Students: Make High School More “Relevant”

Melissa Bailey PhotoJeremy 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.”

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posted by: David Backeberg on June 10, 2014  10:19am

‘Relevance’ is an amorphous pedagogical goal, even if it theoretically has merit. An immediate follow-up question would be ‘relevant for whom’?

For the record, the relevance of the quadratic formula is to find the roots of the equation. It’s applied logical deduction. You move the numbers around until you come to the conclusion of what the value has to be, based on the surrounding evidence. Math is really philosophy, and the useful part of philosophy is logic.

It’s a stepping stone to the harder math that follows with precalc, then calc and diff eq, then multivariable calc. If you don’t learn it in high school, it’s going to be way harder to learn at the pace of the average college math course. Yes, if you’re going into a math, science, medical, engineering track, you will almost certainly need the harder math that follows.

The short answer of why math is relevant is ‘so you don’t get ripped off’. If you can’t do math, you don’t know whether a mortgage is a good deal, or whether you should take out a car loan (probably never), or even if you get shortchanged by the clerk at the store.

posted by: BillSaunders1 on June 10, 2014  1:52pm

Whenever I see people crossing diagonally across the road, I think it is a subconscious use of the Pythagorean Theorem.

posted by: Brutus2011 on June 10, 2014  1:57pm

In answer to the student who astutely asked whether teaching to the test, or to college should be emphasized rather than teaching for life, I would like to offer our family’s answer to that conundrum:

When I take my 9th grader to the supermarket, we use ratios, decimals and percents to calculate the best bargain for our food dollar. Whenever she groans, I retort that this is why you learn math in school—not so you can pass a test but so that you can survive in the world. My favorite quote is “caveat emptor” and don’t get me started on marginal analysis. And then of course, that gets me going and I further infuriate her with my “school is for life” rap….oh yeah, oops sorry got carried away…

But I hope my point is clear—school is for living a more aware, and better, life by being able to make more informed choices. This is why we send our children to school and it is not to enrich Pearson, or ETS or Kaplan or whatever testing services are circling above.

I do believe, however, that we adults need to set the course for our children until they are old enough to choose for themselves. I think it is a mistake for kids to choose their own curriculum too soon. The permissive trend we have taken with our youth is a mistake.

posted by: concernedcitizenNewHaven on June 10, 2014  8:33pm

Johnston should be careful when he throws around the words “progressive education”.
While Dewey was the most well known and influential Progressive educator and philosopher, he by no means represented all that Progressive education ultimately became. In the whirlwind of turn-of-the-century educational reform, the idea of educational Progressivism took on multiple, and often contradictory, definitions.

Dewey was really looking for a way to allows children to become better citizens in a democracy. Preparing kids to go to college or a vo-tech school does not do this.

Education must be about allowing human beings the opportunities to reach their maximum human potential.

Why has the enrollment for remedial classes skyrocketed? Because college enrollment has skyrocketed. Because we tell kids that the only way to be a productive member of society is to have a pay-check earning job.

Well let me tell you something. New Haven needs volunteers. Volunteers to mentor kids. Volunteers to garden. Volunteers to help out the elderly. We need people who are interested in building communities…not using college as a way out.

posted by: cp06 on June 10, 2014  8:34pm

Bravo to these students and the Independent for covering this!
To me (maybe me only) this speaks to the importance of curriculum and approach and points to the need for a liberal arts approach to education. 

The argument typically given against this is that students need to learn the so-called “basics” first, but those critics are not understanding that through a liberal arts based curriculum, the “basics”—and much more—are learned.

History of women’s rights in the US, evolutionary biology and the social construction of “race”, labor movements, music, writing, mathematical theories are all inter-connected and when presented in a certain way can capture the attention and passion (and develop critical thinking skills) of less “well off” urban students much better than the typical, dry and rote memorization of facts that do not tap into students’ interests, environment or passions and, therefore, are not effective at engaging or teaching.

posted by: Ravenclaw on June 12, 2014  11:13am

Relevant to whose life, when? Was I, at age 16, a good judge of what I would need or want to know in the adult world? Is the “real world” that surrounds New Haven’s public school kids the world we want them to remain in and perpetuate?

“Technical” careers (if we’re talking STEM fields and good pay) will require exactly the mathematical skills the students don’t see as relevant. Unless of course we’re using “technical” as a euphemism for “semi-skilled labor using tools and machines.”

Yes, teachers might be able to do a better job of linking academic skills with their applications. But if they’re able to teach the skills at all, they’re doing a pretty good job.