“Adults should face the fact that they don't like adolescents,” wrote Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, shortly after the Columbine school shooting in 1999, “and that they have used high school to isolate the pubescent and hormonally active adolescent.” Botstein believes that, as a result of this “isolation,” high school has become an institution far too separated from the real world (in terms of social realities and responsibilities) to be useful in teaching students how to prepare for it. In essence, students waste away their time dealing with the “poor quality of recruitment and training for high school teachers” and navigating “the tyranny of peer groups” until, one day, isolation ends. Then they enter the “real world” of college or work, and discover they were ill prepared: “too many opportunities have been lost and too much time has been wasted.”
Botstein claims high school should end at 16, not 18. He has been instrumental in the creation of several “early colleges” that target high school sophomores and juniors. For those not inclined towards college, but rather towards vocational training, he proposes that “we might construct new kinds of institutions, each dedicated to one activity.”
Now, 17 years after Columbine, others have developed more flexible institutions that facilitate escape from “the tyranny of peer groups” and the “isolation” from the real world.
At Ukiah Independent Study Academy (UISA), an alternative K-12 school, students spend only an hour per week in school. In that hour, they meet one-on-one with their teacher, turn in and receive a week’s homework, and ask questions. Then, they teach themselves, or can choose courses either online or from the nearby college and high school to fulfill graduation requirements. If an hour a week isn’t enough, there are opportunities for additional tutoring, especially in math, but students are transferred out if they don’t have the self-motivation to complete their homework (five hours a week per class).
Those who want to learn skills through internships or work experience have access to all of the district high school’s internship opportunities through partial enrollment (although access can be limited) and can capitalize on UISA’s efforts help students find the niche internships or work experience they want. In addition, UISA students can take advantage of opportunities lost to traditional high-schoolers because of scheduling conflicts. “We had a student who was interested in beekeeping,” recalls Holly Rodgers, “and so was involved through a work environment in learning how to be a beekeeper.” Another, mentioned by Moises Gonzales, the secretary and registrar of UISA, is “working with his father in vineyard management.”
Elsewhere, one may find education in technical skills through a specialized high school curriculum. President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union Address pointed out that “Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges. So those German kids, they're ready for a job when they graduate high school.”
HowToGermany, a website designed to educate expatriates on life in Germany, breaks it down: “Although education is a function of the federal states, and there are differences from state to state, some generalizations are possible… From grades 1 through 4 children attend elementary school (Grundschule), where the subjects taught are the same for all. Then, after the 4th grade, they are separated according to their academic ability and the wishes of their families, and attend one of three different kinds of schools: Hauptschule, Realschule or Gymnasium.” Gymnasium is university-prep for the most academic students. Hauptschule has slower academic pacing with “vocational-oriented courses,” and prepares these students for “part-time enrollment in a vocational school combined with apprenticeship training until the age of 18.” Realschule is a mix of both.
In a May 2014 interview with USNews, the director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Louisville spoke of German education positively: "The system works extraordinarily well. They have one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the industrialized world, and going through an apprenticeship in no way prevents one from moving on to college." Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2014 also reported encouraging data: “only 3% of adults attain a general upper secondary or post-secondary qualification as highest degree,” and “Germany has been more successful than most OECD countries in holding the line on unemployment during the economic crisis.” USNews also reported that, while the US has a youth unemployment rate of 16.2 percent and the EU an average of 23.9 percent, Germany shines at 7.7 percent.
Others have their doubts about the German system. Carly Berwick, writing for the Atlantic, explained: “Many of Germany’s 16 states, including Berlin and Saxony, recently decided to phase out the lowest-level secondary school (Hauptschule), in part because parents criticized the program as leading students directly to low-wage jobs.” Even so, all of the German states still feature some form of readily available vocational training as part of Realschule or comparable programs.
Here in the US, a similar, possibly German-inspired movement is developing. Perhaps the most famous school in the “practical skills” trend, the Brooklyn-based P-Tech, was acknowledged by President Obama in his 2013 state of the union address. As Obama noted, “students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in computers or engineering.” He described it as “a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM.”
According to the IBM Newsroom, schools designed like P-TECH are taking off in urban centers around the nation. In 2012, five started in Chicago, backed by IBM, Motorola, Verizon, and others, and since then the model has spread from Norwalk (Connecticut) to Australia.
Although Mendocino County is not home to any massive corporate employers, we do have a wealth of local businesses through which interested students may be able to learn valuable skills. The Mendocino County Human Resources Department has an Internship Program which advertises a wide variety of possible “categories,” from accounting to nursing and others.
Locally, the Anderson Valley Education Foundation connects high school students to local businesses (from farms to restaurants to small-engine repair shops) for internships.
While I never viewed my high school as a wasteland, I wanted to graduate after my junior year to get an early start on college, and by taking online college courses was able to get an expedited diploma through UISA. The graduation ceremony (UISA’s second) was a few months ago. I’ve been to several student graduations, but never one that emphasized each and every student’s individual choice and self-discipline as this one did, with teachers and students giving short speeches for each graduate. One of the volunteer student speakers commented on how nice it was that he wasn’t forced to meet his classmates until graduation; a tearful teacher described another student had used his time to take classes at the vocational college on auto-mechanics; student photography exhibits lined the walls. Some of the grads were planning on attending college. Others, working. A few had interest in military service.
The only constant was that all had set their own agendas and fashioned their work to their particular needs and desires. The freedom and independence these graduates celebrated is reminiscent of Pete Townshend’s lyrics about the happy farmer in a post-apocalyptic world — “Out here in the fields / I farm for my meals / I get my back into my living / I don’t need to fight / to prove I’m right / I don’t need to be forgiven” — from the song by The Who sometimes known by its chorus: “Teenage Wasteland.”
(John Ulysses Keevan-Lynch went to AV Elementary, is a former intern at the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and will be attending UCLA this fall.)