Monday, August 24, 2009

Condensed School - commentary

When I was a kid haranguing my mother to let me drop out of high school (1958), a young man could always find a welcome mat at the Army recruiter’s office. However, during the 80’s and 90’s the job market was a little slim and even some college graduates were asking, “Would you like fries with that, Sir?” For a couple of decades, even the Army could be choosey about whom it hired and a prospect without at least a high school diploma was not wanted.

It seems like most things run in cycles and the Army seems to be looking more kindly on high school drop outs once again, but this time with a new twist: join the Army and they will pay you to get that diploma. They have converted six WWII era buildings at Fort Jackson, North Carolina, into a campus for a prep school for recruits who have dropped out. Upon completion of the school, the recruit will receive a general education diploma (GED) and be sent off to basic training.

The facilities are Spartan for this month long program. Simple desks, chairs and dry erase boards. It is an academic immersion program which begins at 5 a.m. with physical training followed by eight hours of classroom study. And of course, there is homework every evening. The soldiers are grouped three and four to a class and taught by certified teachers. The goal is to get the soldiers a GED and prepare them mentally and physically for basic training.

There is a lesson for the public schools in this Reader’s Digest condensed style of education. High school has to do with a lot more than teaching the academic basics. Aside from the course offerings, there is a whole social and athletic dimension to high school. And, many of the course offerings have to do with social rather than an academic dimension. In order to enjoy the sports and social life, many students are more than willing to put up with whatever academic requirements are placed on them. But there are those who have no interest in either sports or the social aspects; for them, the sooner they can leave the better.

My younger brother has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. I once asked him how the Reader’s Digest people went about condensing a book. He said he supposed they just eliminated all extraneous words. It seems to me that is just what the Army has done with its high school prep program. They have eliminated all the extraneous stuff that goes along with a high school education. If the Army can do it, why can’t the Arkansas Department of Education do the same for students who just want to get it done and over with? They could create a condensed curriculum that would lead to a standard diploma while still equipping students with the basic academic skills the others will graduate with, only it could be done in half the time. Why not create a prep school program that runs five days a week, eight hours a day? Students would complete their high school studies in 12 to 18 consecutive months, focusing solely on core academic courses. At the end, give them a test which, when passed, would give them a high school diploma. Students could apply for admittance at age 14 or 15.

If you object to this on the basis that they would not be taking the same curriculum required of other students, beware we have already set precedence for this. We regularly create individual education plans (IEP) for special education children and give them a standard high school diploma.

The real problem with dropping out is that in our culture, receiving the high school diploma has become our ritual for moving from childhood to adulthood. It is our rite of passage, our admission into the adult world. It in no way means the person who holds the certificate is indeed educated. In fact, if you are an employer looking at two applicants who are equal except that one has a GED and the other has a standard high school diploma, take the one with the GED. You know that he at least had to pass a general knowledge test to get it. You don’t have that assurance with the student who holds the standard high school diploma.

The schools wouldn’t have to be fancy as the students are there to focus on one thing only, getting a diploma as quickly as possible. The public schools could not have a student teacher ratio as low as the Army school mentioned above, but keep the ratio low, say maybe one teacher to 15 students, and use lots of programmed learning with computers. Don’t segregate by grades but rather by subject matter and lessons completed.

If you object on the basis that we can’t have kids that young roaming the streets, you are admitting that a primary purpose of the public schools is custodial care (which I suspect to be the truth). Change the child labor laws so a person who has obtained a high school diploma can go to work no matter his age. Also, college registrars could be encouraged to accept diplomas from the prep schools. Remember, those students will have demonstrated a knowledge base in order to get the diploma.

I think the Army is on to something and in fact they have been operating two such schools here in Arkansas at Camp Robinson for several years. One of the schools is for court appointed juveniles and the other is for at risk students who go there voluntarily. Unfortunately, these schools are residential schools. We need them in our local communities. Creating such schools would represent a way of thinking outside the box while giving some relief to mothers who are being harangued by their kids to be allowed to drop out.

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