Friday, May 26, 2006

A Fix For Troubled Schools

Today's Washington Post has a fascinating story (written by Nick Anderson), on a novel education experiment in Maryland. For years, Forrestville High School was one of the worst in that state, with rampant discipline problems, a high dropout rate, and abysmal scores on standardized tests. To fix these problems, local leaders implemented a novel--some might say radical--solution; they converted Forrestville High School into Maryland's first public military academy.

Yesterday, the first students to fully benefit from that experiment walked across the stage and received their high school diplomas. Since entering Forrestville in 2002, they have been a part of a student cadet corps, wearing Army Junior ROTC uniforms to class every day, and subjected to a discipline code that is far more rigorous than most public schools. It was hoped that a more focused, structured environment would lead to improved student performance in the classroom.

According to the Post, results of the Forrestville experiment have been mixed (so far). Standardized test scores remain low, and only a handful of students take advanced placement exams. But for some students, the academy approach has produced dramatic changes. Anderson cites the example of one graduating senior:

For Ashley Bembry, it worked. She entered the academy in ninth grade with a talk-back attitude and a tendency to hang with the wrong crowd. "My ninth-grade year, I was so negative," the 17-year-old from Forestville said. "Oh my goodness, I was getting suspended left and right. I had a mouth on me, I really did."

But now she has graduated from the academy as a cadet second lieutenant, an honor roll student, with plans to attend Bowie State University and perhaps become a teacher.

Her mother, Josephine Bembry, said Ashley and her brother Ashford, who is in the class of 2007, benefited from "a taste of discipline, order, structure."

Reading the article, one also gets the impression that the Forrestville academy's most serious problems lie at the district level, not at the school. Since 2002, the Prince George's County, Maryland school system (which controls the academy) has had four different superintendents. Some have been less-than-supportive of the effort, forcing the school to constantly re-justify its approach and performance.

Obviously Forrestville would benefit from stable leadership at the top of the school system, more consistent support, and the time needed to get the job done. At this juncture, it may be too much to expect impressive results; the 2006 senior class was the first to spend all four years in a cadet corps environment; as underclassmen, they were taunted and harassed by older students who were not a part of the JROTC program. In that environment, a number of new cadets decided to transfer to other schools, or drop out altogether.

Despite these problems, the success stories from the 2006 class should offer hope for the future of the school. This year's valedictorian received an academic scholarship from the University of Wisconsin; the salutorian turned down a slot at West Point for a scholarship from Cornell. More importantly, many members of the inagural class seem to have gained a new sense of self-discipline, ethics and self-worth, qualities that should serve them well in life.

If I were a parent of student in the Forrestville Academy, I would encourage school officials to stay the course, and evaluate the school's performance in another four years, after the academy system has fully taken hold. A similar academy in one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods (created before Forrestville) has produced even more impressive results. Chicago officials have also consistently supported their academy, which may partly explain its performance. Within three years of its opening, the Chicago school averaged a daily student attendance of 95%, (far above other inner city schools). Discipline problems are reportedly well below those of other public schools, suggesting that the academy is producing the desired, disciplined environment. Academically, the reading scores of the academy's 11th graders are within a few points of the state average, although math scores remain well below the Illinois standard.

Obviously, a military environment isn't for every high school student. And, I don't believe that a military academy model or Junior ROTC program can save every failing school. But in some districts--with support from political leaders and education officials--a public military academy offers a viable alternative for creating a structured, disciplined environment that can promote learning and achievement. The idea seems to be slowly spreading across the country. But, reading the Post article and other reports, it seems clear that the academy model (like most education reforms) faces its strongest opposition from education bureaucrats. For them, a high school built around a cadet corps for JROTC program is a threat to their status quo, which must be protected above all else. It would be a shame if the Forrestville experiment eventually fell victim to those forces.


cynical joe said...

One thing you didn't mention Spook, was if the Forrestville experiment saved any money? My guess is that it is probably more expensive, BUT the results may justify that added cost. I think this is an important point for conservatives and the issue of public education; concentrate on results rather than costs. While throwing money at problems seldom works, educating children is a very labor intensive business. While Conservatives love to rail against teachers and their unions the solution(s) to public education's ills will NOT include less money.

Papa Ray said...

"Chicago officials have also consistently supported their academy, which may partly explain its performance."

There is the key, you identified the most important aspect of the situation.

Yes, you left out money part , but it is almost a given that for a quality education program, more money is needed for more teachers, teachers aids, learning equipment and so on.

An example: our school district ran a pilot program for our elem. grades. It is basicly where "learning centers" are created, extra teachers and aids and better learning tools are employed. The students rotate around the centers, submerging themselves for a set time in the subject and reviewing, and finally being tested.

It showed a marked improvement not only in learning but in the kids enjoying being educated.

This year, all of the elem. schools are changing over to this new (for us) way of teaching.

It did require more funds but about half of the costs are one time only, or at least one time for a few years.

Papa Ray