Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Plan A

I’m fully prepared for you to tell me that the following bit of graphic art from your deep dark past, currently has no meaning to you whatsoever. 

Well, maybe there is one single solitary neuron firing that says, “Ya know, something about that sounds vaguely familiar, but I don’t know what.”

Good, at least you’re being honest.  But if you’d told me that you knew what the jumbled-up letters actually stand for in that logo, I was more than ready to call you a liar to your seventy-year-old face.

OK, cue the History Channel Documentary soundtrack.

Things were going great guns for our Fairview High School back in the late ‘50s with regards to academic and developmental education.  And part of that high-water-mark status came from always looking for hints that there were ways to improve.  So when students started coming back to visit FHS after a year or two in college, trade school, the military or on the job saying words to the effect of, “I wish you would have taught us this, that or the other thing,” it sounded alarm bells in the first floor offices along the Philadelphia Dr. side.

The consensus seemed to be that there were both numerous and significant subject matter gaps in what those students had been exposed to in secondary school, as well as deficiencies in how they had evolved from adolescents into adults.

Mr. Longnecker and Miss Folger wisely opted not to waste valuable time seeing if other schools were experiencing similar feedback or if the school system as a whole had a fix ready.  Because Fairview was a unique situation, the solution would need to be one-of-a-kind.

The fact that standardized test scores were also taking an unexpected dip gave the administrators a way to not only confirm the nature of the problem but also gain some insights into how to turn things around.

Generally speaking, the academic areas most in need of attention were math, science, social studies and the arts.  But every bit as evident was a need to improve the way students related to others as well as to themselves.  Definitely a fine kettle of fish.  

Clearly the best answers must be based on a thorough understanding of the problems.  And while four years might seem like plenty of time for significant teaching and learning, the fact is that there was typically more exposure than education.  At the time there was significant reliance on extracurricular activities, i.e. clubs, group events, special assemblies, etc., to address the rough patches and allow for some in-depth opportunity, but it just wasn’t happening that way.  It’s just an unfortunate reality that even the most aggressive student was only going to come into contact with 25% of the teachers, and by extension, their expertise. 

For any solution to work, it had to be quickly implemented and reliant on existing resources.  Crediting equal amounts of inspiration and midnight oil, Plan A, what we came to call Basic Concepts, used a combination of faculty and staff already in-place, as well as a small number of local professionals, to present relatively intensive one-hour sessions on every subject found to be wanting in the existing coursework.

Five Mondays out of every six-week grading period had their morning periods condensed to create time for the program and the auditorium was the venue that allowed the entire freshman class, for example, to be part of the program at the same time.  So, the first four periods of the day saw the whole student body cycled through the their four different “booster shot” lectures, demonstrations, films, Q&As, whatever.

Conceptually this was team teaching and it allowed students to sample the best offerings of all teachers.

The freshman class each year would prove to be the greatest challenge, given the diverse background of the incoming population.  There’s always the risk of painting with too broad a brush.  In order to lay a groundwork for their Fairview experience, this year concentrated on developing personal skills, both on an individual basis and as part of the big picture … something of a life orientation.  Although the specific sessions would vary from year to year, they typically ran the gamut of study skills, communication, decision-making, and resolution of personal and inter-personal issues.  One end of the spectrum might discuss good grooming and hygiene with the other dealing with choosing a career.  And very little was taboo or off-limits, given the time.

My favorite was a talk entitled, “ Please, Thank-you and You’re Welcome … a Common Courtesy Sampler.”  It was presented by an impassioned Miss Folger and you could tell she was biting her tongue trying to reconcile the way she grew up just after the turn of the century with what seemed to be the realities of convenience in a brave new world.

The sophomore year was all about math and science.  While trying to concentrate on making math relevant to daily life, it had to dispel the entrenched fear of “the story problem.”  Who cares when train A leaves station B?  The science component, while trying to avoid too much dumbing-down to a least common denominator, attempted to offer a smattering of interests like geology, meteorology, forensics … things we would not be otherwise exposed to.

As Mr. Nisonger’s fair-haired boy, he and I did an experiment of tracking where weather balloons landed when released from our football field.  Yes, that was my fifteen minutes of fame.

History, in the broadest sense of the discipline, was the focus for Juniors.  Even though we had several very competent history teachers, woefully few students took advantage.  In addition to traditional by-the-age world history lectures and films, there were attempts to bring the subject kicking and screaming into our living rooms.  “The American Negro Today,” “The Role of a Free Press” and “The Cuban Situation” might give you an idea of how history was merged with current events.

Actually, for the sake of accuracy, the junior year was referred to as “backgrounds” instead of “history,” since the “h” in the hourglass logo would be needed for the senior year's exploration of the humanities.  Yeh, really.

Those seniors who didn’t get their daily infusion of Vitamin Herbst, would not escape high school without alternative exposure to a broad-spectrum survey tour de force of the arts.  Music appreciation, folk dancing, etymology, the Greek theatre, architecture and analysis of at least one Shakespeare and one modern play … a mind boggling array of anything you might want to consider under the heading of the humanities. 

Instant couth, courtesy of force-feeding.

Yesterday’s Basic Concepts program attempted to provide a real-time solution to problems of content and approach as Fairview purposed itself “to lead youth toward healthful, broadminded, service-seeking adult life.”

If, in the final analysis, you ask, “Did it work?” I reply, “Look in the mirror.”

Here and now in Ohio we see urban school systems reacting to declining standardized test scores and ever lower graduation rates by suggesting the answer lies with “improving” the tests and lowering the scores that are deemed passing.  

Just for the sake of argument, we could call that Plan F.

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