Liberty High School is an interesting case. They opened in 2003-2004 (my senior year at Glencoe) to great promise. The building is state of the art – a technologically-inclined educator’s dream. TVs in every classroom (and a “broadcast journalism” course to back them up), a beautiful new football field, a gym that could host graduation ceremonies… the works! Of course, this sort of thing is always my dream. Forgive the impending digression – it’ll come together, I promise.
When applying to be a second-year resident assistant at Whitworth, my first choice was Duvall Hall. Why? Several reasons, of course. But one of the the biggest ones was that it was a brand new, state-of-the-art building with ample space for programming and student activities. As I watched Duvall’s unique community grow and develop during its first two years, I found a few things. First of all, I was right about the programming aspect. They did some really cool things there, most notably a student-led “prayer labyrinth” that used most of the building. However, there were a few little problems with Duvall. The towel racks wouldn’t stay on the walls. The “pod” setup made it easy for students to hide alcohol and difficult for RAs to connect with students. The showers spewed only cold water for much of the year. Hall activities were sparsely attended because you either got an entire pod (6-8 people) or none of them – and frequently, none.
Duvall’s design was experimental. Nobody really knew what its effects would be on community and student life at Whitworth, but they gave it a shot. It has its ups and downs, but students and leadership are learning more and more what to expect. Most importantly, the student life staff is dedicated to fostering community in Duvall despite the inherent difficulties in the building’s design.
Liberty has a similar problem. Its “academy” design was certainly experimental. It was hypothesized that by giving students focused programs of study (much like collegiate majors), the students would be more interested in their studies and perform better in class. But like the aforementioned news article stated, that just wasn’t the case. Students were given more freedom, but it seems as if it ended up being freedom to slack off and forgo college preparation. In the wake of a nation-wide emphasis on preventing students from falling through the cracks, Liberty was doing just that – and it seemed as if they were doing it on purpose.
Well, we’ve just finished Year 5 of the Liberty High School experiment, and the data is starting to shake out. More students are dropping out of Liberty or graduating without the skills needed to get into the University of Oregon than any other highs school in the Hillsboro School District. That’s not okay.
When Liberty opened, they took most of their teachers from Glencoe and Century, as well as a few from Hilhi and some newly-hired ones. The teachers I knew that went over to Liberty from Glencoe were top-notch (Kulle, Fink, Wunder, Leifer, Toth, Mahlum, etc), and I’ve heard that some great teachers from Century ended up there as well. So, why the issues? If there were good teachers there, what happened?
Well, there are conflicting reports of what is happening within the walls of that beautiful new school on Wagon Way. Some say that Liberty is still a great school, despite the rumors. Some chalk the school’s troubles up to “growing pains.” The Seattle Times article reports that “students say administrators seemed so caught up in tinkering with the small schools’ structure that they didn’t pay enough attention to the quality of teaching.”
From what I’ve heard about life at Liberty in the first five years, that last description is spot-on. The academy structure was broken when they opened the box, and the first principal was more worried about fixing that structure than fixing the quality of education that her students were receiving. As a result, the school got bogged down in petty politics and students got left behind. Oh, and she got canned.
Now, I have to admit that I’m not yet a teacher. I’m a candidate in an MIT program. I didn’t go to Liberty, either. I have close friends who did, however, and I do have sources on the inside. But what I’ve been told about the school’s inner workings (especially for the first couple of years) makes me mad.
So, what? Why am I painting this picture, as bleak as it may seem?
It’s important to realize that there is no panacea for education. Most “cures” for what ails today’s students end up being snake oil. But if I ruled the educational system, here are five ideas I would hope that every school keeps in mind. Please don’t think I’m pointing at Liberty specifically with these. It was an example that got me rolling on this idea. And yes, I realize I’m idealistic, but bear with me. I think a dose of idealism could do everybody some good:
- Students have to come first. If learning isn’t happening, something is wrong. You may need to throw out your innovative ideas for their sake.
- At the same time, you can’t be afraid to try something. The academies don’t seem to have worked at Liberty, but I do admire the fact that the inaugural staff went out on a limb and did something to try and help improve education. It didn’t seem to have worked, but you’d have to think that it was worth a shot after all they put into it.
- This may seem obvious, but when you hire new teachers, hire really, really good ones. Don’t worry, they’re out there. For example, I’ll be looking for a job in a few months. :)
- You have to encourage extracurricular activities at your school. Sports, choirs, bands, visual arts, yearbooks, newspapers, dance teams, student councils, etc. are the lifeblood of a student body. They generate school spirit, which can only lead to enthusiasm about the school itself. If students are excited about their school, they might actually become excited about their studies.
- If you’ve been blessed with a great school facility, don’t squander it. There are a million things a teacher of any subject could do with a facility like Liberty High School, and I would love to have a chance to experiment there. Likewise, if you aren’t blessed with a great facility, you have to be resourceful and dig deep to make the most of what you have. Students can learn in a concrete box, sure- but a great teacher can make that place shine as if they have NASA’s annual budget behind them.
Hopefully, Liberty is on the way up now. They’re onto their second principal, and they’ll be opening their doors for their sixth year in the fall. There are good people working there, trying to make it an environment where students can succeed. It takes a long time to change a culture – the Portland Trail Blazers can tell you that – but it can happen.
It just takes baby steps.