Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Makes a "Good" High School

For the record, school/education is very important to me.  I'm one of those parents who is at school regularly, who has bought books since the kids were old enough to be read to, who the librarians greet knowingly when I walk in the door, who checks homework, and is concerned about grades.  I am the mom of one autistic son whose standardized test scores are about average, a daughter who is academically gifted, and according to the school system,talented in art, and a daughter whose only B in first grade was in spelling (other grades were all A's).  In short, my girls are the kind of kids that make schools look good.

Today I read an article about high school students who were overworked and stressed out.  It brought to mind some things I've been thinking lately so I've decided to write about them.  As I've noted before, here in the New Orleans area, the schools of choice for  the middle class are the Catholic  schools.  With few exceptions, people who can afford to avoid the public school system do so.  Most of the Catholic high schools teach the kids seven classes a year.  All the students are required  to take four  years of science, English, math, social studies, and religion, along with two years of physical education, two years of foreign language, a year of some fine art and a year of computer.  A little math will tell you that the kids don't get many electives.  The ones that are offered tend to be more of the same--ie more foreign language, an extra science course or more history or art or music or pe.  They don't offer shop, home ec, drama, business courses or heaven forbid, vo-tech courses.  Honors students begin taking high school English and math in eighth grade,but does this get them more chance to explore different areas?  No, it allows them to take AP classes their senior year.

My daughter will be a junior at a magnet high school for bright students.  She started taking high school classes in eighth grade (English and Algebra I) and they earn eight Carnegie Units a year.  Assuming she passes everything this year, by the end of her junior year she'll have six credits of high school  English, math and history under her belt, along with three years of science, two years of psychology, two years of Spanish, two years of art, and two of pe.  If she passes the AP tests, she'll have six hours of college credit.  For her senior year she'll take either college classes or AP classes, with maybe an elective or two (but electives at her school tend to be more language, more science, more history...)  I can easily see her heading off to college with a semester or more of credit under her belt.  Honestly, I'd rather see her take home economics or drama or journalism or photography, or web design or auto repair.

The chances of my daughter going to a school with highly competitive admissions are slim and none.  I'm not paying for private college and I doubt she'd be willing to take out a loan for it.  The pressure to prepare that perfect application to be chosen ahead of all those other kids is one she won't know.  However, the pressure of demanding classwork with high homework demands is one she knows well.  This summer she has to read Pride And PrejudiceAll Creatures Great and SmallKing LearThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical TalesIncidents in the Life of a Slave GirlAmerican Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of the United States, Volume1) (Hist of the USA)

She also has to do fifty note cards on famous psychologists.

This is a kid who likes to read, but who doesn't blow through books like her mom does (and Mom would have trouble blowing through a couple of those).  She doesn't have time to read much of what she wants during the school year because of homework and a good part of her summer will be spent reading these books she didn't choose and doing the required review--and people wonder why kids don't read.

I just have to wonder if we are doing the right thing for these kids.  So what if she goes to college with her first semester done (or more)?  That just means less time in easy classes getting used to a new environment.  Maybe it will mean changing majors a time or two because she's never taken accounting, or photography, or journalism, or drama.  I don't want her to spend her high school  years playing, but why rush college credit?  Why not give the kids the opportunity to explore the world, and PREPARE for college?


  1. Kids do take LOTS more academics than we did. I know I only took 2 years of Science and 2 yrs of Social Studies and that was perfectly acceptable to get into a college honor's program - would not fly in the 21st century.
    Seeing as my kids are homeschooled AP classes are not a viable option so we have opted for dual enrollment. For my eldest it will enable her to finish her major coursework (with two concentrations)and honors courses in four years.
    For my son it confirmed that he did not want to study Engineering in college.
    We signed Abigail up for Alabama's Early College program since she was planning to double major in Drama and Business. She has since changed her mind toward Nursing but I think she's enjoying the program so we will continue through the next two school years as long as courses she needs are available. It also provides her with a 'classroom' experience

  2. We haven't superintended our 5 kids' educations. Neither my parents nor my wife's were much engaged in our schooling except to express pleasure (or not) about report cards. We both have Masters degrees.

    My eldest never finished college, was plenty smart enough to do well, just wasn't interested in anything in particular. Is married now with two kids, a house, and a steady job that suits him.

    The next one is living in a men's shelter, barely got out of high school, won't keep a steady job.

    Next one is doing great in college, will be living in the diocesan discernment house in his senior year.

    Next one nearly was killed in a fall last year, coma, brain damage, etc. May or may not go back to college.

    Youngest isn't college material.

    I don't think they'd've turned out any different thus far if we had paid more direct attention to their educations.

  3. I was one of the super intense overachievers in high school. My parents told me to put "$0" on my college applications for my parental contribution, because we didn't have money. I still managed to go to a very expensive, competitive private university with only $10,000 in loans (about $3000 of which I took in order to go on a marching band trip abroad). The tuition was more than $20,000 a year, but the school really worked with students that were academically competitive and needed the money. Sure, I was insanely stressed in high school, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's been 11 years since I graduated, and I'm now in a great job (rare book catalog librarian at a top 5 university), have two graduate degrees, and can read 4 foreign languages.

    My parents pushed me hard at first, but for most of high school I pushed myself, and I suspect a lot of high school kids are the same way. I don't think all kids are the same, but I knew plenty of others who were like me, and ended up everywhere from being doctors to being stay at home moms.

    I loved my AP courses, and found that they gave me opportunities to study things I normally wouldn't have been able to in high school, like music theory and art history, both of which I ended up taking in college.

    Sorry about the long post, but wanted to show that some of the people who take on heavy workloads in high school actually appreciate it when they're older.

  4. I guess part of my dissatisfaction is that around here, the school I'd prefer for my kids doesn't exist--namely a community hs attended by all the kids in the community, and as such, designed to meet the needs of all kids, not a select few. Our neighborhood public schools are shunned by the middle class and now lose some of their potential top students to magnet schools. While kids are still able a achieve there (this year's val. has a full ride to Columbia)the overall culture of the school isn't geared toward academic achievement and it ends up being a second choice for students (including my son) who were unable to "make it" elsewhere. The Catholic schools and the magnet schools focus on college prep only. I'd rather see a more mixed group at each school, with the school offering AP classes and vocational classes, honors classes and special ed so as to create the environment that happens when you have active involved parents and a community that sees the school as a school for our kids rather than as a school for their kids.

  5. RAnn, you're right: education in the US, esp. K-12 always seems to be too much of one thing and not enough of something else.

    Although my own K-12 education (class of 74) wasn't like that at all, it was more like the ideal you describe.

  6. Yep, it's way too intense. We talked about this at lunch - our HS daughters are the same age, and probably much alike. Her magnet program (Global Ecology), at least, doesn't seem quite as regimented as yours. They do have real electives - she took drama last year and I think is taking it again this year. And one of her AP classes is art history. At least in our school districts, parents have real power. The counselor put her into AP Calculus over her objections, and I told her if she thinks it's a bad fit once she tries it, I'll intercede - and they'll move her to regular calc.

    I was really pushed by my parents and have tended to go (maybe too far) in the other direction. The underachieving middle schooler will find out next year what life with Mom on his back will look like :)


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