High School

Jan. 20, 2015

“The arts remain an important means to express ideas and concepts for all cultures, and no management speak or vocational skill that business likes will overcome this,” said Stefan Dercon, Chief Economist at the Department for International Development in London, in a Huffington Post article today, entitled “ The Global Search for Education: Education and Economy.” That quote was posted under a photo of what appeared to be high school students in a play. I looked at that photo, considered the quote, and quickly agreed. The arts provide students with the opportunity to create, express, gain confidence, and explore—all good skills for success in college and the workplace.

From a personal view, I think about my own kids. Two of them actively participated in musicals and plays through their middle and high school years. Those two are articulate, and comfortable and confident speaking to a group. One in particular is creative and expressive in everything from the way he dresses to his approach to solving problems. My third, who was not drawn to art, can be articulate, but it is harder for him. He can be confident in speaking, but he has to work at it. His approach to solving problems is more technical than creative. I don’t rate any of these differences as good or bad, but I want to lend credence to the idea that the arts are important to a well-rounded education.

With all the push toward STEM subjects or toward vocational training, the arts get shuffled to the background, dropped when schools are short of money, and considered unimportant electives by short-sighted high achievers (often parents). Surveys show that employers often can find people with the technical skills required, but they have a hard time finding employees who also are innovative, creative, and self-motivated. Classes in music, drama, art, and creative writing all require creativity, self-motivation, original thinking. It builds confidence to “present” your art to an audience, and it takes courage to chance that your art or performance will be deemed unsatisfactory. Constructive feedback from a teacher will help the student readjust, consider practicing more to improve, try a different approach. All important lessons to learn. All can lead toward success.

What do you think? How important are the arts to overall education? Have you steered your kids toward art, away from it, or were indifferent? Why?

Nov. 5, 2014

There was a recent article in my local newspaper titled: “Education Outpaces Opportunity.” The article stated that 47 percent of my county’s workforce has a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 23 percent of the jobs in the area require college degrees. I’m always skeptical of statistics as they can be shaped to say a number of things, but I do believe that in smaller cities that are home to major universities, it probably isn’t unusual to have an abundance of college-educated people. How that translates to employment is probably complex.

The article, however, also said that our county had a shortage of welders, electricians, machinists, and other trades that don’t require a four-year degree. That is apparently a trend nationwide. In previous posts, I have heralded the opportunities at community colleges that offer certification in various trades at affordable costs. Choosing a two-year or less certification program through a community college offers students an economical way to become employable with a good salary in a short period of time. In addition, it provides a means to make and save money toward a four-year degree, if that is the ultimate goal.

What is the point here? In this rapidly changing world, students are bombarded with different messages: Make good grades in high school. Score high on standardized tests. Go to college. Learn a trade. Get a job. Save some money.

Which is the right path and what is the right message? There are, of course, no easy answers—and that is precisely the reason students need alternatives to the traditional path through school. It works well for some, but is disastrous for others. While standardized tests give some idea of a student’s academic knowledge, they do little to indicate if the student is willing, ready, and able to be successful in college, trade school, the workforce, the military, or just in making decisions about which path to take. Students need options, but most probably need assistance in finding those options.

This is what I think might help:
1. More access to alternatives to traditional high school.
2. Taking a year or two after high school to work and/or perform community service somewhere in the world.
3. Mandatory mentoring during those one or two years as to what the next choices are: four-year college, two-year trade/certification/degree, apprenticeships, military, or on-the-job training. More? And no, I don’t know how this mentoring would work—but I bet someone could figure it out.
4. Assistance—both financially and going through the process—to follow one of the paths.

I admit, I do not have a blueprint for any of these ideas—but from what I read and hear, they sound right. What do you think? What would help to give our individualized youths what they need to be successful in whatever path they eventually choose?

Sept. 4, 2014

There is a website on which reporters post “want ads” for information on subjects they are researching. Today I saw one of those information requests for college preparation advice for high school freshmen. The ad specifically requested “advice on how to build good habits.” I translate that to advice on how to be successful in college and life beyond high school.

How convenient then that the updated, second edition of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? has recently been released. It is, of course, full of just that kind of information. It is directed toward parents, however, because they are the ones that through guidance and the handing over of responsibilities give their teenagers those skills necessary for a successful college experience.

Although these skills have been discussed often in this forum, it is never too repetitive to make or update a list.

1. Your freshman should keep her own calendar. Include not only academic deadlines and dates, but have her note sport and extracurricular meeting dates, doctor appointments, and anything else she has going. You also should keep track of those dates because in the beginning she probably will miss a few. You can remind her, but eventually let her take over—and let her suffer the consequences of missing a deadline or an appointment.

2. In high school, many teenagers get involved in numerous activities: multiple sports, music, clubs, community service, a job. This is a good time to guide your teenager through priority management. Teenagers can become overwhelmed juggling too many activities on top of school work. Make it clear that academics come first. If school work starts to slide, then your teenager may need guidance in deciding which activities to let go. This can be hard for parents because the teenager may decide to give up something that mom or dad really want him to pursue—such as piano lessons or a particular sport that is near and dear to mom or dad’s heart. Remember that this is the teenager’s life and he needs to make the decisions.

3. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to put your teenager on a budget and teach her financial responsibility. Make a list of the items you will pay for and those for which the teenager is responsible. Do this whether the teenager’s money is an allowance, from work she does for you, or from an outside part-time job—and stick to the plan. This is a good time to show your teenager your household expenses and how you budget.

4. Provide opportunities for your teenager to improve his communication skills. During family gatherings or when friends are around, ask an adult to start conversations with your teen, asking about the teen’s activities, interests, or views. Teens need to learn to communicate face-to-face instead of relying on texting or social media outlets. Also encourage your teen to ask questions as that is a good way to start networking and building contacts.

That’s a good list to start. It will grow as your teenager ages and as you give out graduated responsibility. Keep reminding yourself that the goal is to help your teenager be ready, willing, and able for success in college and life beyond high school.

July 2, 21014

In a recent Education Today article by Donald E. Heller, the author wrote: “The decision to allow our daughter to become a high school dropout when she approached us with the idea was one that our family debated intensely during the last six months. In the end, we agreed with our daughter that this was the best path for her.”

Finding the best path toward success for your teenager is the primary mantra of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? Yet, choosing to drop out of high school as the best path is tough even for me to follow. Heller, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University, said he and his wife, a public school teacher, did have a difficult time coming to agreement with their daughter. He described his daughter as quite articulate at explaining her reasons for wanting to find a different path to the future.

The Heller’s two daughters had attended a private school in London in their younger years, then an alternative public school in another state before moving to Michigan. The older daughter graduated from the alternative high school, but the younger was enrolled in a local public high school, which had a good reputation. The daughter scored well on state tests and on the SAT, but her school grades were not reflecting the depth of knowledge Heller knew she had. He and his wife noticed the daughter was “not engaged in learning in ways that she had been in other schools she had attended.”

The well-regarded Michigan high school was, like so many of our public schools, “highly traditional in its structure and curriculum,” focused on improving the “performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning.” Heller’s daughter realized, and he and his wife came to see, that the daughter was not being challenged or allowed to explore her curiosity, develop her interests, or learn for the sake of learning—something she had thrived upon at her previous schools. An intelligent student, she was not challenged and was slipping through the cracks.

After reviewing the options, the family decided to let the daughter apply to an early college program, 600 miles from home. Heller acknowledges that public schools are under extreme pressure to prove their students’ ability to meet state and federal standards. That focus, however, results in a one-size-fits-all approach to education that simply doesn’t work for many students. Although she will not experience the traditions of a high school graduation, Heller’s daughter will have a college education. Many other students who don’t respond to standard curriculums are not so lucky.

I encouraged one of my sons to finish high school early because he already had all the requirements he needed, and I knew he was bored and headed for trouble. It was a good plan for him. I have a friend who let her daughter drop out, get a GED, and proceed straight to community college—the young women also recognized the “standard” wasn’t working for her.

The Toward College Success mantra, “help your teenager find the path to success,” still stands. It can be scary figuring out the way, but until there are enough alternatives to the standard curriculum, parents need to remain alert and open to helping their teenager find that path.

To read Heller’s article: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/06/27/36heller.h33.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW

June 5, 2014

It appears that a couple or so years ago, a new concept in teaching high school students about finances took hold. Now in several high schools across the country, students, their parents, and their teachers can walk down the school’s hall to a student-staffed bank branch to make a deposit, a withdraw, or even to get a small low-interest loan. What an idea—teach students about finances by opening a real bank in their school. Understanding finances and how to manage them is a must for success in college or anything beyond high school.

There is a whole chapter in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? that touts the importance of teaching teenagers how to manage money. Unfortunately, it is a skill that students often lack when they graduate from high school. When those students find themselves on their own, whether at college, traveling, working, or whatever, they discover quickly how little they know about finances and how easily money problems can derail their situation.

The concept of a student-run bank branch sounds like an innovative, engaging way to instruct teenagers in finances. Students apply to staff the school banks, are trained by the bank, and earn a salary. They, in turn, help to teach their fellow students about savings, budgeting, interest, and other aspects of financial management.

For example, Capitol One Bank, which has school branches in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, says each of its student bankers works a summer in a Capitol One Bank as tellers and customer service representatives, spend two weeks in formal teller training, take a financial education class, and participates in a week-long college development program to plan their college application process. One of the goals of Capitol One Bank’s school banking program is to steer students toward a successful college experience.

Union Bank, which operates school banks primarily in low-income neighborhoods in California, offers a similar program, including college scholarship monies. One complaint about the programs is that students have no choice of banks if they want to use the school site. Individual banks work with school districts to gain access, and use bank funds to build the banking space and pay for student training and salaries. That seems a minor complaint when it offers so much opportunity to the student bankers as well as their peers.

It would seem that the school bank program is an appealing way to engage students in learning about real-life finances. If they can graduate with reasonable financial literacy, then those teenagers have a better chance of being successful in college and beyond.

To read articles about school banking programs: http://www.npr.org/2014/06/04/318489887/as-banks-open-in-schools-a-chance-for-students-to-learn-to-save, and http://wavenewspapers.com/business/article_c1ea2f78-d7c6-11e3-af6a-0017a43b2370.html.

May 21, 2014

It is graduation time again, and that means smiling families, lots of photos, parties, and questions about the future. Once the celebrating dies down, college-bound students look forward to the last summer before leaving home, while the non-college bound usually jump right into “freedom” and life on their own. Whatever lies ahead, this is a good time for students to consider what they might encounter and, as hard as it might be to admit, what guidance they still may need in order to be successful in school or life.

Finances: Many students encounter their largest learning curve with budgeting, paying bills, and generally managing money—issues that can derail college students as well as those out on their own. Fresh graduates moving into apartments or housing other than dorms will be responsible for getting utilities and garbage pickup set up in their name, as well as signing a lease. Before moving in, figure out if gas, electric, and water are all on one bill or through separate companies, and find out what are reasonable rates so that any spikes in usage can be questioned. Read a lease and understand what it says before signing, and be prepared to pay first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit up front.

Open a bank account and fully understand how it works. Ask about fees, checks, debit cards, and credit cards, and how each work. Pay particular attention to the dangers of credit cards.

Most importantly, make a budget and stick to it. Ask parents for help or look online, but make a realistic budget, pay bills on time, and figure out how to have fun on the cheap.

Be prepared: The summer after high school graduation is often a carefree time spent with friends before heading in various directions for college, gap year programs, certification programs, military, or work. While having the last hooray is important, it is the wise student who is prepared for what is to come. If going to college, research some important deadlines before you start: final drop/add dates, tuition and fee deadlines, and financial aid deadlines. Get into the habit of reading email on a daily basis, as colleges send important messages about deadlines and requirements. Attend orientation to learn more about those deadlines, locate important campus offices and buildings, meet your advisor, and map out the closest coffee shop.

The summer after graduation also is the time to create or update a resume, particularly for job seekers. Contact people who are willing to be references and have their information available before applying for a job.

Be realistic: Leaving home for the first time can be a heady experience, but most students encounter emotions and situations that they were not expecting. Students are surprised when they are hit with a wave of homesickness, are lost when a roommate relationship turns sour, are shaken when they get a D on paper or exam, and can be overwhelmed with the party scene. When loneliness, anger, frustration, fear, or bewilderment rise up, it is okay to contact mom and dad, or school counselors for guidance and encouragement. It’s all part of the process of being successful in college and life after high school.

Feb. 18, 2014

Education articles that spark debate are my favorites, so I perked up when I heard NPR reporting on a recently released study that shows high school grades are better indicators of how successful a student will be in college than are SAT and ACT results. This issue has been kicking around for quite a while, but the study seems to offer concrete evidence that our emphasis on standardized testing is not as valuable as it has been touted.

In the study, “”Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions,” main author William Hess, former dean of admissions at Bates College in Maine, said: “Human intelligence is so multifaceted, so complex, so varied, that no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it. My hope is that this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores. And the answer is, if they have good high school grades, they’re almost certainly going to be fine.”

Hess’ study looked at over three dozen schools for which submitting an ACT or SAT result is optional for admittance. He found that there was “virtually no difference in grades and graduation rates between test ‘submitters’ and ‘nonsubmitters’.”

The NPR report deduces from this research that high school grades matter quite a lot. NPR reported: “For both those students who submitted their test results to their colleges and those who did not, high school grades were the best predictor of a student’s success in college. And kids who had low or modest test scores, but good high school grades, did better in college than those with good scores but modest grades.”

I believe that more emphasis needs to be on what kids are learning in the classroom as opposed to how well they perform on standardized tests—particularly the ones our kids take in elementary, middle, and high school. However, I also recognize that there has to be some way to measure what and how much a student learns. I don’t have that solution, but instinctively I believe that if more emphasis was placed on creative, innovative teaching that students would have access to more meaningful and useful education. As one high school student said in the NPR story about taking SAT or ACT: “They’re not exactly a fair way to show our skills. I wish they could find some way to really show what we can do.”

And, of course, this study is looking at only the part academics has in a student’s success in college. Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? will tell you that, indeed, academics is only one part.

To read the NPR article, go to: http://www.npr.org/2014/02/18/277059528/college-applicants-sweat-the-sats-perhaps-they-shouldn-t. Be sure to read the comments following the story.

Dec. 4, 2013

Although Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? is about preparing your teenager for a successful college experience, one of the significant points in the book is that going to college right after high school is not the right path for every student.  That point becomes clearer to me every time I read or hear a story like the one that was aired on NPR last week. The story, by Rob Manning, told about an internship program in Oregon that recruits and trains teenagers straight out of high school to be machinists, welders, and painters.

Oregon students find out about the industrial internship program in shop class—a class that is not offered in all high schools due to budget cuts. But Centennial High School in Gresham, Oregon—just east of Portland—does offer shop classes through its “Metals Manufacturing Program of Study.”  And according to teacher Mark Watt, “students line up to get in.”

Watts went on to say: “I’ve never heard a kid ever say to me, I love coming to school because I can’t wait to come to English. Now, that’s not a slam on English or math because it’s important, but this is the carrot.”

And the carrot has a great reward for students who simply don’t want more studying right after high school, but a job with real earning potential. The internship gives them the training while they are in high school, with the likelihood of a good paying job right after graduation. The NPR story highlighted a few students who were working in the shipyards of North Portland—jobs they secured after completing industrial internships that they heard about in shop class at Centennial. One 18-year-old Centennial graduate came back to promote the internship program to current shop class students. He told them he was making $800 a week in the shipyards.

The story did point out that the industrial internship program needs more manufacturers to participate, but the fact that such a program exists is a great boon to Oregon teens. Students need options because one size does not fit all. College isn’t the right step for some students, and those students need and deserve opportunities for jobs that offer living wages and productive lifestyles. I highly commend Centennial High School for offering such an option to its students. Most schools are so focused on college readiness and are so hindered by budget cuts that they eliminate programs and classes that can lead to worthy vocations.

In fact, I think that while our country is striving for national academic standards through Common Core, it also needs to emphasize and offer skills that give a student immediate opportunity for vocational work. I believe a system that allowed students to choose between a college or vocational track would be valuable. Choosing the vocational track would still include basics in English, math, and science—not necessarily to what is needed for college-level work, but enough that if the vocational student decided years later that he or she wanted to go to college, they could pick up what they needed in a community college and go from there.

Another significant point made in Toward College Success is that parents should help their student toward success in whatever path the student chooses. It may be your dream that your teenager go straight to college, but if that isn’t what he wants, it truly is a waste of time and money. If a vocational path is more attractive to your teen, help her find ways to achieve that.

To listen to or read the transcript of the NPR story, go to: http://www.npr.org/2013/11/29/247825777/from-shop-class-to-shipyard-oregons-plan-for-industrial-interns?sc=tw&cc=share

Oct. 17, 2013

As any parent of teenagers know, teens struggle to wake up early and then they come alive as nighttime deepens. When my kids were in high school, I was frustrated over how early they had to be at school when I knew all they would do in that 7:45 first-period class was nod off. Really—what teen can fully grasp algebraic equations or effectively discuss “Macbeth” at 7:45 a.m.?

The reality of a later awake/sleep cycle is obvious when college students choose their classes. Eight o’clock classes are the last to fill—the slots all students avoid if possible. And they avoid those 8 a.m. classes because they know they will be more successful in their studies if they are alert while in class. Why hasn’t that idea trickled down to the high school level?

I discovered that the idea is trickling down, and in fact, an entire organization is devoted to making it the norm. Start School Later (SSL) “is a coalition of health professionals, sleep scientists, educators, parents, students, and other concerned citizens dedicated to increasing public awareness about the relationship between sleep and school hours and to ensuring school start times compatible with health, safety, education, and equity.”


SSL works to educate officials and the public about the “physical, psychological, and educational well-being” of teenagers as related to teen sleeping cycles. The group also helps communities make start time changes in their schools. SSL’s website is full of information explaining the physiological reasons that support later school start times for teens. Many parents may already be aware of the biology involved, but even more parents simply know it because they see it in practice. Our elementary kids are early-to-bed, early-to-rise with no problem—let them start at 7:30 or earlier—but high school students do much better if classes start no earlier than 9 a.m.


SSL’s website lists several success stories of schools that have improved test scores, attendance, and attentiveness by delaying start times. The primary excuses I have heard for not delaying high school start times is disruption to bus schedules and after-school activities, particularly sports. While I understand that bus and sport schedules will take time, effort, and probably money to rearrange, apparently it is working and working well in many school districts across the country.


Fortunately students have much more choice once they head off to college. One of my son’s knew his sleeping cycle was so critical to his success at college that he refused to take any classes that began before 11 a.m. Of course, that is not always possible, particularly as a student advances in college, but in those first couple of college years, it can make a huge difference just as it can in high school.


Take at look at SSL’s website, http://www.startschoollater.net/index.html, to learn more about the need for later school starts and to read about schools that have successfully implemented those late starts.

July 30, 2013

Before long, students will be back at school learning their new schedules and getting their routines down. And while many seniors will be filling out college applications, this is a good time for younger students to consider that college application. No need to fill out an application two or three years in advance, but it is important to consider how equipped your student will be to complete a winning application. What younger students do with their “free time” is almost as important as their grades in securing a spot at the college of choice.

College applications not only ask for grades and test scores, the school also wants to know about the student’s extracurricular activities. Colleges want well-rounded students who are used to being involved in organizations, participants in school and community events, and who volunteer for causes of all kinds. They want students who already know how to seek out service or activity-related groups that interest them. Students who get involved on their college campuses have a better chance of success than loners or those who hang back.

In a recent GoLocalWorcester College article, writer Cristiana Quinn listed 10 activities that colleges like to see on student resumes. Student government, debate teams, and academic teams such as robotics or science were among the academic type of activities that score points with colleges. Involvement in such groups or clubs indicates leadership, critical thinking skills, and the willingness to work hard outside of class time to achieve a goal.

Also on the list was participation in the arts, with the school newspaper or literary magazine, and in clubs that supports diversity, such as a gay-straight club. The arts show creativity, contributing to the school newspaper shows an interest in writing—the academic skill most needed in college—and participating in a diversity club indicates a student that is tolerant and open-minded. Again, all skills that lead to success in college.

Of course, community service made the list. Quinn stated that community service is actually a “must,” and that most colleges want to see at least 50 hours per school year. The activity doesn’t matter, so a student should find somewhere to volunteer that matches her passions or interests. She could be a side walker for a horseback riding therapy clinic; he could volunteer at the local animal shelter; she could read stories to children at the library—the opportunities truly are endless. Community service indicates a student willing to lend a hand, make a difference, and be involved—characteristics that appeal to college admissions officers.

I was happy to see that Quinn included part-time jobs on her list. As she pointed out, many students need to work to help out their families or they just want the independence that earning their own money allows. Colleges recognize that holding a job also hones skills that lead to college success, such as time and financial management, commitment, and taking responsibility.

High school students who hope to attend college will improve their acceptance chances if they include meaningful extracurricular activities that improve the skills they will need to be successful in college and beyond.

To read Quinn’s article, go to http://www.golocalworcester.com/lifestyle/college-admissions-10-extra-curriculars-colleges-want-to-see/