High School Confidential

A lot has changed. Education in the new millenium looks something like this: The threat of of violence. Cramped working conditions. Impossible budget constraints. Add in pressure from national mandates and global competition, and few CEOs would be able to steer a company to success in such a volatile environment.

But today’s schools don’t have a choice—the stakes are high, but so is the potential. As the academic year unfolds, many local school districts have had to make painful choices, if not outright concessions, due to ever-shrinking budgets. But within such an environment, our high schools are still places of hope and of community—and perhaps most of all, they are places of opportunity.

Like many others across the United States, Madison-area secondary schools have had to adapt their curriculum to meet the needs of all students, regardless of their ability level or native language. But the challenges extend beyond the classroom: How can a high school nurture a sense of belonging in each student? In what ways can teachers reach out to marginalized students—and guide them to success? And finally, how can schools produce tech-savvy graduates, armed with the critical thinking and problem solving skills needed in today’s world?

It’s a massive undertaking—and as any teacher will tell you, not for the faint of heart.

If high school teachers and administrators only had to focus on the traditional three R’s—reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic—their task would be a far simpler one. However, factors like motivation, interpersonal relationships, and school climate significantly influence student success in the classroom.  

While reading and math scores can be quantified, it’s much more difficult to gauge a student’s sense of belonging or the strength of their bonds with an adult mentor. Madison schools—whether large or small, public or private—have to explore new pathways in order to cultivate a sense of community for their students.

This year’s incoming freshman class at Edgewood High School has 180 students, drawn from over 45 area middle schools. Principal Bob Growney says it’s critical to welcome this diversity, but also help students to recognize their common ties. “High school students need to feel like they belong—both to the school and to their peers. They need to develop a sense of community, but they also need to cultivate a sense of self-worth,” he explains.

The solution? Edgewood’s Freshman Interdisciplinary Team (FIT). While math and foreign language classes are held separately, FIT has a three-hour long section that integrates language arts, history, biology, and religious studies. FIT also emphasizes the use of technology across the curriculum so students learn how to research, evaluate, and synthesize information.  

Throughout the year, students remain with their FIT peers; a team of a dozen Edgewood teachers rotate among the groups every three to four weeks. So while students have the opportunity to work with many different teachers, they also have the chance to form lasting bonds with their classmates.

But in many schools, the sheer number of students can present a conundrum: How can large and diverse schools promote this kind of interpersonal curriculum?

The National High School Alliance, for one, has pushed high school reform through its “Call to Action: Transforming High School for All Youth” initiative, which seeks to increase high school achievement by adopting a more rigorous course curriculum and establishing small learning communities. Schools like Madison Memorial and West have created four “neighborhoods” that have their own teachers and self-governing structures in place. And while it remains controversial, heterogeneous classes have been formed to bridge that academic divide between low and high achieving students.

But change can’t just take place in the classroom. West has implemented an hour-long “Lunch & Learn” program. Now that all students have the same lunch period, they have more time to seek out teachers for help or to take part in extracurricular activities. “This alone has really transformed the climate and the culture of the school,” says parent Kay Plantes.

And it can be especially critical to reach out to students of color. Last year, East High School English teacher Tara Affolter received two grants to create a Multicultural Center, which provides a place for students to feel at home, to study, and to make connections. East teachers and community members are working to put on programs of interest to students—everything from Cuban dance to hip hop.

“Marginalized students have unique social, emotional, and academic needs,” Affolter says. Experts say that by creating that sense of belonging, students become invested in their schools. But perhaps most importantly, they learn to invest in themselves and their future success.

Not only have high schools had to adapt their structure, they’ve had to change their curricula in order to address the needs of all students. The International Reading Association estimates there are more than 14 million children in the United States that come from homes where English is not the primary language.

“Schools need to prepare,” says Paula Wolfe, a UW–Madison assistant professor of English education. “Adolescent ELLs are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. school population.”

Wolfe, the editor of So Much to Say: Adolescents, Bilingualism, and ESL in the Secondary School, adds that new immigrants may have fewer years of formal schooling and that schools need to provide ongoing support and mentoring to their non-native English speakers.

Right now, fifteen percent of students in the Madison Metropolitan School District are English language learners, and many other area schools have seen their numbers grow significantly. John Schmitt, the director of community services for the Verona Area School District, says Verona has made a concerted effort to hire bilingually certified staff at the high school level, both to provide individual support to students and to teach content area subjects like science, math, and social studies. Five years ago, Verona schools had 135 ELLs—today, that number is at 530 and growing. While the majority of ELLs in Wisconsin are native Spanish speakers, followed by Hmong, a survey from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction found eighty-five languages other than English, from Farsi to Tagalog, that are spoken in students’ homes.

To ensure that ELLs can find success in school, experts say it’s critical to reach out to these families, regardless of their native language.

Judith Rosario, the director for youth programs at Centro Hispano and the Urban League of Greater Madison, says schools can involve parents through potlucks, home visits, and gathering for sporting events. She also oversees Aspira, an after-school program for high school students to participate in cultural and educational opportunities. “We are working to create a positive environment and close the achievement gap for all English language learners,” says Rosario.

For years, national initiatives such as “Reading First,” enacted as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation, have focused on early elementary reading. Until recently, little attention has been paid to struggling readers at the high school level. According to Doug Buehl, a nationally recognized author of books such as Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning, “Adolescent literacy is an issue that’s been below the radar.”

We assume that by the time kids get to high school, they can read. But the 2005 National Governors Association report, “Reading to Achieve: A Governor’s Guide to Adolescent Literacy,” shows that just thirty percent of 8th graders in the U.S. are proficient readers. Without significant intervention, these figures will not improve during high school.

But the issue isn’t just with struggling readers: a recent study that looked at the reading skills of college-bound students who took the ACT college entrance exam found that only fifty-one percent were prepared for college-level reading. While Wisconsin’s scores—and Madison’s in particular—on both standardized reading tests and the ACT are above the national average, it’s concerning that so many students are not able to tackle challenging texts. “Part of the issue,” says Hollis Rudiger, a librarian at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, “is that students don’t know how to read critically.”

Why is that? Reading is not simply decoding the words—it includes the ability to analyze, criticize, synthesize, and so much more. (Consider this: Have you ever tried to read a complex law document? You can pronounce all of the words, but it may be written in such difficult legalese that you simply aren’t able to fully comprehend it.) So how do you teach students to truly read a text?

Buehl deals with the challenge first hand. “It’s crucial that teachers are supported as they work to help students bridge that gap between decoding words and truly understanding the material,” says the retired East High School reading teacher, who also supported reading initiatives district-wide.

To that end, the Madison Metropolitan School District offers a series of reading-related workshops for teachers in all subject areas. Four of the five high schools, too, have the “Read 180” program for below-grade level readers. Developed by Scholastic in collaboration with Vanderbilt University, “Read 180” balances technology and print with large-group and small-group instruction to give intensive help to struggling readers.

Last March, two U.S. Representatives introduced the Striving Readers Act of 2007, a bill that would vastly expand the current Striving Readers legislation by making funding available to every state to implement school-wide adolescent literacy programs.

“With recognition, though, comes expectation for performance,” adds Buehl. “But the increased focus on adolescent literacy is very optimistic.”

So while it’s no longer enough to teach the traditional 3 R’s or ignore the increased diversity within our schools, one critical question remains: If we live in a globally competitive, technology-driven world, does the next generation possess skills necessary in order to succeed?

“Students need to be able to take a global perspective in order to analyze ideas, understand concepts, and interact with diverse people,” says Luke Felker, head of Madison Country Day School. In the fall of 2008, MCDS will become the first school in Dane County to offer the International Baccalaureate diploma to its students.

With nearly a half-million children from 124 countries around the world taking part in the International Baccalaureate program, its reputation is appealing to parents and college admissions officers alike. MCDS is currently undergoing a rigorous two year application process, but Felker says that the integrated nature of the IB program fits with what his school already has in place.

“During their last two years of high school, our students take a class called Theory of Knowledge,” Felker explains. In this class, students must pursue in-depth research and critical analysis on the topic of their choice; but through this process, they also develop a greater global awareness.

Like Advanced Placement classes common at other Madison high schools, Country Day students can earn college credit through IB.

Schools are working to push students’ skills in the digital world, too. In our global economy, it is not enough to simply produce- students need to know how to collaborate, to create, and to innovate. High schools are gradually moving this direction, some faster than others.

Sun Prairie High School, for instance, has implemented a course management system called Moodle. This allows teachers to create an online learning environment, independent of the classroom, where students can access assignments, submit their work, and carry on relevant discussions.

National Board Certified social studies teacher Janice Mertes says that Sun Prairie is making Moodle available to all learners, whether they are in Advanced Placement or remedial classes. “Technology has long been an issue in education,” she says. “Teachers need to ask themselves what the tools are that students are connected to, and figure out how to integrate them into the curriculum.”

Alice Murphy, assistant district administrator of instructional programs for the Sun Prairie Area School District, says teachers are using video streaming, podcasting, and movie editing software across many content areas. Sun Prairie’s assistive technology program, too, is able to adapt technology to suit the special needs of students with visual or auditory difficulties as well as those with learning disabilities.

It’s simply not enough to give kids Internet access and point them to Google or Wikipedia. “Schools need to take them deeper,” Murphy emphasizes, adding that Sun Prairie has begun using the Big6 model to teach the problem solving process and technology skills. “These students are digital natives,” she says. “Schools need to catch up and keep up with their learners.”

Jen Scott Curwood is a former language arts teacher. She is currently working toward a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at UW-Madison.

: How the high schools ranked.

The reputations and REAL stories behind area high schools.

 Innovative programs and practices at Madison-area schools.

School Days: Parent and writer Steve Coss slings a backpack over his shoulder to brave high school for a day

: Links to area high schools and national education websites.