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Searching for the Cure to Seniortis

Everyone agrees the senior year of high school can be wasted. So what is the solution?

Let's assume you've had the same job for the past 12 years. In that time, you've changed in numerous ways, the typical maturation that follows college, marriage, buying a house and having children.

But today, when you come into work, you realize that the job is still relatively unchanged from when you started and it doesn't use the talents you've developed in the intervening years. Worse yet, you're treated as if you're still 22, with bosses overseeing your every move and telling you what's good for you.

Chances are you'd be bored.

Now substitute school for job in the above example and change the lifestyle patterns into typical things that children experience as they age from 5 to 18. Now you have a good idea of what senior year feels like. This is why so many people are calling it a failure.

It is easy to delineate what's wrong with senior year and why so many students suffer a letdown. Yet to find solutions to this multifaceted problem is a much more difficult task-one that experts disagree on.

This much is true-senior year is broken, and it needs to be fixed.

If you need proof, consider this: while more students than ever are taking "college-level" courses in high school, more students than ever in college are taking "high-school" level courses.

Remediation takes place at four out of five public four-year universities and six out of 10 private four-year institutions, according to a recent government report. Meanwhile, the number of high schools that offer AP courses continues to increase. Sixty percent of high schools offer at least one college credit class, with 840,000 students taking 1.4 million AP exams in 2001.

Senior-year slump

"Everyone knows that students [in senior year] waste time and don't take it seriously," says Cheryl Kane, the former executive director of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year.

This 29-member government commission spent 17 months wrestling with this problem, conducting focus groups with recent high school graduates, debating the problem with educators, policymakers, students and parents. Everyone agrees the problems with K-12 education in this country go much deeper than "senioritis." The problem exists no matter how you choose to frame the question.

In the most recent survey from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, U.S. students in fourth grade tested better than similar students in 12 other countries, and tested worse than those from seven other countries. By twelfth grade, the gap widens significantly. U.S. seniors tested better than students in just two other countries, and were behind students from 14 other countries.

In 1997, only 43 percent of high school seniors said they were in "demanding academic programs," according to the government report.

In looking down the road, education has never been more important to children's future earning potential. Fifty years ago, 60 percent of the jobs in this country were unskilled, meaning that dropouts or those with high school diplomas could perform them. Today, only 20 percent of jobs fit this category.

Students with a high school diploma can expect to earn less than 60 percent what a student with a college degree earns during the course of their working careers. For men, high school graduates can expect to earn slightly more than $30,000 a year, while college graduates average about $55,000 a year.

"A high school diploma is no longer enough. What we have are a lot of students sitting around thinking they're all set for what's about to come next. And they're not," Kane says.

"We've got to have a better experience for them than we have now," says Nancy Sizer, an educator, a commission member and the author of Crossing the Stage: Redesigning Senior Year (Heinemann, 2002). "We need to look kids in the eye and say, 'I want you to have a job in which you grow.' If we put up with less than that, we're heading for the worst trouble."

The Twelfth-Grade Question: To Be or Not to Be?

The report the commission finished last year, Raising Our Sights: No High School Senior Left Behind, calls for broad changes that reach back into middle schools and forward into higher education.

The biggest problems education experts find with senior year can be placed neatly into two categories: what students should know by the time they graduate and how school districts can keep kids interested for the last months of school when college, a job or just freedom, beckon.

This is the last time the problems are so easily delineated.

Ask Michael Kirst, an education author and a Stanford University professor of education and business administration, if senior year is worthwhile, and he says: "I'm too much of a pragmatist to seriously think about eliminating it. We're stuck with it, and we have to make the best of it."

But Bard College President Leon Botstein disagrees. "The high school system was designed for large children, now it faces young adults. It doesn't treat them seriously, doesn't give them responsibility. It's out of sync with their age and their development style. My solution: End high school early. Complete it at 16 and integrate the students into the adult world."

Surprisingly, the report agrees, in part, with Botstein. While it might be expected that any government report that calls for dismantling the traditional four-year high school would get a lot of notice, two factors kept this news quiet. First, the report was one of the last official acts of then Education Secretary Richard Riley last year. And although present Secretary Rod Paige was involved in the report and made aware of its findings, the push to pass, and then explain, the new education bill has left him no time to focus on senior year solutions.

The second reason is simpler: the report was issued in October, a scant three weeks after September 11, and while its findings were duly noted in the press, for many the issue was quickly forgotten under the deluge of news about the attack, the recovery and the war on terrorism.

The report urged that students who could complete their high school requirements early be allowed to do so, and those who might need five years, be given the time necessary.

"All students, should be provided with a 'demanding array' of educational alternatives in high school," the report found. "Besides dual enrollment in high school and college, this might mean service-learning opportunities, [internships], or completing a 'capstone' or research project."

Getting Ready for the Real World

While experts disagree about methods to fix the senior year, all agree that the main problem is getting students ready for whatever the next step in their life is-whether it's community college, four years of college or a job.

"Students really have no idea what's beyond graduation. You shine a light on that darkness by making plans," says Larry Rehage, a teacher at the New Trier High School School District in Northfield, Ill.

"It's all about flexibility," says Jacquelyn Belcher, vice chair of the government committee and president of Georgia Perimeter College. "All students should be prepared as if they are going to college." Generally, this means children would take Algebra I by the ninth grade.

Belcher's college has the largest dual enrollment in her state. Students in their junior year can start taking classes at one of the school's six campuses. She just had a high school student graduate with 22 college credits.

"Students today are much more advanced and sophisticated about life than they were [even 20 years ago]," she says.

Sizer, who interviewed about 150 students while researching her book, summarizes the problem neatly: Educators need to be on the side of students with goals both they and the students think are worthy.

She says that internships and senior projects are the best answers because "kids see what is in it for them." While such programs can face opposition originally, they quickly become part of the student culture, says Sizer, a Harvard lecturer on education. Both types of programs offer kids the life skills that they will need-such as time management, how to structure and reach goals, and how to realize that they have something positive to offer.

One student who Sizer met completed an internship at a health care center staffed mostly by immigrants. Not only did this student learn about health care and the problems of the elderly, but also about immigration, the problems of foreigners who don't speak English as a first-language and more.

"This could lead to 10 different jobs or four majors," she says. "The student hadn't mastered her knowledge in these areas, but had seen them in inter-relationships. She doesn't just see college as parties, she sees it as the beginning of the rest of her life."

At New Trier High School, senior projects and internships are well established.

"We really push service throughout the year," says Rehage. "The more these kids are working with adults in the real world, with real community problems, the better. They're saturated with how far they can go with their own peer group.

"We've resisted AP courses. It's really a continuation of the same old thing, the worst of the same old thing," he says. "It's all about getting that score."

These students have had "11 years of basically having the same environment controlled by someone else. We give kids much more control over what they learn," Rehage adds.

"The greatest dynamic for learning is human curiosity. It's what we hope to reawaken. They have an acute curiosity, but it needs to be activated."

The school even has a leadership program, where students can be teacher assistants in other classes. "We have kids end up saying that being a leader is what made them keep coming to school. ... The key skill for the next world is self advocacy," he says.

Remediation or College?

Kirst says these types of programs are fine for the best students, but they don't make up for the deficiencies many students have. Pulling children out of classrooms in their senior year doesn't help them avoid remediation, he says. A challenging math course would be more beneficial.

Botstein says offering remedial courses to seniors doesn't make sense. He likens that scenario to "telling me to watch a movie where the first 10 hours are a crashing bore, but the last 50 minutes are going to be great. It doesn't work that way.

"High schools have lost the confidence of the constituency. These schools are bankrupt. They can't teach [students], they can't remediate them."

The Bard College president examined this problem in his 1997 book, Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture (Doubleday).

While advocating the breakup of high school as we know it seems hard to fathom, Botstein says, "The easiest way to be smart is to say something can't happen."

When he published his book, some critics took exactly this tack, saying his ideas were sound, but would be hard, if not impossible, to initiate. So far, Botstein is proving them wrong. For more than 20 years, Bard has run Simon's Rock, a college for young scholars in Great Barrington, Mass.

Simon's Rock is a liberal arts school designed especially for young scholars. Students start in the tenth or eleventh grade and can earn an associate's degree or a four-year bachelor's degree.

Last year, Bard went a step further, creating the Bard High School Early College with the New York City Board of Education. This school, which started its second year this fall, accepts students from the ninth to the eleventh grade. Ninth graders can earn an associate's degree in four years.

While acknowledging the faults of the school system and bemoaning parts of it, Botstein sounds a note of optimism, especially about the creation of the Bard High School Early College.

"I'm grateful to everyone [from the New York City Board of Education to teacher unions] for agreeing to do this. In the end, they actually care about it, and they want to see [the high school experience] improve."

Wayne D'Orio,, is editorial director.