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Linda Cupp and Jesse Hood at Corbin High School

Linda Cupp, Corbin High School’s computer technology teacher, with student Jesse Hood.

 
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HIGH SCHOOLS THAT WORK:::REAL-LIFE LEARNING

REAL-LIFE LEARNING
by Alicia Woodard Green

Jesse Hood is the kind of kid you'd want your daughter to date. He is polite, clean-cut and respectful. He comes from a nice family, makes decent grades and always has a summer job. But until recently, he wasn't a student that people noticed in his Corbin, Kentucky high school, located between an old-fashioned root beer stand and a Caterpillar manufacturer.

Jesse, a junior, was coasting through high school on an average track. “To me, it kind of seemed like a waste of time doing honors courses,” he says. “I guess, being a 16-year-old boy, I just decided I'd rather just lay back and take the general courses and make it through the year.”

Education reformer Gene Bottoms says that high schools nationwide are putting students like Jesse Hood on a dead-end path, setting them up for failure in today's highly competitive global economy. In the late 1970s and '80s, Bottoms toured the country and saw students placed on one of three tracks: college prep, general or basic. “Only about 30% of the kids were getting a real, solid academic program of studies,” he says. “About 40% of the kids were finishing the general track that was preparing them for nothing. And then the kids in the technical program were getting very low-level academics. It was very obvious that we were producing a generation of folks who… would not be prepared for the kind of high-tech jobs that would begin to emerge.”

Bottoms reached two conclusions that became central to his reform model, called High Schools That Work, which Jesse's high school adopted in 2001. First, students in the bottom two tracks are often capable of accomplishing much more than many of their teachers, or even their parents, demand of them. Second, you must connect academic learning to real life. If you do so, he says, students will strive. In Jesse's case, he was right.

Thinking Ahead: Setting Sights Beyond High School

Jesse's transformation started quite innocently. He was filling out his junior year schedule, saw an honors computer class that sounded interesting and signed up. A woman named Linda Cupp was the teacher. “I've been told that, no matter what class I teach, it's the hardest class in the school,” Cupp says. “Because I like to push my children.”

Cupp is a pleasant, motherly type, with a no-nonsense streak. As a long-time math and pre-calculus teacher, she is mindful of giving her students skills that will serve them well beyond high school. Computer technology class “is hands-on,” Cupp says, but adds, “it's not to give them a skill. That's not the idea. We're hoping that it will improve their academics… I want the students to be able to think through the problem. If something doesn't work, not be scared to try something new. We call it problem-solving, but it's thinking. Because if you have that skill, you can do anything you want.”

Cupp taught Jesse and his classmates how to take apart, re-assemble and repair computers along with keyboards and printers. Jesse was so intrigued, he signed up for a second semester. Next, Cupp started sending him into other classrooms to help teachers and students with computer problems. “He has taken to this like a duck to water,” Cupp says with a laugh. “He's very serious about his work.” Jesse is so serious that when he was bedridden with the flu, he was also guilt-ridden about missing class. He called Cupp personally to apologize. “I've never had a student call in sick before to me. He literally called to say he was so sorry he could not come.”

Now, Cupp sends Jesse to schools throughout the district to repair computers. “He's gotten so involved with technology and technology repair, I don't know what we'd do without him,” says Corbin principal Joyce Phillips.

The benefits for Jesse extend far beyond Cupp's class. He has transformed from a student who didn't stand out, to one every teacher knows by name. “When I started out… the teachers were teachers, and I was a student,” Jesse says. “Now, I'm out in the school and I'm working with them and they kind of seem more like a colleague than they do a teacher. I feel more confident when I'm around them, more like we're on the same level and the same page. We both know what we're doing and we're able to get our jobs done.”

Jesse is also more engaged in his classes, demands more of himself and is thinking about his future. “Next year, I'm going to take honors pre-calculus, and I normally wouldn't have taken that,” he says. “I'd already made out my schedule, just taking the normal elective classes I wanted to take. Pretty much a laid-back year. Then Ms. Cupp and me started talking and we decided that pre-calculus is something I really need if I want to pursue a future in computers.”

Jesse has his sights set on Eastern Kentucky University, and earning straight A's his senior year. He says the push from Cupp was exactly what he needed. “She's been a really good influence and kind of makes me think about how I need to work harder, do more to apply myself more. And by doing that, I'll get more out of school. I'll learn more, and I'll have a better chance at having a great future.”

Hooking Kids

Cupp's class is just one example of the many different strategies Corbin High and other High Schools That Work schools use to engage students. It's something Joyce Phillips calls a “hook.” “You have a certain percentage of kids who are going to learn no matter what, probably about 20% of the kids that come here… But then, we have about 80% of the kids that need some kind of a hook, something to get their interest, something that will make them want to come to school and want to learn and want to do their best.”

As a former vocational teacher, Gene Bottoms, the architect behind High Schools That Work, knows the power of connecting academics to the real world. “Many youngsters have to see a reason to learning algebra and geometry and trig, chemistry and physics,” he says. “And the best way to do that for some students is to link that to experiences in their lives, to the community or to a career in which they have an interest.”

At Corbin, students in automotive class repair cars that belong to teachers and townspeople. Drafting students help local businesses create floor plans. Botany students work in a greenhouse and landscape the school grounds. Corbin also has job shadowing and co-op programs where students can work everywhere from hospitals to banks to welding shops.

Experts agree that finding a real-world hook works. “For high school kids the question is, ‘Why does any of this matter?'” says Kati Haycock of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group for disadvantaged children. “And what the High Schools That Work folks have been so good at is… connecting the requirements of today's workplace with what's going on in classrooms and trying to make that real for a set of kids who often don't have much in the way of aspirations for themselves. And that connection, between work opportunities and this tougher academic curriculum, has been very powerful.”

Phillips says that with help from High Schools That Work, she and her staff have made great progress hooking kids. But she adds, “there are many more of them. We have a long way to go. We want to get every student hooked on something and excited about school.”


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