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How Do We Create (Even) Better Schools

Diablo asked educators, parents, and students. Here's what they say.


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This month, the East Bay suburbs welcome their first new public high school in more than 30 years: Dougherty Valley in San Ramon. With its state-of-the-art science classrooms, library, and sports fields, it was built to prepare more than 2,200
teenagers to become happy, productive adults of the 21st century. As we learned more about this school, we were intrigued. If you could create a template for a modern, successful high school, what would you include?
We posed this question to local educators, nationally renowned education experts, parents, and, of course, the students themselves. As in almost every discussion about education these days, the ideas offered were wide ranging and often conflicting. We offer selection of their responses in these pages and on our website, www.diablomag.com.

Candi Bashiri / Parent
Dougherty Valley and California high schools, San Ramon

Part of our excitement over the creation of the new Dougherty Valley High School is in the leadership that Principal Denise Hibbard brings. For the last six months, she has constantly communicated her vision for the school at monthly parent meetings.

Her vision included the type of teachers, classes, and sports she wants to offer; her thought process on decisions such as bell schedule, curriculum, and hiring; and her constant call to action to parents and students to help her build their school. Principal Hibbard has a rare opportunity to introduce new methods and innovative approaches to education.

This level of open communication allows parents and students to actively participate and begin to take ownership in creating a better high school. As we take on this ownership together, we have the motivation, momentum, and sense of purpose needed to build a great high school community.

Marian Broadhurst / Parent
Alhambra High School, Martinez

Management of our local schools should reflect the same commitment to standards of excellence practiced in the business world. High-performing school personnel should receive higher wages. Low-performing school personnel should be held to standards and, failing those, be let go in a timely manner. It’s critical to understand that a poor-performing teacher can cut a swath across an entire grade level, and, if the teacher is providing instruction in a key curriculum that is a building block to other curricula, the damage can be severe and last for many years.

James Daly / Editor In Chief
Edutopia, a publication of the George Lucas Educational Foundation

Improving our public education system is the great social experiment of this age, as important as the civil rights and suffrage movements were to earlier generations. … Today’s high schoolers are hardwired in a fundamentally different way than most of the adults who instruct them. Many [kids] never knew a day in which broadband Internet access wasn’t delivered directly to one of the two or three PCs in their home.

It’s odd, really, that the average supermarket has changed more in the past five years than the typical school has advanced in the past 50. Supermarkets have leaped into the future—my local store boasts a bustling deli, two ATMs, and video commercials at the checkout—while most schools haven’t changed much since the Eisenhower administration.

So although the question “How can we create better high schools?” can be answered a thousand ways, I’ll simply say this: Teach students how to use the tools of today for a world that is radically different from the one in which we grew up. Don’t force-fit the teaching methods of 50 or 100 years ago onto the adults of tomorrow. Treat students as citizens of a modern world in which cultures and ideas are instantly accessible anytime and anywhere. But also teach them this: The online world can’t always be trusted. We spend a lot of time teaching kids how to find things online, but we need to expend 10 times more effort teaching them how to interpret what they’ve found.

Korbi Kay Blanchard / Student
Acalanes High School, Lafayette

Providing a nurturing environment is the best way to improve high schools. One component of a nurturing environment is nurturing food. This may seem minor, but what the cafeteria serves can make or break a day. I know I’m in a better mood and can actually focus after a decent meal—not a bag of Cheetos. High schools should seek foods that both satiate and sell—sandwiches on whole wheat bread, vegetable soup, energy bars, yogurt, and granola. If prepared properly, these options are actually quite popular and profitable—a win-win situation for students, the school’s bank account, and teachers.

Even Better Schools?
Illustration by Greg Clarke

Dick Bradford / Dean
Head of the upper school and academic dean, the Athenian School, Danville

We have had conversations with education and business leaders, asking them what attributes are important for students going to college and entering the workforce in an increasingly globalized society. We found, [for example, that] it’s important to be multilingual but to also be culturally sensitive and to be able to step outside one’s comfort zone. … More and more people who are being accepted into medical programs or winning management positions have lived outside the country for extended periods of time, giving them a sense of confidence, greater adaptability, and resilience to change. So what does all this tell us about how to create better schools? This may mean looking outside the academic scope of college requirements to the wider lens of human and global requirements.

Nikki Somani / Student
Dougherty Valley High School, San Ramon

One solution would be to have a mandatory class that focuses on addressing the social issues in high school, such as popularity and bullying. It should talk about the importance of setting high goals, doing well in school, and getting a good education. This class should help integrate the different social groups in high school. When students are able to talk and work together, it reduces the distinction between the social groups in high school. The school will become more of a unified whole.

Better Education
Illustration by Greg Clarke

Bryce Custodio / Principal
Valley Continuation High School and Dublin Adult School, Dublin

Students often do quite well during the elementary school years because the student has just one teacher each year. This one teacher is able to establish a close relationship with the student, [addressing insecurities, targeting learning needs, and intervening immediately when there is a problem. Once students move into middle school and high school, many adults enter their lives, all with different curricular objectives, a separate set of class rules, and a desire that all 150-plus students soak up the knowledge that is required of them.

There are, however, a number of outstanding schools that have looked at the research regarding what a successful student really needs. These schools are creating small learning communities, fostering elective programs that are hands-on and technological, emphasizing a connection between content and real-world context, and, above all, fostering relationships between adults and students.

Kim Johnson / Parent
Monte Vista High School, Danville

Our students don’t look the same, they don’t have the same interests or hobbies, and they don’t learn the same way. I’m not sure when we began to believe that every student needs to be proficient at algebra or be able to memorize the periodic table of the elements. Is it so hard to believe that some kids are on an academic track and some are on a vocational track? I want the mechanic who fixes my car to be proficient at car repair, not Shakespeare.

I suggest we look outside the traditional American box and take a peek at our European neighbors. High schools should embrace our differences by allowing a two-tier diploma system. I am not suggesting we deny opportunities for advanced learning for the majority of our students, but the frustration for those few who may never reach these heights is palpable.

Matthew Spring / Student
Dublin High School, Dublin

According to David T. Conley’s book College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready, the skills needed for college or entering the workforce in the 21st century are now identical. This is the primary reason why the Dublin Unified School District recently adopted the most rigorous graduation requirements in the East Bay.

The new requirements [which will affect students starting with the class of 2013] are nearly identical to the minimum requirements for admittance to the University of California. They include three years of science, with two years of lab science [instead of the two years of science required by the state and other local districts]; three years of mathematics; and at least two years of a foreign language. The district has also discussed ways to help students perform better, such as having gender-based classes or “shadow classes” [an extra class in a subject with which the student is struggling]. Having high expectations for all students promotes a healthier climate for all the students to succeed.

Madeline Levine / Author
The Price of Privilege

We will not create better high schools for our children with the addition of anything that comes under the general heading of “stuff.” Computers, advanced software, technological gimmickry of any sort, while certainly fun and useful for many students, is not what is wrong with our schools.

What our children are suffering from is a lack of connection at home, at school, and within their communities. Pushed by a misplaced reliance on appearances and test scores, schools are judged by the lushness of their environment and how they stack up against the competition on grades, SAT scores, and college admissions. The result is that anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and psychosomatic disorders are escalating across the country—and virtually exploding in more affluent communities.

For my money, what we need are counselors, or teachers who are paid for extra duty as advisors or who are given a lighter teaching load, as well as administrators, janitors, secretaries, and aides who receive some basic training in adolescent psychology and who are attuned to the needs of the kids around them. The latest gadgetry can wait.

What changes would you like to see at your child’s school? Click on Share Your Feedback at www.diablomag.com.

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