Panel touts challenge, caring in high school

July 6, 2005 | By Sean R. Sedam

A new generation of high school students needs challenging academic programs that prepare them for college and the working world, but they also need the friendship and guidance of teachers, a panel of current and former county students said Thursday at Montgomery College in Rockville.

“One thing a student needs when they go to high school is another friend,” said Abdulla Nasser Almutairi, a rising senior at Richard Montgomery in Rockville who attends the Medical Careers program at the Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Wheaton. “And that can be their teacher, their administrator, their counselor.”

School administrators and the co-author of a book on the rising generation of students echoed that message in a daylong conference attended by about 375 middle and high school teachers, administrators and a handful of college representatives and business people.

Program organizers chose the student panel from several programs that allow high schoolers to gain college and work-related experience, a model the school system is replicating countywide with career academies, signature programs, magnet schools and International Baccalaureate programs.

Brainton Song, a rising junior at Wheaton High, said he got to know engineers and the companies where they worked through Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit that fosters interest in engineering careers by partnering high schools with colleges and businesses.

John Tran, who graduated in 2004 from Kensington’s Albert Einstein High School, said he developed close relationships with his teachers in the Academy of Finance, a college-prep program that introduces students to careers in the financial services industry.

“They got to know us on an individual basis, got to know our strengths and weaknesses,” Tran said. “They actually were our parents away from home.”

When a teacher gives a student a tough and frank assessment of their work, the student is more likely to take it to heart if the teacher has already gained their trust, Tran said.

Students also described the practical experience they gained. Tran noted the mock interviews and resume writing he did with the Academy of Finance.

“It prepares you not only academically for college, it also prepares you to enter the real world,” he said.

Another example: Selen Tolu’s internship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, through a partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the school system.

“I learned how to deal with everything from the microwave breaking down to missing test mice,” said Tolu, who graduated last month from James Hubert Blake High in Silver Spring. “What I learned at NIH was something I could not have learned in the classroom.”

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast addressed the conference, stressing the need for rigor and relevancy in academic programs that prepare students to succeed in a global economy.

“We still see that not every graduate takes relevant courses that will enable them to have a future that not only they need, but we need them to have to help our country remain strong,” Weast said.

He also emphasized the importance of building relationships with students, who are part of the “Millennial Generation” of Americans born after 1981.

“We need to develop more relationships with these students as they are in high school,” he said.

There are characteristics of the millennial generation that educators should pay attention to or even seize upon in order to reform high schools, said Neil Howe, a historian and demographer who co-authored “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation” about the generation that fills the country’s high schools.

Among those characteristics is the fact that millennials are achieving academic success, Howe said in his keynote address.

“Keep expectations high, de-emphasize tracking and keep every child challenged and directed,” he said.

High expectations can apply to all students, Weast told the audience.

“I’m not just pushing Advanced Placement, SAT,” he said. “I’m pushing rigor. I’m pushing rigor in the automotive industry …These opportunities are not as plentiful or as rigorous as they need to be in our institutions.”

But they do exist, said Stan Metta, a resource teacher in the Construction and Automotive Trades program at Edison, where he sees an increasingly diverse group of students who want to better themselves.

“There are articulation agreements with the colleges,” Metta said. “And a lot of kids are saying, ‘Oh, I can learn a trade and I can go to college and get a degree.’”

That reflects the attitudes of a generation that Howe said is focused on planning for a future that is a short step away from high school.

“Treat students as adults,” Tolu told the educators in the audience. “Because that is what they will become.”

The county school system, the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education, the county council of PTAs, Montgomery College and the University System of Maryland sponsored the conference.