insights (2006-52)

Lindsey’s Theme

If schools Superintendent Charles Lindsey gets his way, zoning of students to the new Hardin Valley High School will be minimized in order to make it primarily a school of choice, open to students from throughout Knox County.

As he envisions it, the school would offer a variety of curricular choices aimed at engaging students based on their career interests. Smaller units within the large high school would each have themes that might range from the medical and legal professions to careers in technology, business and finance, education or even such narrow fields as cinematography.

The actual choice of themes would be based on surveys of student interest that have yet to be conducted. But Lindsey is convinced that the concept of such theme-based schools of choice can spur motivation and performance, especially on the part of students who might otherwise be disengaged or dropping out.

“I really believe that high schools of the future are going to be choice schools that are theme-based and based on the interest of youngsters who can select a course of study,” Lindsey asserts. “The whole idea of a cookie-cutter comprehensive high school for all people is quickly becoming a dinosaur, and the opening of Hardin Valley gives us an opportunity we haven’t had in 40 years to design a cutting-edge high school that could be a model for the rest of our high schools.”

The model for Hardin Valley, more than any other, is Coral Reef High School in Miami, which draws 3,100 students from throughout the city on a purely elective basis to its six career academies. Because many more apply, admissions are made by lottery and include special-ed as well as college-bound students. Coral Reef ranks 13th on Newsweek ’s list of the 100 Best High Schools in America. No Tennessee school made the list.

Lindsey met with initial resistance from school board members when he proposed in November that only 925 students be zoned to Hardin Valley, which will hold a capacity of 2,100 when it becomes a four-year high school in 2010. (The school is due to open in 2008 with freshmen and sophomores only.) Prevalent sentiment on the board leaned initially toward rezoning more students to Hardin Valley in order to relieve overcrowding at Farragut and prospectively at Karns. But Lindsey prevailed on the board to defer any zoning decisions until after the conclusion of this school year.

By then, he intends to have given more concreteness to his plans for making Hardin Valley primarily, if not exclusively, an unzoned school of choice. His next steps toward doing so start with getting the school’s principal, whom expects to select before year’s end, involved in the theme and curriculum setting process. He then envisions surveying prospective students throughout the county on what career-oriented themes hold the most appeal. That may seem awfully early for today’s middle-schoolers to be having career preferences, and Hardin Valley may seem a long way from the east, north and south parts of Knox County, but Lindsey is undeterred.

Several studies stand for the proposition that students with ability who are becoming alienated in a standard school setting can be identified in their middle-school years, and those are the students Lindsey primarily has in mind. “What we know is that when a child is interested in a particular field, if we can tailor a curriculum to that we stand a much better chance of engaging them,” he says.

While the themes may be career-oriented for the most part, a themed school is no means just vocational. State-set requirements for English, math, science and other courses required for graduation would still apply, but these would be supplemented by specialized elective courses. To help in shaping the curriculum and the student selection process for a choice school, Knox County Schools has recently recruited a former Coral Reef administrator, Elizabeth Ferriara-Alves, as director of middle schools. Once those have been mapped out, Lindsey intends “to have a discussion with the school board about making Hardin Valley totally a choice school built off the Coral Reef model, and my sense that if we did that then within four years we’d have a waiting list.” However, he acknowledges that “the board may not accept that” and that he doesn’t yet have an answer to the question of whether “if you do a lottery [selection process], can you relieve the overcrowding at Farragut High School.”

Any concern that themed high schools might be less rigorous should be allayed by another recommendation that the school administration will soon be presenting to the board. Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Donna Wright will urge requiring four years of math for high-school graduation, up from three at present.

The requirement represents a meaningful address to deficiencies brought out by a recent state Board of Education assessment. According to the SBE, an ACT math score of at least 22 is needed to be prepared for college math. But Tennessee students who don’t go beyond the state’s core requirement of Algebra I, Algebra II and geometry only have an average ACT math score of 17.5. For those who go on to take trigonometry, that ACT average rises to 22.2, and for those who take calculus in addition, it reaches 25.1. While those courses may be beyond the reach of students who aren’t on a college path, some form of business math or statistics would still be required in their fourth year.

On all of the above accounts, Lindsey and Wright are bent on bringing Knox County high schools to the forefront in this state, and they are to be commended for their efforts.