If you walked into a traditional high school today and asked 100 students if they liked school, I would guess that very few of them would say, yes. Maybe some of you have heard these comments, “Why do we have to learn about this? I am never going to use it anyway!” How might these responses change if the students got to choose what they learned about? What if students could follow their passions in high school? What if following their passions also prepared students to be successful for the rest of their lives?
A Student’s Role in Education
How do we define success in our students today? Is success the ability to pass a test at the end of a class? Is success the ability to do just well enough in school to get a diploma without any extra stress? I would suggest that success is the ability to go to college, get a job and live in our society after high school. There are a lot of students out there who do not think that they need to start thinking about life after high school while in high school, but is that not why they are going to school? Schools are supposed to be preparing students to go out on their own and be successful in their lives. But how do we prepare each individual student for success in his/her own life? Giving each student individualized attention is almost impossible when teachers have classrooms of 30 to 50 students and see a total of 120 to 200 students each day. If we are willing to take away the traditional mindset of courses and classes, we find that there are other, non-traditional school systems that do a good job of helping each student find success, not only in high school, but also throughout life.
It is not the educators or the institutions that graduate then go to college, or get a job, it is the students. These students will be the next educators, CEO’s, engineers, nurses and lawyers. These students will be held accountable for everything they do from now on, everything from choosing a career to getting married to buying a house. Their bosses are not going to be held accountable if they do not show up or get their work done; it all rests on the individual. I believe students in high school should be held accountable for their education. I understand that students need guidance and help along the way, but they should still be a part of deciding what they get out of their education.
An Educator’s Role with Students
I just graduated from the Minnesota New Country School (MNCS) in Henderson, Minnesota. This is a project-based charter school with full-time advisory groups. What this means is that students individually get to choose projects, plan them, set goals and deadlines, and then follow through with everything they said they would do. This school puts a student’s education right into his/her own hands. This is an incredible way to go through school because everyone – the teachers, parents and other students, hold each student directly accountable. There is no teacher standing in front telling the lesson for the day or the homework. There is, however, a teacher standing along side each student supporting and encouraging. Each student sets goals and tries to meet those goals every day. If students do not get their work done, they will not get credit for their project, which is far more significant than just getting a lower grade in the class. If students do not get enough credit each year they will not move on to the next grade. So, students at MNCS who do not get their work done, are only hurting themselves and making it harder and harder to graduate.
You may wonder how we can measure success in a school setting like this. There are proposal teams made up of three or four staff members. Each student has one of these teams for his/her projects. First, a student goes to the team to propose a project. This team then approves it (sometimes a student has to change things and come back a few times before it is approved) and says come back when you are done. As students go through a project they keep records of everything they do and time logs and journals describing the time they are putting into the project. All of this is under the supervision of an advisor. When the project is completed students will bring their time logs, reflection and other materials that they produced throughout the project to the proposal team to ask for credit. This is a time where they will have the opportunity to show the staff what they have (or have not) learned and if they met the goals they set for themselves. The student then gets credit based on the time put into the project and the outcome of the project.
The Role of Standards
Students still have to meet all of the state mandated standards; they just go about it a little differently than you might think. Students at MNCS first look at their interests and choose projects based on that and look at the standards second. They see which standards they need and work those into the projects, instead of basing projects solely off of the standards. This helps students engage in their education and learn about something that not only interests them but might even be applicable to their future or relevant to the world around them.
For example, as a senior at MNCS I was required to complete a 300-hour senior project. I chose to help one of the youth leaders at my church start a non-profit. We named this non-profit MeForYou. We sell backpacks one for one. Every time we sell a backpack we will be donating a backpack full of school supplies to a student in our area that cannot afford to buy supplies. We started the business this spring and already this fall are donating 200 backpacks full of supplies to students throughout southern Minnesota. This is just one example of a project that has started at MNCS, but has long lasting effects on an entire community. This project showed me how I, even as a high school student, could make a difference in the lives of those around me. I will continue to work with MeForYou after high school and hopefully for the rest of my life.
In doing these projects, students branch out and try things they might not have tried before. For example, art is not my favorite subject; I’m more of a math person, but I had the opportunity to participate in a week long experience where I worked with another student to design and build a stained glass window that is now displayed in our school. This was an amazing experience for me and helped me out of my comfort zone and into new fields. This school system also makes it easier for students to find and follow their passions. One student thought she wanted to be a beautician, so she did projects on hair and make-up, but she also had a couple of experiences where she got to work outdoors. When she graduated, she enrolled in a school to study agriculture, which she found to be her true passion.
The staff skillfully helps each student figure out what to do after high school and guides him/her to become a successful member of society.
Another amazing thing about graduating from MNCS is that MNCS requires every graduate to have a post-secondary plan. That might mean going to a two-year college, a four-year college, going into the military or even starting a business. The staff skillfully helps each student figure out what to do after high school and guides him/her to become a successful member of society.
Consider a high school that strives for each student to not only meet the state requirements but also strives to guide each student to meet his/her personal education goals and have a plan in life as well as how to get there. This is a high school where students are engaged and want to learn. I believe if school systems gave students the opportunity to dream big, set goals, meet those goals, follow their passions and get high school credit for it, there would be a lot more students excited to go to school!