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Answer Sheet
Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/10/2011

How high school should really end

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My guest is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of the non-profit Forum for Education and Democracy, a collaboration of educators from around the country. He will also serve as superintendent of his school district in the next school year.


By George Wood

It’s spring, and time for the Triple Crown. But I do not mean in horse racing.

Rather, at Federal Hocking Secondary School it is time for the academic Triple Crown for our seniors.

The first of the three, our Graduation Portfolio presentation, took place last Friday, the day before the Kentucky Derby. Each senior stood before a panel of faculty and defended the portfolio that they had assembled demonstrating their readiness to graduate.

The first section of the portfolio was their plan for after high school, complete with college or job acceptance letters, resumes, letters of reference and their own agenda for life after high school.

Section two demonstrated, through course work or work outside of high school, their competence in math, science, humanities, and at least one elective area. And the third section presented their competence as a citizen, documented through work at school, in their community, and in the society writ large.

All day the staff listened to personal stories of challenge and achievement as our students stood and delivered their best for our appraisal.

Next will be the Senior Project presentations. For the past year every potential graduate has been charged with designing and carrying out an individual project where they learn something new of their choosing.

With the help of an outside learning resource that each student has to identify, they have had to learn a new skill and then present a product that demonstrates that achievement. On Project Showcase night this year our halls will be filled with artifacts ranging from a 1940s restored car to a biodiesel refinery, rehabilitated horses to gourmet desserts, computer programs to gun cabinets, and hand-tied trout flies to gluten-free cookbooks.

Each of these projects has challenged our students to learn on their own, to find a passion and pursue it, and to find someone to teach them something new outside of the school walls. These are skills that will last them a lifetime.

Finally, on the two days prior to graduation, our seniors will take their final performance assessments. I have written about these previously, but in case you missed it, we do not believe the traditional ‘final exam’ best demonstrates what students have learned.

Thus, we schedule half-day performances that range from researching a position paper, writing it and defending it in a seminar, to carrying out a new lab investigation in the chemistry class. It is a moment when our students prove to us that they can use what they have learned in a new context independent of our help. So much more valuable than one more multiple-choice test.

Many people have pointed out that for too many youngsters the senior year of high school is a waste. Having finished all the requirements for college by December, they coast through a spring featuring nothing but proms and pranks. I would agree—but not here. While some schools see the senior year as a victory lap, we see it as the final lap in the one-mile race, a sprint to the finish.

Do we get push back? You bet: Why do we have to do what no other school around is doing? This is too much pressure on my child in the final year. How can I fail to graduate if I have all my credits but did not do my project?

Of course, with many adolescents, push back is the name of the game. But in the end our goal is not to make school easy—it is to make it meaningful. As my colleague Nancy Sizer pointed out in her important book Crossing the Stage the senior year can be a vital capstone to an educational experience, but only if we make it so.

Yes, we push hard down the stretch. But why not? We want our graduates to know that you put in your best effort at any task all the way to the end, not just through the first three-fourths of the task. And given that for many young people high school will be the end of their formal education, it is our responsibility to make sure they are well-prepared in the areas of careers, intellect, and citizenship when they cross our stage later this month.

It is a shame that policy makers do not get the importance of standards such as the ones we use at Federal Hocking. In fact, in Ohio the current administration is heading towards ending the Senior Project requirement, put in just two years ago by then-Gov. Ted Strickland. This while they will keep the five-part multiple-guess graduation test that students take in tenth grade.

No matter, it is springtime here in Southeastern Ohio and the bugle has blown calling our candidates for graduation to the starting line. The race for their own personal Triple Crown is underway; and I am proud of their ability to take up and master this challenge.

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 05/10/2011

 
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