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Is High School
Failing Our Kids?


StarrPoints When it comes to high school, we stop adapting our program to fit the students and we start expecting kids to fit the program -- or leave it. Can we afford to lose those kids whose parents can't afford to provide the resources their schools fail to provide?

I talked to a colleague when her daughter was about to start high school. The child has a learning disability, which, in her case, means that she needs a little more time and a little more support to grasp written material. Her middle school teachers have recommended that she be placed in the "low track" in high school. Her parents, concerned about the social, emotional, and academic repercussions of labeling this bright, attractive, and active child as somehow intellectually inferior to her classmates, are considering instead a regular track with private tutoring.

Several years ago, a friend of mine faced the same dilemma when her son entered high school. His learning disabilities were more severe, however, and my friend was told that even though his IQ was in the high normal range, the only place he could get the individual help he needed was in a class for students with below normal IQs. She sent her son instead to a private school that did provide extra resources for students with learning disabilities. From there, he went to a private university that offered students with learning disabilities study skills counseling, peer tutoring, and taped lectures. He graduated with a degree in social work.

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Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for nearly two decades. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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When one of my sons was a sophomore in high school, his counselors recommended a special program for high-ability, low-achieving students. (His "learning disability" was academic laziness and an almost total disinterest in anything related to school!) The students in the program spent seven of eight class periods with the same core group of teachers. All classes were interrelated and connected to the use of academic skills in "real life." It seemed like a good idea at the time. And it was a terrific program -- on paper. Unfortunately, the result was a group of students -- all lazy and unmotivated -- who spent all their time together. My son graduated from high school (just barely!) without a single friend who valued an education or saw any reason to vigorously pursue one.

After working nine months at a minimum-wage job, my son realized that his was not a career path that would support him in a style to which he wanted to become accustomed. (None of these children are stupid!) He enrolled in a junior college, where he took the same classes as every other student -- along with review classes in basic math and reading. He also took, at the school's insistence, a class in career planning and one in study skills. After a year, he transferred to a four-year university. He graduated with honors, having spent seven semesters on the dean's list.

Those three children will succeed in life because they have parents who can afford to provide them with the resources their schools failed to provide. Is there any question about what happens to children with similar problems whose parents lack that ability?

In this country, most of our elementary and middle schools offer resources to help special-needs students deal with whatever obstacles lie in the path of their academic progress. The importance of providing those resources within the context of a regular classroom setting is unquestioned. When they get to high school, however, the rug is pulled out from under these kids. They find that help is available only in the form of special classes, special tracks, or special programs. All those options isolate students from their natural peer group and label them as "different" -- at a time in their lives when they most desperately need to belong.

When it comes to high school, we stop adapting our program to fit the students and we start expecting kids to fit the program -- or leave it. With a graduation rate of about 78 percent -- much lower for African American and Hispanic students -- we know that many of them do leave. Many more graduate -- just barely -- with low self-esteem, inadequate skills, and a group of friends in the same boat. Most of them don't recover.

The No Child Left Behind act is forcing school systems to take a closer look at the academic achievement of their elementary and middle school students. We need to be careful that we don't neglect our high school students in the process. No matter how well prepared the majority of students are when they enter high school, there will always be those students who don't fit the program -- for any number of reasons. We have to figure out a better way to include those students -- or we have to be prepared to lose them too.

I don't know what the solution is. I do know that peer tutoring, basic skills reviews, study skills classes, career awareness courses, savvy counselors, the opportunity to tape lectures, access to up-to-date computer labs, and the influence of friends who study before they party made a difference for the kids I know -- and that special classes and innovative programs did not. I do know that we can't afford to lose the kids who can't afford to look for those resources outside our public high schools.

When my academically-apathetic son was 7 or 8, I confronted him one day about his equally apathetic attitude toward the family laundry. "In this family," I ranted, "we all put our dirty laundry in the hamper every night before we go to bed. Your brother is 4 years old, and he puts his dirty clothes in the hamper every night before he goes to bed. Every night you drop your laundry in the same spot on your bedroom floor. What am I going to do about you?" He considered my question for a couple of minutes and, in total earnestness, replied, "Why don't you move the hamper to where I drop my clothes?"

Sometimes you just have to make the program fit the kid -- even in high school.