from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

What makes a GOOD high school? 

I am fortunate to teach at a high school, Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt MD, that by any independent measure is considered very good. I can offer many statistics that would justify that description, of which my favorite is that my alma mater, Haverford College, last year accepted 3 of the 4 students who applied, and the college only accepted 26% of ts applicants.

Last April the Washington Post Magazine had a piece entitled “High Schools That Work.” Our school was the first featured, and you can read the beginning of the article as well as the portrait of our school here. As a result of that article, I received an invitation to make a presentation on the subject to the annual conference of the Maryland State Teachers Association. That presentation was Friday morning.

Readers may have noticed that I have not been posting much recently. I have been very busy with soccer, with representing Haverford at college fairs, but also busy coordinating the five of us who made the presentation. I will not attempt to present all we offered those who attended our session, from a variety of school systems around the state. Let me offer a few facts, and then the key handout.

We can brag about the many awards we have won, as a school, by our teachers, and by our students. But were the session to be more than a brag session, we had to present in a fashion accessible to others and with ideas that they could take back to their own schools. We have a number of outstanding students because we are a Science and Technology magnet program to which students are admitted by competitive examination. Setting up such a program is not something accessible to most other schools, although less than 1/3 of our students are part of that program. We are in a system that has allowed a fair amount of site based management funds, and while we can describe the creative ways we have applied those funds, that again is something that may not be possible for other schools. Finally, a key to our success is our use of a hybrid schedule. We have some classes which are presented for a year in 45 minute periods, others for a semester in 45 minute periods, and others which have a year’s worth of content presented in a semester in a block of 95 minutes (including the 5 minutes between the two periods). There is no software that supports such a schedule, so our scheduler does it all by hand, which considering the great variety of courses we offer (including 17 different Advanced Placement courses and dozens of other electives including things like Comparative Religions, two forensic science courses, Child Development, American Sign Language and six foreign languages) and the fact that we offer an extra “zero” period before the start of our school day and some students take 8 or 9 (skipping lunch) courses at a time, is quite an achievement, and something that has seemed intimidating to everyone who has come to examine what we do.

We are greatly committed to the development of the whole student. This includes meeting the physical, artistic and social needs of the students,as well as their intellectual and emotional needs. The first of the goals stated in our philosophy and goals statement is to create life long learners. We do this not only through the great variety of courses we offer, but also through our 80+ student activities, many of which have faculty advisors who are not paid for their service.

It was fun to do the presentation. And we offered a great deal of documentation, including lists of all the activities, statistics on the school and teachers, etc. We were asked by all of the attendees if they could also have a copy of the Powerpoint presentation. That I will not inflict on you. But the blockquote contains the final page of the handouts, which is a summary of the points we thought they might be able to apply in their own schools.

I offer this for several reasons. First, clearly I am proud both of our school and of the presentation that we did. Of greater importance, however, is that effective schools and effective teachers are willing to share. We make available our experience and also attempt to learn from the experience of others. Wise teachers and schools recognize that one cannot simply copy exactly the models of others, because school situations and classroom composition can vary widely. having knowledge a greater variety of approaches can, however, often inspire on to come up with something new -- perhaps a combination of preexisting ideas, perhaps something totally de novo, that can make a positive difference in the lives of our young people. Making that difference is a major reason why I became a school teacher in my very late 40’s.

So, here is that promised document. After you read it, your reaction would be more than welcome.


1 - School should have a clear and appropriate philosophy and set of goals. These are required as part of reaccreditation by Middle States, so it becomes a question of content, not a task that would not otherwise be done.

2 - An administration, led by a principal, which is strongly supportive of teachers and the kinds of commitments that the faculty at ERHS makes. Our success as a school would not be possible without the leadership of the principals who have served there. Their willingness to go out on limbs on behalf of the mission of our school has been key to our successes.

3 - A faculty willing to go beyond the requirements of contract, Our hybrid schedule and zero period, which is a key to our academic success, would be impossible without the willing support of our faculty. The wide variety of student activities, a key to the commitment of out students and essential to fulfilling our goal of educating the whole child, is only possible because of the large number of faculty willing to serve as unpaid sponsor for activities that matter to the students. Our Teacher Coordinators (department chairs) play a major role in the hiring of new staff, assisting in a continuing flow of good teachers.

4 - an incredibly supportive PTSA. Our school is deeply rooted in the support of our community, which starts, but does not end, with the parents. Without their commitment and involvement, it would not possible for us to even attempt many of the things that make a difference in the lives of our students.

5 - the support of the larger community. We unabashedly ask for participation of experts and community members whenever we can, so that our students see their education not as a separate thing but as connected to the larger community. This includes internships in business, at museums, at the National Archives, with major musical organizations, with the state legislature, etc. It includes regular visits by experts to speak with and/or mentor students. The judges for our science fair are outside experts, including some parents, but also people from nearby government agencies such as NASA and USDA and professors from the various universities in the region.

6 - serving as a professional development school, in our case with the University of Maryland at College Park. This provides a regular flow of teacher candidates that we get to see at work in the classroom before we hire them. They will already have familiarity with the Roosevelt Way, a key part of our success.

7 - an ongoing New Teacher induction program. ALL teachers new to the building participate. That means even teachers with 20 years experience but who are new to ERHS. These monthly sessions where they come together to share experiences and to receive training specific to the needs of being at ERHS provides a level of support that can be key to adjusting to our way of doing things. This is supported by the great willingness of incumbent faculty to provide support for those new to the building.

8 - a willingness of the school community to examine itself, to invite in outsiders, and to hear what they have to say. The awards we have won as a school, and that many of our teachers have earned, require opening ourselves up to examination by others. But first we must be reflective about our own practice as we put together our applications. That ongoing practice of self-analysis and reflection is key to our continued success as a school community.

These are just a few of things that you should be able to take back to your own school.
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