Next Doors: High school isn’t what high school used to be

Posted By on May 1, 2017

In many ways, it’s a lot better.

By Tom Evans

This month, thousands of young people across the state of Arizona will achieve a major life milestone by graduating from high school. But they may not get the same kind of education you or I received.

The high school delivery model has changed a great deal since I was a teenager (back in the Paleozoic Era). While there are many improvements being made – from more diverse classes being taught, better education for children with conditions like ADHD, and more modern communication methods being used.

For example, a lot of colleges use the texting solutions offered by True Dialog for their student admissions to improve the experience for both the administration and the students. All these solutions have helped improve the overall education system. But, just because there have been improvements doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

It used to be you went to the nearest high school to your house, and received a nice, well-rounded education that prepared you for college, where you would then pick your career path.

But a lot has happened in the past few decades since I roamed a high school hallway. Especially when you talk about serving young people who live in the inner city – such as the kids who attend schools in the Phoenix Union High School District.

Stretching basically from Camelback Road south to South Mountain, PUHSD encompasses about 220 square miles and is home to 20 high schools serving almost 30,000 students at a time. Those students, often from economically disadvantaged areas, are more than 80 percent Hispanic and speak a total of 74 different languages.

They’re also the future of Arizona, PUHSD Superintendent Chad Gestson will tell you.

“Historically, the demographics of our district are a 10- to 20-year precursor to the demographics of the City of Phoenix,” Gestson says. “And the demographics of the City of Phoenix are a 10- to 20-year precursor to the demographics of the state as a whole. So what we see in Phoenix Union today is what we will see across Arizona in the next 20, 30, 40 years.”

It’s a population of students with unique characteristics from the get-go, and that doesn’t take into account the shifting way that young people think compared to the old days.

“Kids today aren’t interested in showing up and taking seven periods, going from class to class,” Gestson said. “Kids today want to solve problems and work on projects and solve real-world issues today…we have to realize that the model of education is shifting – and must shift.” This generation of children does not want to limit themselves to what their curriculum teaches them. Especially with the Internet at their fingertips and the ability to learn faster, children are picking up newer knowledge bases that previous generations didn’t have access to. Browsing on the world wide web might lead children to look for resources such as a coding help website (among many others) that can help them solve challenging problems and learn more.

So, Phoenix Union has shifted by giving the kids what they want – a chance for unique, specialized educational experiences that meet their individual interests. And that means the creation of different educational models for schools themselves. Now the district offers schools such as the Phoenix Coding Academy, the Phoenix Bioscience High School, Franklin Police & Fire High School and Metro Tech High School.

“Much like at the university level, you can go to a small, specialized liberal arts college or you can go to a large school like Arizona State University,” Gestson said. “What we realized is, that’s the type of choice and decision and system we should build at the high school level, knowing that not all kids learn in the same way, at the same pace – and all kids don’t even need to learn the same information.”

But it’s not just offering different programs, it’s flipping the traditional education model on its head.

For example, Phoenix Bioscience High School has a problem-based curriculum, where students identify issues that they want to solve – homelessness, hunger, or other problems – and build a curriculum around solving them, while picking up the knowledge they need for their future in the process. At Phoenix Coding Academy, students only code about 1-2 hours a day, but they spend the rest of their days studying models that support their learning – models such as music and how it’s structured and organized.

The results are pretty remarkable.

About 20 years ago, Phoenix Union had a graduation rate of about 55 percent. This year, for the first time, its graduation rate topped 80 percent – above the overall state average. The district’s dropout rate, long in double-digits, is down to 3.2 percent. These are numbers that Gestson says are “unheard of” in an urban, inner-city school district.

Not only that, the students who are graduating are heading to college in droves. Bioscience High School had a 100 percent college enrollment rate last year, and even Franklin Police & Fire High School – which prepares students to go directly to a police or fire academy – saw about 90 percent of its students enroll in college last year.

Gestson said it’s not that large high schools don’t work – they’re critical, actually, to the district’s success and are a great fit for many students. Phoenix Union has worked hard to improve the student experiences at the big schools as well.

“This generation of students learns differently,” he said. “They want to problem solve and be collaborative, and we have to build a structure around them that feeds that.”

Overall, Phoenix Union is enjoying its highest enrollment in 40 years, despite the competition from charters and private schools. And there’s more to come. Two new schools are about to open – one focused on creating a curriculum for students with middle-of-the-road academic achievement, who often fall through the cracks, and the other being the Phoenix Union Gifted and Talented Academy.

Another one, currently on the drawing board, would be Arizona’s first high school designed to be an educator’s academy to train the teachers of tomorrow – when they very well may come back to Phoenix Union and serve its students.

“We believe our students have all the potential, if not more potential, than students who come from typical middle-class families in suburban Arizona and suburban America,” Gestson said. “What we don’t want is for the community to say ‘Look at that district having to serve those tough communities.’ We believe they’re beautiful kids with incredible potential.”

About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is a contributing editor of Frontdoors Media.