Rigor and Vigor

By Roberts, Marnie | Techniques, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Rigor and Vigor


Roberts, Marnie, Techniques


Three Schools Reap Results

To be able to compete at postsecondary levels and in today's job market, high school students need rigorous academic coursework combined with modern career and technical studies, education leaders say. Here's how three award-winning schools are meeting that challenge.

Making hospital rounds, rebuilding a diesel engine, caring for livestock--such tasks are all in a day's work for nurses, mechanics and veterinarians. But for some students, these activities are part of their high school experience.

In an age when more students are attending college and pursuing advanced training, the need for career and technical schools to combine high standards with practical learning experiences is more important than ever.

"The terms `integrated coursework' or `work-based learning' can conjure up images of watered-down, less challenging curriculum," Trish McNeil, the U.S. Education Department's vocational education chief said in March. "We must confront that reality. We have to make sure we have rigorous academic and technical standards in order to convince others that we do."

At Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown, Del., William H. Turner Technical Arts High School in Miami and Michael E. DeBakey High School for the Health Professions in Houston, hands-on experience and high academic standards have combined to create such challenging, award-winning programs.

It is the atmosphere of constant challenge, the belief that students can always do better and an integrated course structure that keeps students in these schools interested in learning and succeeding, even after completing high school.

But getting a school to the point of national recognition by, among others, the U.S. Department of Education is not an easy task. It takes years of figuring out the ingredients that make the right formula for teachers, students and the community to reap the rewards of a successful school.

From the ground up

Before Sussex Tech opened its doors as a comprehensive technical high school in 1991 it was Sussex County's vocational-technical center, which for more than 30 years had served part-time students from seven school districts. But the center was seen as more of an alternative for disruptive students than for those interested in learning job skills. Teachers were not up to date on the latest technology. The enrollment had dropped 45 percent from 1978 to 1988 and the school's standardized test scores were among the lowest in Delaware, according to a school case study.

"Those kids had no drive," recalls Les Humphrey, an auto body teacher at Sussex Tech for 13 years. "They were just a pain to their feeder schools. They weren't necessarily in school for the right reasons."

In 1988, a massive restructuring of the Sussex Tech program began. Administrators, teachers and community members saw serious flaws in their current system that were creating an academic stalemate and sought to change the status quo. Three years later Sussex Tech reopened as a newly designed, innovative facility for students in grades nine through 12.

In 1993, Turner Tech, part of the Miami-Dade County School District, opened to provide inner-city students with an academically challenging curriculum and technical training. The old Miami Agricultural School, a part-time vocational center, was converted into the Academy of Agriscience at Turner Tech, one of the school's seven career academies.

"We regained a good reputation at the beginning," says Tyrone Carlis, who teaches landscape operations at Turner Tech. "We had a lot of parental involvement. Parents were bringing kids here and telling them they had to be here. [As a result,] our kids were well-disciplined and had good attendance."

Preparing strong students through a challenging curriculum is not a new concept, however. In 1972 DeBakey High was founded by famed heart surgeon Michael E. …

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