Worcester’s Doherty High School is located on Highland Street. (photo: Rosalie Tirella) There will be a public hearing on the proposed academy this month. Please attend and voice your ideas/opinions!
By Edith Morgan
For some weeks I had been hearing that the City of Worcester was considering establishing a “gifted and talented program” at the high school level.
I have always been interested in the education of that particular, usually neglected group (at least in Massachusetts public education) – we have long had many kinds of academic enrichment programs, academic advancement programs, (AP and others) and more and more opportunities for students to pursue their areas of interest, be they science, math, language, and the various performance and production arts.
So when our editor asked me to look into these plans, I was happy to get the information, and to try to understand what was being proposed.
On December 4, 2014, Worcester School Superintendent Dr. Melinda Boone presented a proposal to the Worcester School Committee, which was being developed as a result of Mayor Joseph Petty’s announced goal at his inauguration in 2012 to establish an exam school in Worcester. He appointed an Ad Hoc Committee which was charged with “studying the feasibility of establishing an exam school for students in Grades 9 through 12 which would develop and promote academic excellence relevant to success in the 21st century” as stated in the Ad Hoc committee’s report in February 2013.
By June of that year, the committee’s recommendations went to the superintendent who was charged with creating the proposal that went to the school committee in December 2014.
A great deal of research, discussion, visiting of other programs, and study of what was being done elsewhere, went into the final report and recommendations of the Ad Hoc committee. Its members were drawn from educators at all levels, parents, and community members – to solicit the widest possible views.
In the “background” section of the proposal, Dr. Boone summarizes present programs offered by the Worcester Public Schools, at various levels and trying to serve gifted and talented students at all levels.
In the Burncoat quadrant students with gifts, talents and interests have many opportunities, often recognized for their achievements, in music and the arts. Also, academically high achieving students are offered 23 Advanced Placement (AP) courses at no cost in the Worcester Public Schools, and there are opportunities to earn college credits while still in a Worcester public high school through dual enrollment in local colleges and universities.
The report emphasizes that this pilot program is not to replace any of the existing programs but is to offer an additional option, and promises to support and enhance existing programs.
According to Dr.Boone, “It should be clearly noted and understood that this ‘Pilot Innovation Academy’ is not designed to replace or supplant an of the existing programs serving gifted and high achieving students. Rather, the “Pilot Innovation Academy” will be an additional option within the Worcester Public Schools portfolio of school programs and options. The district will continue strong support and enhancement of those existing programs.”
The program is supposed to attract students from all over the city, “who have demonstrated exceptional interest in and ability to be successful in a rigorous high school program of studies leading to advanced college readiness.”
When I inquired why have it a Doherty High School, I was told it was the most centrally located of our high schools, a consideration since these students would have to be bused in from all over the city.
There would be room for 250 students in the school, grades 9-12, with no more than 62 students in any grade. The first class would be ninth graders. The curriculum to be followed would be that of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. focusing on English and literature; languages and culture; individuals and society; including history, geography, world religions, global politics, experimental sciences – i.e. chemistry, physics, biology, chemistry environmental science, and mathematics.
Anyone wanting details on the curriculum, its history, the nations and states using it can Google it (ibo.org, and for a definition, see Wikipedia) and do further research, as this program has been in existence for many years, in many places. Students could get a certificate, or if they take the final exam, a diploma.
The report includes a detailed, long list of application criteria, to be reviewed and scored by a panel made up of local higher education members. If, as often happens with new programs, there are too many students eligible, there will be a lottery.
The report includes a detailed budget, which includes costs of $236,000 for the year of planning, with two fulltime staff members, a fulltime clerical member, and $80,000 for staff development and miscellaneous expenses associated with starting up this program. In the succeeding years, costs will involve $1,050,500 for year 1`; $1,146,550 for year2; $1,877,412 for year 3, and $1, 969,049 in year 4, the year the first group “graduates.” Details are available from WPS administration.
Further costs for transportation can not be figured until we know where the selected students will be coming from.
The final section of the report contains a detailed timeline, starting with the December initial presentation to the school committee, then expects the school committee to schedule at least one public hearing on this idea, with oral and written comments to be received. From January through August 2015 the first year’s planning and training and hiring will take place, and in August 9 of that year and advisory council will be appointed.
In gathering the above material I spoke to a number of people who asked a number of questions, regarding location of the program, selection criteria to be used, the cost and source of the funds at a time when some of our classrooms have over 30 students because staff were laid off, and with many in only half-time kindergarten, and the advantage of IB over AP programs. There are also questions as to what effect this program would have on existing programs already working well in our schools. I would be very interested in the answers to these questions. This program is to be voted on yet, and there is much work to be done before the first class begins, if approved, in September 2016. Dr. Boone has already received comments and continues to hear from interested parties. Hopefully, there will be much input when the school committee, after voting approval, holds its first public hearing this month.
On a deeper philosophical level, I am concerned that this is a mere extension of existing programs, heavy on academics and testing, and not “innovative” but merely “new” to our schools. Massachusetts has always done well by the academically talented, as demonstrated by our #1 position in the various tests. But there is a great difference between the enrichment programs and the academically advanced programs, and the very rare, genuinely gifted programs, of which there appear to be very few in the public sphere in the U.S.
The criteria for identifying the creatively gifted, the innovators and the inventive, are quite different from those used to find those who will succeed in college. In my experience, the creative and innovative, who are so very important to our future, tend not to test well, tend to express boredom with routine and give unexpected answers to questions. They tend to take risks and pursue their own preoccupations, and are often the bane of teachers, as they give answers that are unexpected or of a higher order than those scored high by the test=makers. Study the life stories of the great inventors, the real innovators, the creators. They are characterized by unusual motivation in areas that fascinate them, they are not afraid of failing time and again in pursuit of an idea, and they are able to look at problems in different ways and see many solutions. They often score poorly on IQ or achievement tests, but seek solutions that may someday save us from disease, war, and other banes of civilization. They DO NOT usually appear in IB or AP programs. But they DO appear in the oddest places, regardless of family income, background, color, or culture.
If we were going to really innovate, these are the students we should find and nurture, as they are badly under-served. The IB program offers a great academic challenge above and beyond our AP programs, beginning at an earlier stage. Keep tuned …