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EdTech & Design, Engagement, Pathways, Promising Practices

Superintendent’s frustration: There Should be more takers for an alternative school that really works

I found my locker and I found my classes
Lost my lunch and I broke my glasses
That guy is huge! That girl is wailin’!
First day of school and I’m already failing. 

This Is Me in Grade 9
By the Barenaked Ladies

Too much of our students’ high school experience is impersonal. It leaves them feeling alone, vulnerable, and alienated. Evidence from The Learning Bar’s “Tell Them From Me,” the widely subscribed Canadian student survey, tells us that only half of the students in Canadian high schools find their learning interesting, enjoyable, and relevant and only a third report that they are interested and motivated in their learning. For too many kids, high school is more of a gauntlet than a sanctuary. Witness the “It Gets Better” campaign encouraging LGBTTQ youth to hang in, handle the homophobic bullying, and believe that life will be better after high school.

Three years ago our school division initiated the first Canadian high school modeled on the highly successful Met School, founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, believing that high school could be both fundamentally different and much better, that learning in high school could be built around students’ interest and passion. We’ve been successful, but probably less so than we had thought and with much more effort and greater challenges than we could have imagined.

brian

Caption: Brian O’Leary
Credit: Photo courtesy of Seven Oaks School Division

Virtually every teacher I know became a teacher in order “to make a difference.” In high school the structure gets in the way. Too often the strong teacher/student relationships and motivation we prize are found more in extracurricular involvements than in class.  We need to work to see that all of our schools are organized in ways that help us realize our ideals.

We started the Met School full of optimism. We assumed that there was a substantial demand for doing high school differently and better, and that in the space of three years the Met School would be at capacity. Three years later our enrolment is half what we expected. The students and parents who’ve enrolled love the school and its approach. They credit it with altering their lives for the better. But many other students who might well benefit from an education that fosters their passion and self-knowledge opt for a more conventional high school education for what James Herndon termed, “the way it spozed to be.”

This unanticipated challenge underlines for me the need for us to persist in building the Met School as a credible alternative to the conventional high school. Virtually every teacher I know became a teacher in order “to make a difference.” In high school the structure gets in the way. Too often the strong teacher/student relationships and motivation we prize are found more in extracurricular involvements than in class.  We need to work to see that all of our schools are organized in ways that help us realize our ideals.

Thanks to Adair Warren and the Met School teachers we have developed a wonderfully different kind of high school, one that has changed the course of students’ lives in profound ways.

When we initiated the Met School we hoped that our three high schools would see and adopt some of the Met’s approaches: advising, internships, long-term relationships, clear pathways to post-secondary entrance, learning in depth, true family partnerships. In our other high schools we have implemented a universal teacher-advisor system and are working to make it as effective as the Met’s (Met students are twice as likely to say they have a real advocate at school as other high school students). We’ve implemented effective internship and mentorship programs and are working to make them universal like the Met’s. We are working to ensure that every high school student in our system has at least one real-world internship experience.

The first students graduated from the Met this past June. Each gave a valedictory address. Attending the grad was a wonderful experience. Students spoke of their passion for learning, the relationships and experiences of their high school years and of their confidence and optimism for their futures. In a large high school it’s not possible for every student to give a valedictory address, but we’ve discovered that it is possible to recognize every grad with a personal citation touching on their best memory of high school, thanking someone who made a difference in their life, and commenting on their plans for the future.

Our goal here is not so much to innovate, to restructure or to reform high school; our goal is to improve the school experience and life prospects for our students and with the example of the Met we are doing so.

Meet the Expert

Brian O’Leary

Brian O’Leary

Superintendent, Seven Oaks School Division

Brian O’Leary is Superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division in Manitoba.

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