UF Researcher: High Schools Reinvent Themselves With Good Results
GAINESVILLE — A new bell has rung in many American high schools that are scrapping old ideas about class schedules, course content and the relationship between students and teachers, a nationwide survey by a University of Florida researcher shows.
“Columbine happened at least in part because it was a place where kids weren’t connected enough,” said Paul George, a UF education professor, referring to the April shooting massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. “The whole focus of what has been going on at innovative schools during the past eight to 10 years is in some ways almost as if we had anticipated Columbine.”
To connect students with teachers, many schools are literally dividing their large buildings into cozy subdivisions, said George, co-author of the new book “The Exemplary High School.” It is based on a survey of 150 high schools in every region of the country.
For example, Winter Springs High School in Volusia County, originally designed for 1,200 students, is now four separate “houses” with 300 students in each, George said. The same thing is happening in New York City with high schools as large as 6,000 students, he said.
George was traveling the country helping educators restructure middle schools when he kept hearing about new developments in high schools. “Everywhere I went it sounded like there was a beginning of an important trend in American high schools,” he said. Although it is still early, discipline problems appear to be declining and SAT scores rising or holding steady, George said.
One big change is the demise of the traditional class schedule of seven periods, 50 minutes each, in favor of longer block schedules where classes last about two hours, George said. “Across the country, hundreds and hundreds of high schools have made this change, and it’s having a dramatic effect on how teachers teach,” he said.
Some teachers were intimidated by longer classes but soon found the extra time lets them reach students with innovative learning methods and more hands-on activity, he said.
“Science teachers are ecstatic,” he said. “With a 50-minute class they could barely set up a science experiment. Now they’ve got two hours. They can even take short field trips.”
Longer classes also allow teachers to reach students with different abilities because the law does not allow schools to segregate students based on their aptitudes, he said.
Another trend is “de-departmentalizing” high schools, said George, who wrote the book with Ken McEwin, education professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and John Jenkins, former director at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research school at UF. Not only are subjects such as American English and history being blended together in a humanities program, but teachers from traditional departments are being moved around the buildings so they can mix with teachers of different subjects, he said.
Many schools now have academic teams with teachers in subjects as dverse as social studies, math and English sharing the same students in the same section of the school, he said.
At St. Augustine High School, the entire ninth grade is organized into four academic teams, with teachers “ganging up positively” on the students, George said. “They get to know the kids better, and fortunately, when teachers get to know kids, inevitably, they like them.
“One real problem we’ve had around the country is horrible problems with ninth grade,” George said. “As kids leave middle school, high school teachers sometimes think it’s their job to flunk as many ninth-graders as possible to show them that high school has much higher standards than middle school. At one large district in Georgia last year, 65 percent of freshmen were failing. That’s staggering.”
Swept up in the changes are the time-honored grade levels. In an experiment called looping, teachers remain with the same students through ninth and 10th grades, then loop back to take on a new group of ninth graders for two years, he said.
“The American high school has been a very resilient institution over the last 200 years, but there are dramatic changes in how it operates and organizes its day,” he said.
- Cathy Keen, firstname.lastname@example.org, (352) 392-0186
- Paul George