Photography by John Rizzo
How good is your town’s high school? That depends on how you define “good.” But if you ask the experts what makes a school good, the answer is universal: engaged students.
What does that mean? It means that kids go to school because they want to, not because they have to. They do their homework because it helps them, not because it’s required. They spend extra time in clubs and sports because they like them, not because it will look good on a college résumé. Sound idyllic? Of course it is—we’re talking about teenagers here, not-quite-fully formed human beings with raging hormones and role models who spend most of their time in rehab. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t schools trying to engage these kids—and more than a few that are actually succeeding.
You might think that measuring something as subjective as “engagement” is impossible, but it’s not. It’s difficult but doable, according to the experts we consulted. Once they gave us some signs to look for, we asked the 44 public high schools in Westchester to give us data that reflected that elusive quality. We also talked to educators around the country to find out what the numbers on the chart starting on page 60 really mean to students and parents.
Nearly every school was helpful, and most cautioned against comparing one school to another. More than one supplied data but refused to discuss it. Barbara Scaros, director of the Edith Winthrop Teacher Center of Westchester, explains why: “Schools are so complicated and their populations and parent populations are so different that to put them on the same list is kind of like trying to determine who is the best parent. ‘Your kids are polite, but mine has better handwriting.’”
Comparing schools is particularly pointless in Westchester, she says, “where you have, on the one hand, the Masters of the Universe from Bedford and Katonah and, on the other, working-class people from Yonkers and Mount Vernon who send their kids to school with no less hope but a lot less accoutrements.”
Nevertheless, the information we gathered still is useful to parents trying to choose the high school that would most likely satisfy their children’s needs best. It serves no purpose to compare the SAT scores from Armonk’s Byram Hills to those from Chappaqua’s Horace Greeley, but it is useful to know what those scores mean and how to best interpret them.
We looked at data in three broad areas. First, we looked at standardized test scores, particularly the SAT and NY Regents exams. Second, we looked at socioeconomic factors including average household income in each school district, how much each school spends on educating its students, and how well educated each district’s teaching staff is. Finally, we collected information that would help us determine how Westchester high schools “engaged” their students. These included the four-year graduation rate, the ratio of students to guidance counselors, the number of students involved in extracurricular activities, and how many college-level courses were offered.
No one criterion can be used to determine if your kid’s school is “good.” Taken together, though, these measures will give you a feel for their high school experience.
One of the most frequently used criteria for judging a school’s success is its students’ performance on the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Tests) Reasoning Test given to college-bound juniors and seniors. More than two million students take the test each year. Indeed, it’s the nation’s most widely taken standardized college admissions test, according to The College Board, a not-for-profit association composed of more than 5,400 schools, colleges, universities, and other educational organizations, that administers the test. The exam covers reading, writing, and mathematics, with each section scored from 200 to 800. Nationwide, average scores for each section are typically around 500; this year, they were 530 in Westchester.
“SAT scores are a weak predictor of college success,” says Dr. Leslie Soodak, professor of Education and chair of the Department of Education at Pace University’s Pleasantville Campus. “We’re all realistically cautious about their use.” The caution is well placed. According to a report released by Fair Test, a two-decades-old advocacy organization fighting to reform assessments in the United States, “the University of Pennsylvania looked at the power of high school class rank, SAT I, and SAT II in predicting cumulative college GPAs. Researchers found that the SAT I was by far the weakest predictor.” The report maintains that the best predictor of college success was not the Big Test, but a student’s class rank.
But, fair or not, SATs are still one of the tools many colleges use in today’s ruthlessly competitive college admissions process. Before comparing our local schools with this metric, there are several caveats, with which even the College Board agrees. The most important is the nature of the group who takes the SAT—they are almost invariably students who are college-bound. While that includes the majority of high schoolers, it is by no means all of them. That matters when it comes to comparing schools based on SAT scores, since they will reveal nothing about those students who don’t take them, obviously, which in some districts can be a significant number.
Something else to keep in mind: students have several strategies for improving their SAT scores, most of which favor those whose parents have pretty deep pockets. Don’t think you did well? You can cancel your score within a few days of taking the test, although you won’t get your money back. Even if you let the scores ride, you can re-take the test and probably do better—just pay the fees again. The test itself is $45, with additional fees for various types of processing and reporting that can add up to a couple hundred dollars. The College Board says the average student who re-tests increases his or her combined scores by approximately 40 points.
For those able to dig deeper, SAT tutoring is de rigueur. One of the leading services (and it is a minor industry), Kaplan, Inc., offers a range of options in Westchester from a self-study course for $400 to 32 hours of private tutoring for $4,700. For re-testers, Kaplan guarantees an improvement in the student’s score. Tutoring works, too, according to a 2006 nationwide study by Ohio State University, which showed that students who took private SAT prep classes averaged total scores 60 points higher than those who didn’t take those classes.
Nevertheless, the schools with the highest SAT total scores this year were Scarsdale (1950), Bronxville (1889), Pleasantville (1876), Horace Greeley (1872), and Edgemont (1809).
One measure that overcomes the SAT problem of testing mostly college-bound students is the RaMP Rate, or the Reading and Math Proficiency score as calculated by Standard & Poor using Regents exam data provided by the NYS Department of Education. Every student in the state is required to take the exam, which is a product of the No Child Left Behind Act. The scores reported here are the average of the proficiency rates achieved across all reading and math tests. Since every student has to take them, it seems like it would be a more accurate reflection of how well a school teaches all, not just its college bound, students. Perhaps. However, the RaMP Rate still has a socioeconomic bias: in general, kids from upper-income homes score better than those less well off. Why? “If you look at almost any standardized test, there is a high correlation between performance on the test and household income,” explains Dr. Saul M. Yanofsky, assistant dean of Academic Affairs at Westchester Community College. Thus, it should come as no surprise that 97 percent of students in Scarsdale, where 81 percent of their parents earn more than $100,000 a year, passed the tests, while 80 percent of students in New Rochelle, where only 35 percent of families earn that kind of money, did.
In general, Westchester schools don’t experience high dropout rates. One thing this tells us, according to Dr. Joseph Harris, director of the National High School Center, is that our schools do a decent job of keeping students interested in their school careers. “Engagement gets translated a lot of different ways,” Harris says. “First is the graduation rate, the relationship between the number of students entering ninth grade, then graduating four years later.” And nearly all of those who enter high school as freshmen in Westchester graduate four years later. Compared to the national dropout rate—three of 10 students who enter as freshmen fail to graduate four years later, according to the NHSC—Westchester’s 9 percent is miniscule.
Of the county’s 44 public high schools, six schools (Briarcliff, Blind Brook, Bronxville, Edgmont, Pleasantville, and Valhalla) had perfect (100 percent) four-year graduation rates. Only 9 had graduation rates under 90 percent: Elmsford (87), New Rochelle (78), Ossining (78), Peekskill (73), Port Chester (69), Sleepy Hollow (82), White Plains (84), Yonkers’s Lincoln (83) and Yonkers’s Roosevelt (67).
Yes, credit goes to the schools for doing such a good job of engaging their students. But, of course, it’s easier to engage students who speak English fluently, whose parents can help with homework because they have college degrees, and kids who don’t have to work after school. Indeed, studies show that the better off the parents in a certain community are, the higher the graduation rate. For example, a study by The Mortenson Seminar on Public Policy Analysis found that more than 90 percent of students from the top two income quartiles graduate from high school, compared to 65 percent of those from the bottom quartile. This gap has barely changed for 35 years. It also points out that a child from a family in the top income quartile is five times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than is a child from the bottom income quartile.
“Let me tell you about all the kids who are eligible to graduate this year,” says Sleepy Hollow High’s Principal Carol Conklin, “including those who will get an equivalency diploma, or including those who hung in here for five or six years so they could learn enough English to pass. Of all those kids, we have a ninety-four-percent graduation rate, not the eight-two percent you see in your chart.”
Most of us look at test scores and graduation rates to assess a school’s performance. We often ignore what happens outside the classroom. That, says White Plains Schools Superintendent Dr. Timothy Connors, is a mistake. “You’re leaving out the programs in schools that get the students engaged—athletics, after-school programs, the overall climate of a school that makes for a safe and productive learning environment.”
And perhaps even better grades. One study completed in 2006 by Susan A. Dumais of Louisiana State University, found a direct correlation between joining the student government and student academic clubs and higher math grades. (It also found that reading for pleasure upped students’ test scores. However, hanging out, driving around, talking on the phone, and watching television did the opposite.)
Lois Winkler, president of the Westchester/Putnam School Boards Association, advises that if you really want to know how well your high school engages its students, stop by at the end of the day—after classes are over—and see how many kids are still there. Not hanging around waiting for a ride to the mall, but participating in an extra-curricular activity of some sort. As Winkler says, “How many students are participating in things other than academics? Sports, clubs, drama, forensics? That’s addressing the whole student. If there is a high participation rate, that’s telling you something about the school. If the kids are just leaving as soon as school’s done, that tells you something, too.”
Yonkers High School Principal Ralph Vigliotti points out that high participation tells you something about the teaching staff of a school, too. “They’re committed to the kids,” he says.
We asked schools to tell us what percentage of students participated in both athletic and non-athletic extracurricular activities. Somers had the greatest participation rate in non-athletic activities (95 percent), with Edgemont (92 percent) and Briarcliff (90 percent) in the same range.
And not only are kids participating, but the opportunities to participate in, well, just about anything is staggering. Some of the activities could tempt plenty of adults to go back to high school for a year or two. The 115 kids in the Irvington High marching band, for example, are going to London to perform, tour, and compete this spring. In the last 10 years, the Scarsdale Orchestra has traveled to Italy—twice—as well as to Northern Europe and Buenos Aires. The Scarsdale Band has been to China and Europe. At Mamaroneck, students publish Pen Pourri, a literary magazine with about 75 pages of student writing that comes out twice yearly. Sleepy Hollow High works with Phelps Memorial Hospital in a program in which the school nurse advises a group of students with an interest in nursing, taking them to health fairs and helping them find volunteer positions.
And let’s not forget the jocks. A 2005 University of Akron study found that athletes have higher GPAs at the end of their high school careers than at the start. Even if a student athlete’s grades don’t improve, though, athletics have another benefit for those who participate, according to Sleepy Hollow senior football player Vic Arpi. “They get us out of trouble and keep us in school,” he says. Arpi is going to Nassau Community College next year.
Participation in extracurricular athletics is strong in Westchester, too. Edgemont students are the most avid, with a participation rate in athletics of 85 percent. Bronxville (79 percent) and Briarcliff (75 percent) are active, too.
One of the problems with extracurricular activities is that they are “extra,” or outside the normal test-score-driven curriculum, and therefore one of the softest places in a budget when voters need something to fiscally squeeze. That’s what happened to Mount Vernon High’s highly venerated athletic programs when voters twice rejected the school budget and forced administrators to not only lay off 100 employees and increase class sizes, but to scrap the athletic program. Winter sports were saved by $750,000 raised from concerned citizens led by donations from Ben Gordon of the Chicago Bulls and actor Denzel Washington, both former residents. Dozens of others chipped in to get the school’s athletes through the winter, but the future of athletics at Mount Vernon High remains shaky.
College is the number-one priority for the majority of Westchester’s high school graduates. In 2007, NYS DOE figures show 69 percent of our seniors intended to enter a four-year college and another 21 percent were headed to two-year schools. It’s no wonder Pace’s Soodak says, “We are using counselors to get kids ready for college.” We looked at the number of kids per counselor, since the more time the counselor can spend with each one, the greater the impact they can have. More time means more attention to detail, more interaction with the kids and their families on college admission strategies, more opportunities to explore all the options.
This job description fits well with the widely held notion that the sole function of high school is to prepare children for college, which dovetails nicely with the similarly prevalent view that the only purpose college serves is as a ticket to a good job. That’s a shame, really, because education should have better long-term outputs than a paycheck.
Still, that’s why Scarsdale High defines itself in its profile as “a four-year college-preparatory high school” and the school has nine counselors (known since time immemorial as “deans”) for 1,470 students, which gives it a ratio of 163 students per counselor, about mid-range for the county. Yonkers’s Roosevelt High has the highest, with 390 students per counselor.
Most schools get by with half as many counselors on staff as Scarsdale. Irvington, where four counselors serve 600 students, giving each one about the same student caseload as Scarsdale’s, is a typical example. One counselor handles the entire ninth grade while the other three split the remainder of the Irvington High student body. “College is their prime concern, of course,” Principal Scott Mosenthal says, “but they also do a career program, a skills inventory, and a life-skills seminar at the end of the students’ high school career. That can deal with everything from how to fix a tire to how to manage a tough roommate.”
Shelley Wepner, dean of the School of Education at Manhattanville College, says of all the factors determining the quality of education, “number one is the qualification of the teacher. You want to make sure the teacher has current knowledge about their discipline and understands pedagogy.” That’s why we report on the percentage of each school’s faculty that holds advanced degrees. Even though a degree in and of itself doesn’t guarantee anything, there is some comfort in knowing that the instructional staff has gone beyond the bare minimum necessary to qualify for the job.
Seven Westchester schools report 100 percent of their teachers hold master’s degrees or higher: Valhalla, Hastings, Edgemont, Blind Brook, Pleasantville, Walter Panas in Cortlandt Manor, and Lakeland in Shrub Oak. All but eight other schools in the county have 90 percent or higher at that level. Teachers with bachelor’s degrees (and who meet other criteria) can be certified in New York, but have five years to complete their master’s degrees (along with meeting some other benchmarks) in order to become permanently certified.
When it comes to student engagement, one way to judge a school is by how well it challenges its students. Advanced courses are meant to do that. And these college level courses aren’t just for the top students anymore; many schools encourage underachievers to test their mettle, too, as a way to show them that they can do better than they think.
But it’s difficult to compare advanced course offerings between schools. Smaller schools, almost by definition, have fewer offerings. Then there are the many different paths schools can follow for such classes. Most Westchester schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses certified by The College Board, the same people who gave us the SAT test. Not Scarsdale, though, which recently opted out of the AP program in favor of their own brand known as Advanced Topics. And not Yonkers High School, which offers similar classes under the aegis of the very challenging International Baccalaureate program. Dobbs Ferry provides both. In a growing trend, many schools are scheduling upper-level classes in conjunction with colleges and universities outside the AP framework.
“We always had AP calculus,” reports Mamaroneck High teacher Linda Sherwood. “Now we’ve added regular calculus and college math Level One so kids can take a more advanced class without having the added pressure of the May 8 deadline to take the AP exam. The teachers are more connected to what colleges are doing. Instead of taking AP English, you can take college writing and get three credits from Iona. You can take sociology and get three credits from Syracuse.”
Comparing schools using this criterion is particularly dangerous, NHSC Director Harris warns, who observes, “If you use the number of different electives offered, the small school is going to get creamed.”
The College Board provides 37 AP courses—and standardized exams—covering 22 subjects. The lesson plan for each course leaves some flexibility for the teacher, but mostly it is aimed at helping the student pass a test in the spring that may—or may not, depending on the college he or she chooses—get the student some extra college credit.
Last year, Scarsdale opted to phase out the AP brand in favor of a locally grown version, the Advanced Topics Program, giving teachers and students more flexibility, the school says, and, hopefully, a better chance to actually explore a subject in more depth. “When Advanced Placement came along in the fifties, Scarsdale was at the forefront,” says Scarsdale High Principal John Klemme. “That tradition has been sustained in our movement toward the Advanced Topics program. Teachers have been discontent for a while about teaching to the AP test. This has liberated teachers to not be consumed by the test.”
Last year (2007-08) was the first year that taking AP tests was optional for Scarsdale students. “It made sense to give kids a choice depending on whether the exam score was going to be useful to them,” Klemme says. “We like to think it reduced the stress from having to take five exams versus two.”
“We are on a constant mission to help kids understand that there is meaning in this moment and this experience,” Klemme continues. “That’s somewhat counter-cultural; the pressures to go to the best college you can get into are intense.
The decision to drop teaching AP courses was widely opposed by Scarsdale parents, who feared that it would disadvantage their children when applying to college. But Barbara Leifer-Sarullo, director of Counseling at Scarsdale, says the parents had nothing to fear. “We communicated with about one hundred forty schools, who said that as long as the transcript indicates that the course is the most rigorous course offered, that’s all they were interested in.” The high number of counselors at Scarsdale and the intensity they bring to relations with top colleges makes this kind of decision-making possible.
The International Baccalaureate (IB) program offered by Dobbs Ferry and Yonkers High School is similar to the AP program—it, too, was created by an outside organization—but unlike AP courses are sometimes interrelated and often span more than one year. “We want every child to be challenged by college level courses,” says Yonkers High Principal Ralph Vigliotti. “We have some very difficult courses like IB physics and IB biology. IB English is a two-year program, as is History of the Americas. We also added courses like IB psychology, film, anthropology, environmental systems. Students can tackle courses that are fair and reasonable” in addition to the hardcore academic subjects.
More than 85 percent of the students at Yonkers High take at least two IB courses over their last two years. About one in four students take more, striving for an IB Diploma, which requires six IB courses, a 4,000-word research paper, and 150 hours spent in creativity, action, and service to the community. They take a course in each of the major areas, science, math, history, foreign language, English, and an elective. Last year, 33 Yonkers High students received IB diplomas. “We provide IB-targeted instruction after school and Saturdays,” Vigliotti reports. “It makes all the difference. If you come here on Saturday as the exam date approaches, it looks like a sixth school day.”
Members of Ossining High’s three-year Science Research Program with teachers Angelo Piccirillo and Valerie Holmes.
A Nobel Prize seems to be about the only thing that students in the Science Research Program at Ossining High haven’t won. That’s probably only a matter of time, though, considering the number of other national and international awards the young scientists in the three-year program have put on their trophy shelves. Just last year, senior Jessica Palmer landed a $50,000 college scholarship for taking first-place honors in the Young Epidemiology Scholars (YES) Competition, one of the nation’s most prestigious and influential high school science competitions.
Palmer wasn’t the only winner from Ossining. In one of the world’s most widely known events, the Intel Science Talent Search, six Ossining seniors—the largest number at any one school in Westchester—were named semifinalists. Honored in 2008 were Micah Joselow, Caitlyn Lia, Yingna Liu, Andrei Popescu, Asha Smith, and Lauren Southwick. “We started the program ten years ago and success breeds success,” says Andra Meyerson, director of Math and Science at Ossining. That success has become somewhat of a tradition at the school, with a huge number of students signing up for the demanding, three-year program that leads to the competitions. In the spring of their freshman year, every student in the school hears a pitch for the program delivered by students currently participating. To be admitted, interested students must get a teacher’s recommendation, fill out an application, submit an essay, and undergo two interviews, one by a student, the other by a teacher.
About 90 kids—nearly a third of the freshman class—apply each year. Approximately 45 are accepted. Over time, there is some attrition, and the program has a total of about 90 spread through three years.
During the first year, the students read much of the literature in the field they’ve chosen to study and identify scientists, social scientists, or mathematicians to mentor them. Students work with professionals at institutions like New York Medical College, IBM, Mount Sinai, Fordham Robotics Lab, Carnegie Mellon, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
The next two years are spent conducting original research and preparing presentations about it. All work is done independently and supervised by the mentors and the program’s two teachers, Angelo Piccirillo and Valerie Holmes. Students devote hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to studying, data collection, and presentation work that spans summers, after school, and weekends over the three-year program.
Sabrina Albrecht graduated in 2004 and is now entering graduate school at Coastal Carolina University to continue her study of marine biology, a passion she honed while working on her Ossining project, Age and Growth of the Scalloped Hammerhead Shark. She was mentored by a scientist in Rhode Island at the National Marine Fisheries Service, so she took a day off from school once a month to travel there to work with her.
“Time-management and organization are things I took away that I still use today,” she says.
The science competitions are important (and sometimes lucrative), but they’re not the ultimate reward students receive for three years of grinding study, according to Meyerson: “You develop writing ability, learn how to manage your time, and gain confidence in yourself because you’re working in a professional community. These things happen whether the student enters competitions or not.”
Lakeland and Walter Panas schools joined forces for a serious debate team. Coach Stefan Bauschard joins the team.
“The kids who do really well in debate are more competitive than athletes,” says Lakeland District Debate Director Stefan Bauschard. A personal note: having debated three years in high school and gone through college on a debate scholarship myself, I can attest that he’s correct. Debaters are intense.
That’s especially true in Shrub Oak’s Lakeland High and Cortlandt Manor’s Walter Panas. The two schools have fielded debate teams for many years and combined their programs into the Lakeland District Debate Team in 1986. They’ve been a powerhouse ever since, winning three National Championships and 13 New York State Debate Championships—more than any other school in the state.
Most recently, seniors Jason Wright and Taylor Roth won the varsity division of the New York State Championship in 2008. Wright also was named the tournament’s best overall individual speaker. In junior varsity competition, the teams of Mackenzie Carroll/Jack Chong and Chris Grossman/Patrick Cheung finished third and fourth in the state. Both Wright and Roth were named Academic All-Americans, the highest rank awarded by the National Forensic League, which organizes the sport nationally.
The Lakeland District Team has 24 members this year. They competed in 20 tournaments, traveling to Wake Forest, the University of Michigan, and Harvard, as well as to numerous meets closer to home. Bauschard is a full-time coach, one of the few in the area.
In the most common format, two teams of two students each take turns pummeling each other with facts, figures, logic, and opinions in an effort to convince a panel of judges that their argument is best. This year’s question, which is debated throughout the school year, is, “Resolved: Should the Federal Government increase alternative energy incentives in the United States?” Students have to be ready to debate either side and discuss the intricacies of numerous possible issues like nuclear power subsidies and cap-and-trade programs. To compete at the highest level takes not only a willingness to stand up and speak to an audience, but to spend hours and hours researching a complex issue. Coach Bauschcard estimates that top performers will devote 1,000 hours of preparation to a topic.
That kind of work pays off in some tangible ways. Bauschard points out that schools like Emory, Northwestern, and Wake Forest offer debate scholarships. Texas and Florida don’t offer scholarships, he says, but they will help by allowing out-of-state debaters to pay in-state tuition, find them work-study jobs, and offer other forms of financial assistance.
Much justifiable acclaim is paid to Westchester schools that deliver an endless supply of applicants to Ivy League universities, but that’s an easier task in many respects than the one accomplished by White Plains High. During the last five years, the second-largest high school in the county has nearly erased the academic performance gaps in its diverse student population.
The Regents test scores tell the tale. In the 2004 English exam, 95 percent of white students scored 65 and above while only 75 percent of the black and 71 percent of the Hispanic students made that grade at the school. With a multi-faceted approach and substantial effort, the school not only pushed 99 percent of the white students to that level by 2008, but brought Hispanic and black kids up to 91 percent and 87 percent, respectively. Similar gains were seen in the Math Regents. Principal Ivan Toper says they won’t stop until there is no performance gap at all.
Nearly everyone pitches in to make it happen. “We run an after-school academic tutoring program three days a week,” Toper explains. “During the day, we have a tutoring program run by our National Honors Society. Teachers provide extensive time for students during their common lunch time when students can go for extra help.” Participation is voluntary, but nearly 200 students (that’s 10 percent of the total student body) take part in the after-school tutoring alone, encouraged and prodded to do the extra work by counselors, teachers, other students, and involved parents.
In addition, White Plains has developed a weekly after-school program for Hispanic students that focuses not on academic tutoring but on helping them understand the importance of scholastic achievement in our society. “We might have a former student who was successful in college come back and speak to that experience,” Toper says. “We’ll have a registrar from a college in the area speak about what it means to get into the college and what it means to stay in college. We’ll have a trip to a university to show them what their life could be like. We’ll expose them to scholarship opportunities.”
The Hispanic enrichment program started three years ago. The first year, the target was 23 senior Latino students who hadn’t yet passed the English Regents, a requirement for graduation. They went through nine weeks without direct academic intervention, Toper explains, “but we gave them all these other things in terms of self-esteem, learning to communicate, do job interviews, etc. We also gave them the opportunity to go into the after-school tutoring if they wished—we wanted them to be self-motivated.” Twenty-one of the 23 students passed that year.
The extra effort isn’t just for seniors at White Plains. Four years ago, the school launched the Emerging Scholars Program, designed to identify middle school students whose academic scores suggest they have the ability, but who haven’t otherwise been honors or advanced students. They’re encouraged to accept the greater challenge by a pre-freshman year summer institute. Once in the high school, special counselors are assigned and they have a special study hall period manned by teachers. Roughly 100 students are part of that effort. “It’s been incredibly successful in not only identifying students who might not have otherwise been in honors or AP,” Toper says, “but maintaining them in those programs.
Seniors in Sleepy Hollow High’s Participation in Government and Contemporary Issues class take a giant step forward into the 21st century by delving into some of the most horrific events of modern times. Using the Holocaust, the civil rights struggle in America, the genocide in Rwanda, and other current examples of hate, racism, and discrimination, they study the connections between historical events and the choices they make in their own lives. The course has been offered in one form or another for 10 years, with issues changing with the times.
“The course consists of more than just hand-wringing over the world’s humanitarian crises,” says Social Studies Chair Jessica Hunsberger. “There is more to being a citizen than just being concerned. The kids get a good understanding of the complexity of modern global issues. Hopefully, they take away a sense that they can make a difference as an individual.”
About 125 seniors take the semester-long class, which includes field trips and brings in guest speakers. In addition, teacher Lisa Graham explains, class time is spent in debate, discussion, and role-playing. “We don’t want them to walk away with definitive opinions but rather with an interest in learning and knowing more about the issues,” she says.
The course opened this school year with a field trip to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. The students then worked in teams to research and create PowerPoint presentations about genocides from Armenia to Darfur and the Congo. In November, the students met with Sergeant David Cyr, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and two tours of duty in Iraq, who spoke about what his experiences taught him. The students also attended a workshop on Darfur and wrote letters to children living in refugee camps. Last year, they created a huge flag and delivered it to the UN as part of an event drawing attention to the genocide in Darfur.
This isn’t your grandfather’s civics class.
Dave Donelson lives and writes in West Harrison. He has many fond memories of his own high school career, some of which even include academics.