Monday, June 11, 2007

High and Low School

The day inevitably comes in every family when little children, our pride and joy, reach their adolescence. This usually happens in middle school, or junior high, an older term but still used in many areas. The sweet darlings seem to turn into little monsters almost overnight; a necessary step in life to prepare for separation from the safety of the home. For a first-time parent this time can be frightening, but by the fourth one it is more easily understood and taken with a grain of salt.

For many decades we lumped together all these hormone factories under the same roof in large middle /junior high schools and prayed for the best. With my two eldest, they were lucky to get into a magnet program for the gifted in Los Angeles early on and didn’t have to suffer terribly. My second one, Sonja, bused daily for almost an hour to go a middle school near Pasadena where she was one of two white kids in otherwise all Asian student class, mainly Chinese. With my second set of daughters here in Seattle, we sent them to a small K-8 school, just a couple miles from home. This was probably a smart move, as they were constantly exposed to younger children, having to interact with them in many ways, such as helping them in class. Our Anna was able to teach a transfer student, an ‘army brat’, to read, something the teacher couldn’t do. Seeing former teachers in the hallways or after school must have had a soothing effect, as at a younger age children and their teacher often can have a trusting and loving relationship. It comes as no surprise that in many states there is talk about getting rid of the mammoth middle schools, which often are the turning points in a youngster’s life as in that pressure cooker environment interest in learning is easily destroyed and the long downhill begins, especially for girls.

Next comes the transformation to high school, an odd mix of near-adults and some still-little-children. In principle, I would not send my offspring to a private school, as many of those are filled with rich kids who get away with anything as long as the school gets its high tuition. Of course there are excellent ones as well which truly care about education. Those are far from us and carry a hefty price tag; we pay for public schools in our taxes. Teenagers are supposed to learn what life really is like and their school experience should give them a slice of that. My now college-senior daughter opted for a new small experimental high school at the Seattle Center which started out as 9th and 10th grade that year, both having 75 students each. The faculty was generally handpicked and very enthusiastic, and the principal, Ms. Peterson, a true visionary. During the second year Anna felt that her eagerness to learn wasn’t quite met by the teaching. She tested for our Running Start program and got into the Seattle Central Community College for her last two years, earning an A.A. degree at the same time she graduated from high school. She would have been finished with her B.A. this spring at 19 but decided to double major and will take an additional year. Far from being a ‘nerd’, she loves people, learning and her school. She was elected president for both Hillel and Habitat for Humanity for next year at WWU in Bellingham.

Now came the next big issue: our ‘baby’ had all of a sudden become a teenager, with mood swings and strong opinions of course, but her sweetness and bright mind were omnipresent. Sarah had pretty much followed in her sister’s footsteps but showed interest in a rather new big high school in Ballard, about the same distance from us as the Center School. Off to an orientation we went more than a year ago. Our guide was a tall, model-like African American, a senior. “I’m a cheerleader”, she introduced herself. We started the tour. The first thing she was eager to show was the gym and all the boys lifting weights, all of whom she seemed to know well. We watched a volley ball game being played, and granted, for someone mainly interested in P.E., this all would have been impressive. Some of the parents wanted to visit the school’s auditorium as they had heard about the first-rate shows being produced there. Our guide finally found her way there; a nice little theater which we were already familiar with, as some of our girls’ arts programs had held their performances there. “How many seats are there?” asked a parent. The cheerleader looked a little puzzled and came up with 1,500. “It doesn’t look that big” murmured another parent, and from experience we knew that the real number was a third of it. Then our attention was pointed at the library, safely from a distance. Next to it was the highlight of our tour, the Teen Pregnancy Center, and we heard what a wonderful thing it was to have on campus. Many of us wanted to see actual classrooms but our guide appeared uncomfortable with this request. She pointed in a direction, saying there they are, and seemed relieved when the bell rang and the tour had to come to a close. We practically ran out of the orientation, and Sarah started her high school experience at the same little Center School as her sister, Anna.

Now Sarah has been complaining about missing the ‘real’ high school experience and talks about wanting to transfer. Last week I went to the completely rebuilt Roosevelt HS to hear a couple of our students play their concertos with the orchestra and I better understand what our little one is talking about. That school is a dream facility and the students I met in the hallways acted ever-so-nicely. It is also one of the two high schools in Seattle with a decent orchestra program. The beautiful theater is like an ideal concert hall, sounding better than most halls built for that purpose. I also attended the Center School’s Art Night the following evening and listened to a highly charged Open Slam poetry event. No wonder the school has an ‘artsy’ label attached to it. There young poets showed a lot of incredible raw talent, and the support by peers (and parents) in the crowded large conference room was remarkable. In another room student films were shown and art work in various forms covered all the walls. It was like visiting California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California during its prime, but in a high school version. Those two schools I visited in consecutive days couldn’t have been more different. We want to keep our little one happy and will support her in her choice, whatever it will be.

Lately I have been talking to a number of high school students, juniors and seniors, about their own experiences with school. Most of them have liked the social aspect, but just about everyone agrees that academically too much time is wasted and teaching is dummied down, to accommodate the ‘sloths’. An American high school graduate ranks near the bottom in the table comparing industrialized nations. One of the top ones is my home country, Finland, where everyone has to pass difficult nationally administered exams before graduating. A student has to be proficient in advanced math, at least two foreign languages, geography and sciences (physics, chemistry, biology). School there really isn’t for social interaction and perhaps the Finns lack some social skills compared to Americans, although I think that is more of a cultural issue. Only speak when you have something to say.

The idea of making everyone advance at the same rate is ridiculous. Each person is gifted differently and needs to progress at their own pace. In music, a nine-year-old may be learning the same piece as someone else at sixteen, yet both are advancing and enjoying their improving skills. Sometimes the slower learner will be more successful in the long run as the highly gifted often will burn out. Our society has always loved child prodigies and exploited them, in a ‘freak show fashion. I have known so many who have ended up with miserable lives, having nothing but bitter memories of their young stardom.

Our President has been pushing for his “No Child Left Behind” program, citing the excellent results in Houston, his home turf. We now know those scores were artificially inflated and that city is no better than any other. The slogan could as well read “No Smartie Given A Chance.”