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Voices: Traditional high schools not for everyone

Denver school board member Nate Easley admires the architecture of Denver’s four quadrant high schools, but finds less to like in their current academic results. He argues for more choices.

If Rip Van Winkle woke up in a high school today, he would never have known he overslept. From the halls of Montbello High that I attended 30 years ago, to the auditorium where my children graduated a generation later, not much has changed. High schools are much the same, but students are very different.

Denver high school students head to class in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Denver high school students head to class in this EdNews file photo.

Initially limited to a privileged few preparing for elite universities, public high schools in the early 20th century became a gateway for all students to enter college or career. Enrollment soon skyrocketed. In 1910, less than 10 percent of Americans had a high school diploma. By 1940, nearly 50 percent did.

This influx of students led to new schools constructed around an industrial model. High schools were designed and built in the image of factories – division of labor into subjects, assembly lines based on grades – all for the large-scale production of new graduates.

The comprehensive public high school was born.

Educators have only recently started to address the outdated factory model. We are evolving from the one-size-fits-all industrial structure to a variety of educational systems that recognize students learn in different ways and at different speeds. No one disputes that kids are different and have unique educational needs, so why continue to cling to a system that offers our families only one type of high school in their neighborhood?

Undermining the drive for individualized learning is our infrastructure: large buildings bequeathed from education’s industrial age. As enrollment grew in Denver, schools followed. North was built in 1911, South in 1924, followed by East in 1925 and West in 1926.

These buildings embody a distinguished architectural past, but an undignified academic present. In 2011, just 20 percent of students at North were academically proficient, only 22 percent at South and an appalling 14 percent at West. East High – the most successful of the group – had proficiency of only 58 percent.

And the relative success at East still displays the fatal flaws in the industrial scale model. While 80 percent of white students at East are proficient, just 44 percent of Latino and 30 percent of black students meet the same threshold. Less than 30 percent of students who qualify for federal meal assistance are proficient, compared to 70 percent of their more affluent peers.

Our large comprehensive high schools have progressed little from the days of the late 19th century, when only those who fit the model gained preparation for college. Today’s traditional high school is still right for some students, but it is not meeting the needs of too many of the kids we have a solemn duty to serve.

Debate over co-location at North High asks the wrong question

Our desire for a modern high school system is trapped in the infrastructure of a different century. This paradox makes the recent controversy over locating a second high school at North all the more troubling.

Vocal activists – many with good intentions – are advocating to preserve the large, comprehensive high school model as the only offering available at the North campus.

But the ensuing debate focused on the wrong question. The question is not whether the half-full high school can grow enrollment to fill the entire building, but if it should. We need to ask if all students are best served by offering only the industrial-age model for high schools at their neighborhood campus.

We should preserve the historic architecture of our schools, but not their legacy educational structures. The only definitive outcome from the contentious and unfinished debate in Northwest Denver is that next year, despite a $34 million renovation paid for by taxpayers across the city, North will remain vastly underutilized.

In contrast, West High will welcome a new era, with three separate schools and a variety of programs newly housed within its walls.

Were Rip Van Winkle to fall asleep in a Denver high school today, we must ensure that, a generation hence, he will wake to a different model of education – one that offers families a variety of educational choices close to home to meet the needs of each student. The historic buildings of our past should not determine the future of our students.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.