Jeremy Jamison and a team of students brought a challenge to the school board: Make our classes more like real life.
Jeremy and six other members of the City-Wide High School Student Cabinet brought that message to a Board of Education meeting Monday night as they presented recommendations on how to improve the schools. Their remarks prompted a robust discussion among adults about whether the district is doing enough to connect the classroom to the workplace, and how to meet kids’ interest in technical careers without eclipsing their chances of getting into college.
The discussion took place at the school board’s biweekly meeting, which has returned to Hill Regional Career High School.
The seven students took turns running through their recommendations before an audience of school administrators, parent leaders, teachers and an alder. The students are part of a citywide youth council that Superintendent Garth Harries empowered this year to serve as his “student cabinet,” advising him on topics such as how to restructure the Advanced Placement program. At Harries’ prompting, the council came up with broad recommendations for changes they’d like to see to the schools.
Among their top priorities is “making class time relevant,” said Kimberly Sullivan, a sophomore at Sound School.
For instance, a lot of students wonder, “why am I ever going to use the quadratic formula?”
When teachers introduce a lesson, they need to “say why we need to use this,” she said.
Kimberly said teachers often answer that question by pointing to college: “Everything is explained by, ‘Colleges would like to see this.’”
Kids who don’t see themselves going to college figure, “Why am I doing this?” she said.
Students need to hear better justifications—and do more hands-on activities that relate learning to the outside world, she argued.
“Relevancy is something we need to see a lot more of.” She called for more job shadowing to connect the classroom to potential careers.
Reilly Stevens, a junior at Common Ground High School, said schools need to be “teaching to life, and not just teaching to college, and teaching to tests.”
She said students often hear the justification: “You have to do this, or else you’re not going to get into college.”
Classes need to have a greater purpose beyond getting into college, and schools need to offer more for students who don’t want to go to college, Reilly argued. New Haven doesn’t have a vo-tech high school; some city kids attend Eli Whitney in Hamden.
The discussion raised a much-debated point since former Mayor John DeStefano launched a school reform effort five years ago with a heavy focus on college. DeStefano called for all students to set their sights on college, starting in kindergarten. He later faced criticism that his reform plan didn’t offer anything for students who wanted to pursue technical careers instead of college. That sent him on a bus to Massachusetts in search of a good vo-tech program to replicate at home.
The city teamed up with Gateway Community College on a plan to open a new vo-tech high school last fall, but the effort so far has not gotten off the ground, because New Haven has struck out trying to get grants to pay for the plan.
At Monday’s meeting, school board member Daisy Gonzalez asked how New Haven should treat kids who don’t see themselves going to college.
“Do we write a different curriculum for them?” she asked.
Board member Alex Johnston replied that that’s how the U.S. historically treated kids. Schools would sort kids into those who seemed like college material and those who would be shunted to work in factories.
“A hundred years ago,” Johnston said, “people who called themselves ‘progressives’ would track kids” into classes of those who were destined for college and those who were not. Johnston frowned on that idea. He said schools should prepare every kid to be able to go to college if they so choose.
“You don’t want someone to lose out” on getting into college because, as a freshman, they weren’t sure they wanted to go, so they joined a different track.
But he recognized a difficult problem: By devoting every moment of high school to the college prep academic track, you may lose the chance to engage kids who are interested in technical careers.
The discussion prompted some members of the audience to renew a call for more vocational-technical education.
“We’ve been saying this for years: all students are not college material,” said parent activist Hazel Pappas. Those who aren’t “need to be set up for a job.”
“There are some students who don’t want to make a career of going to college,” agreed fellow parent activist Florence Caldwell.
Their remarks hearkened back to the 1920s, when kids on the college track went to Hillhouse High and kids who were destined for factories attended Commercial High, the precursor to Cross.
Michael Jamison, proud dad of Jeremy, stood up to say that he got a college degree, and could have gone on to be a lawyer, but chose a technical field instead. He is now a heavy equipment operator for the city of Stamford.
He encouraged kids to “conquer your own dreams,” whatever they may be.
Superintendent Harries cautioned against creating a dichotomy between kids who are going to go to college and those who aren’t. That wasn’t what his student cabinet had called for, he noted.
“What I heard” wasn’t about certain kids not being college material. “What I heard was about the relevance. About doing things that inspired their passion.” He said students should be exposed to both strong academic and vocational opportunities. Students need to “give yourself the skills so you can make choices in the future.”