Brand-new schools always sound good, so Linda Neumann was not absolutely certain how to interpret what she was hearing about her daughter's new high school, Westview, in the Poway district 15 miles northeast of downtown San Diego.
Her daughter Rachel was socially precocious, always a worry for a mother, but had metamorphosed into an entirely different creature -- someone who did her homework and talked about her interesting teachers -- shortly after the uniquely designed school, an assortment of buildings resembling a college campus, opened in 2002. Rachel's "interest in academics was at a level so high that I did not realize that level of potential was ever there," Neumann said.
Neumann became very active and started a foundation to raise money for Westview, but it was the conversation she had with Westview Principal Jerry Leininger about her son Kyle that convinced her that this school in an otherwise typical California suburb was so beyond the ordinary it could hardly be believed.
Kyle has a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome. Life in middle school was torture for him. Because of his condition, he had no interest in the social life of his age group, and although he learned very quickly, he had to suffer the slow pace and busy work typical of sixth grade. Leininger said to Neumann: Why not transfer him to Westview, where he could have fewer classes a day, but ones that challenged him and were led by teachers unusually committed to progress for every student?
They tried having Kyle come over each afternoon from his seventh grade class to take a Westview history course. "His life changed," Neumann said. "Although he still had four classes at the middle school, he lived for the afternoons at Westview." And before long he was at Westview full time.
There is a great deal more to say about this school, which will graduate its first senior class of 380 students next spring. It is not a magnet. It takes the kids in its neighborhood like most other high schools. And yet half of its 12th graders are enrolled in pre-calculus or a higher math class, 102 of its ninth and 10th graders are taking Advanced Placement calculus AB, it is almost impossible to get out of a course until you have mastered its basic concepts, no bells ring to change classes, C and D students are enrolling in Advanced Placement European history as sophomores, and a lot of other things are happening that seem very unlikely until you hear from the teachers who have created this remarkable system.
There are several schools like Westview around the country, educational jewels that are making extraordinary improvements in the way children learn. But we almost never hear about them. The educators who have produced these wonders are too busy to launch public relations campaigns. And journalists like me are too jaded by inflated reviews of schools that turn out not to deserve them.
So I am inaugurating a new feature of the Class Struggle column, which I call the Surprise Schools. These are places that, without any help from presidential commissions or think tanks or state guidelines, have fashioned unique approaches to education and made some of them work. A few schools discussed in previous columns fit this description, like the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago that finances tuition for low-income students by getting them office jobs, or Wakefield High School in Arlington that requires all seniors to do a special project as if it were an expensive private school, or the KIPP schools that have found the secret to motivating middle schoolers, or Garfield High School in East Los Angeles that turned me into an education writer 22 years ago by exposing me to the startling notion that inner city students whose parents never got beyond the sixth grade could succeed in Advanced Placement classes if given enough time and encouragement.
I don't have enough time or words, even with a column that lives in the infinite spaces of the Internet, to identify and do justice to all such schools. I am only going to write about a few of them, and only occasionally. But I hope the message will sink in that some of the best work in American education is being done by scattered groups of teachers, administrators, parents and students whose stories rarely become one of those inspiring feature films where everyone ends up hugging at graduation.
Westview's story, for instance, has barely begun, and I wager that aside from this column the school is not going to get much notice even as it gets better. I had to dig deep into the school's own Web site to find even a page giving me a sense of how unusual the place is. There is a short description | http://powayusd.sdcoe.k12.ca.us/pusdwvhs/test-scores.htm by Leininger of the grading system, in which slackers are not permitted to escape with easy Ds. There is a line in the school-wide policies section that reveals Westview has no bell schedule, except for first period and the end of lunch. And there is the requisite vision statement that talks about being "a thriving learning community" with "ongoing, comprehensive evaluation," but all schools say that.
You have to talk to the teachers and students to find out what is actually going on. My first Westview contact was a math teacher, Sanjevi Subbiah, who told me about unbelievable numbers of students taking AP calculus, and how he uses his football coaching skills -- friendly harassment, extra practice, even inspirational videos -- to get good work from students who would not be allowed near such classes in most schools. Subbiah became very cranky when I suggested writing a column about him. He demanded that I contact other Westview teachers, such as Mike Kurth, Bruce Hubschmitt, Maury Scruggs and Mercedes Zaragoza, who were doing much the same thing.
Leininger, who had the advantage of being able to recruit the best teachers he could find for the new school, spoke of years of planning, with the active participation of unusually thoughtful educators like Kurth, who teaches biology. Parents, students and community leaders said they wanted a regular public high school that looked and operated like a small college, with all students encouraged to tackle challenging courses when they were ready, not when the rules said they could, and with the understanding that a student who was getting a D or F would be assigned five more weeks of class to learn the basics of the subject matter or deeply wish he or she had.
The teachers all have favorite stories about what this has done for students. Hubschmitt described the bright underachiever he refused to let drop AP calculus. The student stayed, and got by without much work, until his parents refused to pay the $80 fee for the AP test because of his mediocre grades. Then the young man got angry, and got serious, even helping other students learn the concepts and himself receiving the top score, a 5, on the college level test.
Zaragoza, who married Hubschmitt this summer, runs the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) class at Westview, a national program that shows average and below average students how to handle tough courses. She had a student who transferred into the school with a C-minus grade point average, but after a year in her class tried physics as a junior and got an A. He is taking AP calculus this fall.
Phillip Espitia, a Westview senior, recalled taking AP European history as a sophomore and wondering if that was wise after a difficult freshman year. Scruggs encouraged him to stay, helped him regularly, and he passed the AP test. "If I were to have been told of this in my freshman year," Espitia said, "I simply would not have believe it."
The Surprise Schools are not necessarily guaranteed success. Espitia said the Westview standards policy, giving everyone at least C if they master the basics of the course, inspires some students "to be lazy, not do homework, quizzes, etc. and only pass standards to get the guaranteed C."
Leininger and his teachers say they are working on that. It will be interesting to see what they will be doing in three or four years, and what surprising things will be happening at other schools around the country that nobody, including me, has ever heard of.