Fostering Ideals in High School
Central Park East Secondary School has been successful with some of the most disadvantaged students in America. The combination of ideas, methods, and people that Deborah Meier has put together motivates these teenagers to do well in high school and gives them the sense that their lives have a purpose that may be fulfilled through higher education. Teachers at Central Park East Secondary School insist their school is not a paradigm for others: "It works in this community with this group of teachers and these resources," said librarian Mark Gordon. Yet, the school has several approaches in common with other successful schools we have looked at. It is organized in an intimate, relational way so no one is ignored or lost. Friendship and supportiveness are fostered. It features school-based management for less bureaucracy and higher teacher morale. And it fulfills the school's optimal role as a community center, not only through a charismatic principal who enjoys involving parents but also through teachers and the students' service activities in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Despite the calls for smaller, more focused schools by such experts as Theodore Sizer, John Goodlad, and Ernest Boyer, most high schools are still huge, impersonal institutions filled with discouraged teachers and self-centered students who frequently must attend to defending themselves from the negative attitudes of another group. Caring and moral maturity are not just neglected, they are undermined. Without serious reflection on values, students can only join what Bellah, in Habits of the Heart, calls the American culture of narcissism in which rationalization allows individual preferences to be elevated into transcendent principles. 1
Adolescent capacity for idealism is allowed to sleep. In the early 1980s, Getzels found no significant differences between the values held by freshmen and those held by seniors in each one of several high schools, then noted the same result from another researcher who waited four years to retest the same pupils. "Whatever values children