The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Why Not Appropriate High Schools for Everyone?

Since we are  snowbound here in Portland, I feel isolated from all that’s going on in the rest of the world.  Schools  have been closed for three days and are not likely to open again until the middle of next week.  We have not received  any mail or newspapers since last Sunday, and there’s nothing for me to do except write for this blog, clean up after our house bound dog, and figure out how to stretch our food supply until the snow melts sometime next week.

Today’s piece is based on an article published in the New York Times last Sunday, entitled “Seizing a Second Chance to Graduate From High School.

Every once in a while when I read something positive about our public schools, I make it a point to share that news with you. Yesterday I read an article about special high schools in New York City that are rescuing students who are on the verge of going down the drain in regular schools. Now, because of their problems, they are enrolled at one of the city’s 57 transfer schools that provide significant support for them to attend school regularly, do well in their classes and graduate within a reasonable length of time. Such schools also enable students to have part-time paying jobs after school hours.

By no means do I think that the school described, Brooklyn High School for Leadership and Community Service, is perfect, but it has latched on to some important actions that make a positive difference; the sort of things that every school could do if it had a more realistic view of students situations.

To my mind, the first positive thing about this high school is its name. When students tell families or friends where they go to school they feel proud and their listeners are impressed. Clearly, it is not a school for dummies or failures

In addition, the school is not a typical over-crowded building where students are merely bodies to their teachers and classmates. This school has 202 students altogether and class sizes of 20-25 students. Those numbers make it possible for teachers to know their students well and for students to feel they are among friends everywhere in the building. To heighten their feelings of belonging, students are allowed to call teachers and the principal by their first names.

However, the biggest advantage of a small size school is that the counselors, who are assigned 40 to 50 students each, know students well and can keep track of their school attendance and classroom performance. When a student starts to slide, his or her counselor is there ready to provide understanding, assistance, and, if needed, special services.

Perhaps the most appealing school feature for students, who had little hope of success before, are after school job-training programs where they learn and practice workplace skills. One third of the school’s students currently have paid internships in such places as small factories, childcare centers, bakeries, or veterinary groups.

Although the article says nothing about the teaching practices or special tutoring at the school, what comes through are the power of personalization, respect, and caring to motivate students who were previously detached from their old schools and unaware of the future possibilities to transpose themselves into capable learners, workers and citizens.

Today’s high schools, in general, do not  seem to care much about individual students or which classes are relevant to their needs and interests. It’s all a matter of what the school expects from everyone, regardless of their previous schooling, health, wealth, home situations, or ethnic backgrounds.  Although regular high schools cannot afford all the extra services of schools like the one described here, they could do much more  to create smaller and more intimate divisions of students within a large building and to focus on a wider range of curricular opportunities for those who need or want them.  It’s long past time for the federal and state decision makers to get over their obsession with unrealistic standards and high test scores and, instead, dedicate themselves to serving the needs of the students in all schools.

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Without a Librarian a School is Incomplete

Although I miss the sun, the sand, and the swimming I just left, I am also happy to be back writing to all of you. If only the ice in front of my house would melt and it wouldn’t snow tomorrow, I’d be completely satisfied. 

A few years ago when I was visiting elementary schools regularly in order to do research on the teaching of reading and writing in mixed language classrooms, I often passed a school library and peeked in. Almost always, the library was well stocked and orderly but also empty of students and a librarian. Although I was saddened to see libraries that way, I was not surprised. Back in 1998, when I was still a school principal in Oregon, our school district eliminated elementary school librarians because of the tight budget situation, but also I suspect, because of officials’ ignorance about the important role of libraries in students’ learning.

Fortunately, at our school we were able to replace the librarian with an instructional aide who had worked with her for quite a while. She knew how to manage books, computers, and children, and I gave her full reign. But I wasn’t able to pay her a librarian’s salary or have her work full time. A couple of years after I retired in 2000, I heard that she was leaving her job to continue her education and become a certified librarian. I am sure she is still doing a great job at a fortunate school somewhere.

Over my 12 years at that school, and the previous 13 years when I was a school principal in Wisconsin, the library was the heart of our school. In those times all elementary schools had librarians, and all classes were scheduled to visit the library for a full period once a week. Traditionally, a librarian would introduce students to high quality new books or classics by reading aloud or spend time teaching students how to use the library to find whatever materials they wanted. At my school teachers could also sign up to have small groups visit the library at open periods to find materials to support the topics they were studying or explore new interests with the librarian’s help. Also, once a month teacher teams from each grade would meet with the librarian to identify the materials and assistance they needed for the units students would be working on next. They might also suggest new materials for the library that would help students with their learning.

In addition, our school libraries were open for thirty minutes during the noon hour so students could exchange a book or just browse instead of being on the playground. We felt that this extra opportunity was important because most students came and went on school busses and could not visit the library before or after school.

Although our library spending was high at both schools, we had no budget problems because our spending for classroom materials was very low. We did not buy textbooks or workbooks for students. The only classroom materials we purchased were paperback books, matched as far as possible to the units teachers would be teaching. Surprisingly, those paperbacks usually lasted several years, needing only a little scotch tape to hold their covers together.

As far as I know, our devotion to making the library the heart of our schools was—and still is–exceptional. Yet, because it worked in so many ways, not only for students but also for teachers and our budget, I recommend something similar to current schools, even though I doubt their freedom to make it happen in these times of one-size-fits–all learning and high stakes testing. At the very least, however, all elementary schools should have a strong library and a wise librarian.


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