Saturday, December 09, 2006

Escaping 'Average': Innovative Programs Make the Case That High-Level Classes Aren't Just for the Gifted

[28 November 2006 - Washington Post] School leaders in Seaford, Del., had noticed for some time that very few average students took the most challenging courses in the town's secondary schools. As was the case in most small school systems, many Seaford families did not expect much. Parents and teachers did not want to push kids beyond their limits. But Secondary Education Director James VanSciver and other Seaford educators became convinced that with extra help, many more students could be taking algebra in middle school and college-level courses in high school. Four years ago, they began offering special tutoring, summer classes and Saturday classes. The number of Advanced Placement classes at Seaford High swelled from four to 14. The focus on helping average students also boosted minority enrollment in the most rigorous classes. The district has about 3,400 students, 40 percent black and slightly more than half white. Through the initiative, administrators found more black students doing well and going on to college. Julius Mullen, who directs a Saturday program for young African American males in Seaford, said the students discovered they could advance if given more time and the assurance that they had their friends with them. "When expectations are raised, I think students will grab for them if they have the support programs in place," Mullen said. "They have to see their friends achieving success." Throughout the country, the desire to coax average students into high-level courses has inspired many innovations. Nearly all seek to teach students how to take notes, write papers and prepare for exams. They harness what is perhaps the greatest force in U.S. schools -- the urge to be a part of a group -- by giving the students a sense they are moving onto the college track with others who share their doubts and middling academic records. More

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