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Building Houston's Super School

Five Things To Know About The Push To Rethink American High School

News 88.7’s Laura Isensee spoke with one advocate at the forefront of that push, former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise

Students experiment with rockets during Genius Time, an elective at Furr High School.
Eric Kayne
Students experiment with rockets during Genius Time, an elective at Furr High School.

Furr High School on the east side of Houston isn’t alone in its quest to build a super school fit for the new century.

Nine other schools that also won $10 million grants each from the XQ Institute plus a growing number of districts and states are exploring how to remake the American high school. For example, just with the American Association of School Administrators, a network of about 80 districts are moving in this direction.

News 88.7’s Laura Isensee spoke with one advocate at the forefront of that push, former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise. He’s the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and also served as a judge for the XQ Institute’s Super School competition. He did not judge Furr’s application.

In his advocacy, Wise points to statistics like the forecast that of the 11.6 million jobs created since the Great Recession, more than 90 percent of them went to people with more than a high school diploma.

Below are some highlights from their conversation.

Why the current high school model isn’t enough: “The high school diploma is what gets you started. It’s a starting gun in the race. It’s no longer the finish line. And so therefore, what is it that we need to be in that high school experience that gives students the ability to persist in additional learning experiences? We know that a student is going to have to be re-educated countless times. I’ve seen estimates of as much as 10 or 12 times during their working lifetime for the jobs they’re going to fill. We know that we don’t know most of the jobs they’re going to fill. So what we have to do is to be able to prepare them to succeed, but not able to give them all the time a target — a definite job to look at.”

What parts of the traditional model would he keep: “There some traditional parts of education you want to keep — the relationship between an adult in the building and a student is one of the single most important determinants of whether that student will stay in school. The teacher and how that teacher teaches is the most important determinant of the success of a student in the school. And you also want engaged school leaders. Because that teacher — the other adults in the building — the interaction with the students and the parents, that’s going to be determined by the principal. And so you need strong school leadership. At the same time you need strong district leadership.”

What’s the biggest challenge in creating a new model: “I think the biggest challenge is buy-in. At some point, you’ve got to get buy- in several different places. Obviously, if you’re working in a school district, at some point that district leadership needs to be supporting you, because for most systems, the district provides the infrastructure, the resources and the policies that are necessary. But you have to get buy-in in a lot of other places, too. Teachers have to understand and appreciate and be part of this process. And that’s why any successful school initiative such as this involves working closely with teachers before you start the process. It can’t be a top-down, ‘Here’s what we’re going to start on Tuesday.’ The other place is students and parents have to understand what you’re trying to accomplish.”

How a more personalized approach can benefit under-served students: “If you’re serious about it, it does. And indeed many of these school models … focus on the historically under-served student. And indeed, if this doesn’t reach them, then we failed. Because when we talk about deeper learning and what a student needs, we’re not talking about what 25 percent of the students now need. That that was in my day, back in the ’60s. We’re talking about what almost 100 percent of students need, if they’re truly going to be successful in today’s society.”

Why he’s so passionate about this:I grew up in West Virginia and in 1965, a high school classmate of mine told me then, education is the only passport from poverty. And he was right in 1965 and he was even more right many, many years later. It is the only passport from poverty. And for the half of our students who could be — not all of them, but could be — at risk of not succeeding, for many students in our country, education is the only passport to both prosperity and from poverty.”