to appreciate and respect others. An effective school must have an organizational structure that is accessible by all. When a solid organizational structure is in place, every one involved knows where and how to obtain information and help. Teachers can access information on resources and feel confident they will be answered; students can access information, guidance, and direction for their academic success.

Start with the basics
Natalie Lenz-Acuna, art teacher, Mt.  Diablo High School, Concord
First and foremost, we should teach integrity and kindness. If the student can learn, experience, and fully understand integrity and kindness, the desire to learn and do well will naturally follow. They should be considered part of our curriculum and standard based learning.

Second, the way in which we standardize subjects in high school should be changed.  We should borrow the model from higher education. For example, the first two years of college are spent on prerequisites. Necessary participation in those classes create a foundation for the following years. I say we should do the same in high school.  Freshman and sophomore year should be intent on teaching individual subjects such as history, English, mathematics, science, physical education, and art. Junior and senior year could then utilize the basics as a foundation for integrated curriculum and project-based learning.


Treat students as partners in their own learning
Henrik J. Mann, Dougherty Valley High School parent and founding president of the school’s Academic Boosters, San Ramon  
What makes a school experience most exceptional are the values, motivation, and commitment of teachers and administrators. Inspiring leadership still matters but it seems hard to come by these days. What if each adult school leader reinterpreted themselves as ‘a cultural worker?’ rather than simply a ‘collector’ and ‘dispenser’ of prefigured information into the receptive minds of young people so they could simply pass a standardized test? What if school districts hired staff based more on job fitness, excellence of deliberative caliber, and developed moral conscience?   

Young people are inspired and equipped to grapple with what it means to be human and humane in our globalizing world only when they are treated by adults as meaningful partners and explorers in their educational journey. With partnership also comes responsibility and accountability to bring words and actions together for the common social good, to live a life for self and others emancipated by generosity, global citizenship, cultural literacy, and healthy leadership patterns.

High school is an institution for young people to be inspired to learn the public language of moral deliberation, alongside the languages of technological prowess. They need to be wisely nurtured to contribute their best thoughts about who and what they would like to become as adults.

Hire teachers who think outside the box
Mike Archibald, student,  San Ramon Valley High School, Danville
There seems no way for fun and scholastics to coexist. We might be children after 3:10 pm but we are students the rest of the day. If you want to improve schools for children, throw out standardized testing; fix the tests and have them better determine who the student is and what they are capable of achieving.

Keep schools evolving, instill new ideas with classic ways of teaching, and provide more opportunities. Hire dreamers as teachers, those who are willing to break mental boundaries and explore thought. The ultimate school can both have strict teachers who provide discipline and structure and teachers of thought and reasoning. Imagine the graduates who can see both sides of the card, who can think outside the box but recognize how the box was built?

Define basic goals
Greg Giglio, principal, Village High School

In order to create better high schools for our children it is important to have a unified strategic plan that is shaped, designed, and supported by all stakeholders. Having one school in the district succeed is not enough. The process must begin the first day a child steps into a classroom. In Pleasanton, we have seven areas of focus: student achievement; innovation and creativity, interpersonal communication; global orientation; personal development; environmental awareness; and lifetime planning. These goals state that each student fulfill a rigorous academic program as well as allow for growth according to each individual's needs. 

Even with a clear and defined strategy such as this, a school must provide an environment where a student can thrive and develop a sense of self-worth. This can be accomplished by recruiting and maintaining a staff full of child advocates who make decisions based on what is best for the students and who are willing to work as a team with parents and community members to establish a web of support. Trends in education come and go quickly, so it is important to not to be swayed by the newest or latest idea or "cure-all" that comes along.  In reality, even the best educational program can be rendered ineffective without the proper staff to help support it.

Engage and challenge students
Maureen Byrne, dean of students, Dublin High School
Two years ago, we conducted a series of focus groups at Dublin High addressing the issue of campus climate. We asked parents, staff, and students from a variety of classes what the ideal school would look like, sound like and feel like. Certain themes ran through the groups: clean, nice facilities, safe, the sound of laughter, the sound of engaged conversation and debate. Kids know what they need: the opportunity and environment to learn and grow. The four years of high school, although seemingly endless to those of us who experience it, pass very quickly and our charge is great. We are the last stop before the “real world,” and it is our job to ensure that students are the most prepared they can be, academically, and socially.

To meet the demands of today’s technological world, all students need to graduate with competency in a rigorous curriculum. Even jobs for which a college degree is not necessary demand a strong command of mathematics and English. In order to do so, we need challenging classes with strong teachers. Students need to be engaged and challenged.

School must also be a place that assists students to better understand their place in the larger community. Exposing students in the classroom to a variety of subjects and disciplines gives them a sense of their place in the world. Enriching this experience with opportunities to learn outside of school helps them put it in context. The ideal school has clubs and speakers and opportunities for students to engage with adults and peers in meaningful ways.

Get more parents involved in fundraising
Karen Rosso, Parent Teacher Student Association president, Ygnacio Valley High School, Concord
One of the ways we can make high schools better is by having more parental involvement. There are always a few very dedicated parents who seem to do most of the work for everyone's benefit. I am PTSA president, co-chair of Grad Night, and represent Ygnacio Valley at the superintendent's Parent Advisory Council. I am a member of the athletic boosters and the music boosters and attend their monthly meetings.  I was on site council for the last two years and will be for the next two. If more people got involved and came to the monthly meetings, volunteered to be a chairperson for an event, or just help at a fundraiser, the work could be spread amongst more people. The ones who do the work get burned out and frustrated by the lack of participation. Fundraising is a necessary part of public education. Music boosters help with the cost of instrument repair and travel for various bands. Athletic boosters help the various teams buy equipment and uniforms. Now that parents have to pay an athletic transportation fee to the district, there is less money for families to contribute to the individual teams. Some non-funded sports have to pay for coaching. PTSA helps teachers who may have to buy supplemental items (as in for special science projects) and students who need scholarships to participate in various school-related activities.

Remember fundamental goals  
Gary McHenry, superintendent, Mount Diablo Unified School District
Times may change, but the seven conditions that must be in place for students to learn successfully and be prepared for whatever path they choose after high school have always been fairly basic. They include: student support, including academic counseling, access to courses, and the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular programs; parent and community involvement; agency and business partnerships; and leadership. In addition, the school’s employees must be adequately compensated and have a positive working environment.

Stop seeking the middle ground
Brian Bay, parent, Alhambra High School, board member, Martinez Education Foundation
High schools must do a better job of recognizing the differences in students and a better job of focusing educational resources on their abilities and interests. Everyone is not equal and teaching to a middle level serves very few. Doing a better job also means a more holistic approach that includes more student activities that reinforce learning and more parental and community involvement. 

Defining the goals of a high school education is paramount in this discussion. I believe that it must relate to individual as well as societal goals. Individually, high school should prepare the student for the next steps in their life. For some, this means college. For others, it means technical training. And for yet others, it is simple life skills. That is not to say that students cannot change directions after high school, but forcing them down a path they do not wish to venture is just not productive. The community and society needs educated, productive citizens who contribute to society throughout their lives. It matters less if they are lawyers, technicians, or clerks. Rather, what matters most is that they contribute to and respect the values of the community.

To get there, high schools must do a better job of focusing resources. Core classes must be emphasized in grade nine and ten to ensure all students have basis skills. Additionally, instruction must emphasize learning skills such as critical reasoning and. Students with higher aptitude must be provided with challenges to develop their intellect. Equally, students with learning challenges must be provided with opportunities to address their needs. High schools cannot continue to teach to the middle. Lastly, disruptive influences must be removed and discipline returned to the classroom.

After core classes and essential life learning skills are mastered, high schools must teach to students’ interests. Students should be able to develop technical skills with classes focused on specific fields. College preparation should be emphasized for those students seeking that path. Lastly, lessons must be relevant. Teachers must teach using technology, materials, and information that encourage learning. Simply following the same old lesson plan year after year just does not cut it any longer. 

Don’t be afraid of change
Elizabeth Calhoon, English teacher, Dougherty Valley High School, San Ramon
I have seen something that works to make better high schools, and it is deceivingly simple: setting a good example for change. The most difficult part to setting a good example for change is embracing change—even at its most uncomfortable.

There needs to be a strong administration that is willing to be thoughtful and look at all situations from multiple perspectives. It’s natural for people to immediately think they know the best route for a challenge. Yet, the first step is to admit and behave as though there is more information in this world than any of us could know.

If the teachers see that their administration is willing to consider all perspectives and change based on new information, they will be more likely to emphasize that in their classrooms. If the students see this flexibility in their teachers, they will then adopt those  characteristics themselves. If high school is about preparing teenagers for “the real world,” shouldn’t we be collaborating on problem-solving skills first and foremost?

Make schools more of a national priority
Beverly Hansen, principal, Mount Diablo High School, Concord
It’s as if there are two cultures: the one on the outside looking in and the one inside, educators creating the magic that happens every day in the schools of this nation. From the outside, ever ready to believe the media and always yearning for the schools of days past, citizens have forsaken their public schools. They bury them with criticism and forget their role as the underpinnings of democracy. In fact, we’ve allowed our schools to become a national tragedy. What we should treasure most—our children and their education—has been left behind by misguided priorities. If we expect our children to eventually guide our democracy and sustain our economy, we need to worry about the current 1 million Californians between the ages of 18 and 24 and the ones to follow who do not have a high school diploma. They will become our economic burden. Great schools occur when we find the will to put our children first, when this nation acknowledges that students in some of its schools are asked to compete on un-level playing fields, and when communities take responsibility to improve schools.

Partner with businesses to make learning relevant
Keith Archuleta, president and CEO, Emerald Consulting, project consultants to East County Business/Education Alliance
Business and industry can play a critical role in creating better high schools for our children. In today's knowledge and innovation-based economy, the skills necessary for success in the workplace have converged with those needed for success in college.

Today, high school students must graduate with a solid foundation in basic literacy and computational skills as well as be able to analyze and problem-solve. Academic and career-technical teaching environments must be integrated so that students are engaged and made aware of why writing skills, mathematics, and the sciences are relevant. And high schools must be better connected with industry to ensure that all students gain the knowledge and skills critical for success in both college and careers.

A recent statewide poll revealed that more than 90 percent of ninth and tenth graders believe tying classes to their future and real-world careers would inspire them to work hard and do well in school. Business and industry can help make sure students have access to real people doing real things in the local economy. Partnerships must be built to connect our students to the changing workplace, inform them, their teachers, and their parents about the education and training required for existing and emerging high-wage, high-skill careers; encourage them to take advantage of new and increasing job opportunities in high- growth, high-demand, and economically vital industry sectors here in Contra Costa County, including health, biotechnology, engineering, construction, manufacturing, and environmental sciences.

Care more
Gwenly Carrel, college and career advisor, Campolindo High School, Moraga
When asked how we could create better high schools, I thought of all the issues and points that we continually discuss in education—more funding, smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers, more qualified teachers, expanded curriculum and the list goes on. But what I finally boiled it down to is this: caring.

From the students who care to engage, connect, and expand their knowledge, to the teachers who care to coach, mentor, and lead, to the schools that care to adopt new technology and reorganize resources, to the community that cares to develop partnerships with its schools, to the parents who care to be involved—caring is what makes all schools better. This may sound broad, but when you care, you do your best to make things the best that they can be. And that’s why I’m here at school every day.

Celebrate what we do right
Mark Corti, principal, California High School, San Ramon
I feel strongly that our high schools in the San Ramon Valley are headed in the right direction. Site and district leadership has focused on developing curriculum in all areas that is relevant for today’s society. The state and teachers associations have supported us by creating standards in every area to ensure equity across the curriculum. Another area of improvement that continues to impact education is the use of data. We now look at data to find trends, identify strengths, and areas of improvement.

Funding is always an issue. We can always use additional funding to create new programs, support teacher collaboration, and improve our facilities. Additional funding also enables us to raise salaries so that we can be competitive with neighboring school districts. We also have to look at the high cost of housing in the Tri-Valley.  Affordable housing is essential to recruiting new teachers.

We are on the right path.  We have a committed parent community who expect academic excellence for their students. We all have the same goal, which is to provide a program that is rigorous, relevant, and relational.

Teach respect
David C. Chamberlain, principal, Livermore High School
In a recent article, Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests that it is through “respectful relationships” that we motivate students to achieve in more rigorous environments. “Do I feel respected by other students in this class?” and “Do I feel respected by the teacher in this class?” are two of seven critical questions that he says should be discussed within each school.

These connections, or respectful relationships, that must be established in any learning community are not limited to the classroom or the lab. What we share in the classroom must be connected to what we do with our lives.

Whether we use a computer diagnostics tool or a potter's wheel is less relevant than the connections that are made between students and their environment. Successes that they achieve in the lab or classroom will translate into the confidence to tackle the “next big thing.” This is not to say that we should not have rigorous programs or that they should not be kept abreast of the latest technology. Rather, it reinforces the fact that success can be attained with current technology and later applied to what has not even been developed.

We must create empowered learners who are confident in their education and their own basic skills. The standards that the state has set for us are essential building blocks for this foundation, but they cannot replace the confidence instilled by a skilled mentor who cares enough to reach a student through relevant experiences shared within the context of learning.

Engage students, parents, and the community
Will Sanford, president, California High School Parent Teacher Student Association, San Ramon
I believe that creating better high schools starts with a focus on engagement. High schools are measured and compared by statistics such as test scores, college admission records, and student/teacher ratios. Yet, what the best high schools have done across the board is engage their students, staff, and community. The leadership is engaged. The principal, assistant principals, and counselors are all focused on how to improve their school, offering new and different opportunities, taking risks and experimenting, but always focusing on how best to engage our students to learn.

Schools engage students by providing a myriad of opportunities for them to contribute to and be a part of. Successful high schools have even engaged the community to support activities, sports, clubs, and jobs. The learning community is not only engaged in traditional education but also brings other resources and ideas to the table, such as business roundtables that showcase student achievement. Engagement is a connection that shows a student that they are important, that they have something to contribute, and that school is a way to help them achieve their personal goals.

Improve parent-teacher communications
Raul Zamora, principal, Miramonte High School, Orinda
I want to encourage all parents to take the opportunity to communicate with teachers. By communicating with teachers you will not only gain knowledge of what happens in the classroom, but also win the support of a teacher for your child. One of the most common questions asked by parents is, “How can I support my child and you?” The answer is by being involved in your child’s education and by getting to know your child’s teachers. We are in education as a community, and, by communicating, we will continue to build a stronger community.

Increase access to cutting-edge technology
Michele Spitulnik, researcher, Graduate School of Education, UC Berkeley
We should provide our students with better access to cutting edge technologies and curriculum. The web-based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE) is a free online science learning environment created by researchers at UC Berkeley in the Graduate School of Education and supported by the National Science Foundation. The Technology Enhanced Learning in Science Center (TELS), also a UC Berkeley project and funded by the National Science Foundation, created many California standards-based, middle and high school science curriculum modules using the WISE environment. In WISE and TELS modules, students investigate current scientific topics including global climate change, population genetics, hybrid cars, and recycling. Students engage with dynamic visualizations and interactive models to bring complex scientific phenomena to life. Students learn about and respond to contemporary scientific controversies through designing, debating, and critiquing solutions.

Students do most WISE activities on a computer, using a web browser. Supports within the modules guide students through evidence and information pages that provide content, notes, hints, and discussion tools that encourage students to collaborate, reflect, and make sense of science. There are also helpful supports for teachers, including online assessment tools and editing tools to modify or customize projects.

Schools all around the San Francisco Bay Area, and across the country, use WISE and TELS. Schools and teachers are only limited by the number of computers they have available to students. Often teachers would like to incorporate more of these projects into their curriculum, but they do not have access to computers.  Most often, high school or middle school science departments must request access to the school computer lab, or share a rolling cart of computers with other school departments. In order to bring science to life for students, students need access to 21st century science, not textbook science. Providing access to innovative tools and thoughtful curriculum allows students entrée into the exciting and ever changing world of science.


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