School un­locks stu­dents’ po­ten­tial by rad­i­cal act of lis­ten­ing to them

The Washington Post - - EDUCATION - Jay Mathews [email protected]­post.com

Pa­trick Cox, a ju­nior at Quaker Val­ley High School in the Pitts­burgh sub­urbs, has learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, in­clud­ing at­ten­tion-deficit/ hy­per­ac­tiv­ity dis­or­der — ADHD — or what he calls “not giv­ing two licks.”

Like most spe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents in this coun­try, he has an in­di­vid­u­al­ized ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, known as an IEP. It is sup­posed to help him over­come his dis­abil­ity. Such pro­grams have mixed re­sults, but Cox’s ex­pe­ri­ence has been different be­cause of the un­usual char­ac­ter of his school.

Ed­u­ca­tors are of­ten re­luc­tant to put stu­dents like him into chal­leng­ing col­lege-level cour­ses, such as Ad­vanced Place­ment or In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate. They le­git­i­mately fear that chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties will gain noth­ing but stress and anx­i­ety from the ex­pe­ri­ence.

But Cox is in AP Chem­istry this year, av­er­ag­ing an 86. Next year, he is sched­uled to take AP cour­ses in cal­cu­lus, sta­tis­tics and com­puter sci­ence. To him, those seem the best op­tions. For 20 years, Quaker Val­ley has been say­ing yes to many un­con­ven­tional re­quests. Lis­ten­ing to teenagers works well for the school.

I wrote last week about the school’s will­ing­ness to let stu­dents take as many as 20 three-hour AP fi­nal ex­ams, even if they have to study on their own with­out teacher help. That does not be­gin to de­scribe how far the school, with fewer than 700 stu­dents in a lovely river­side area, has gone to sat­isfy ado­les­cent de­sires.

Most high schools would be un­com­fort­able giv­ing stu­dents such lee­way. Quaker Val­ley acts like a five-star ho­tel, ea­ger to sup­ply its guests what­ever they want. Most schools pre­fer to do things the way they have al­ways been done. It would be wrong to call them pris­ons, as crit­ics some­times do. But they op­er­ate on the prin­ci­ples that rules are rules and that change in­vites chaos.

Quaker Val­ley does not, for in­stance, des­ig­nate some chil­dren as gifted and pro­vide spe­cial classes just for them. The school has let stu­dents take two classes in the same pe­riod, do home­work different from their class­mates, waive pre­req­ui­sites and (what I found most star­tling) choose their teach­ers.

In one case, a stu­dent asked if she could grad­u­ate early be­cause her par­ents were get­ting di­vorced. She feared they would re­move her from Quaker Val­ley and, as she put it, “make me go to some lame school” in one of their orig­i­nal home states. Linda Con­lon, the for­mer gifted co­or­di­na­tor now called the sec­ondary aca­demic spe­cial­ist, said, “We loaded her up to meet the credit min­i­mum for grad­u­a­tion, with . . . ad­di­tional on­line AP cour­ses. She passed all of them and grad­u­ated at the end of her ju­nior year, then moved on to col­lege, safe from the fray.”

Bon­nie Wenk, mother of Pa­trick Cox, said the school’s will­ing­ness to defy tra­di­tion and re­spect stu­dent choices has brought her son “to the level of per­for­mance he was al­ways ca­pa­ble of. He demon­strates self­trust, am­bi­tion and dis­ci­pline pre­vi­ously un­tapped.” Her son puts it this way: “If I couldn’t be in AP, it would have been stupid, a waste of time.”

I doubt the school would have been able to be so un­tra­di­tional if it were not so small and iso­lated and did not have such an en­light­ened school board. The district was also lucky to have hired in 1992 a vi­sion­ary su­per­in­ten­dent, Jerry Longo, now a Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh pro­fes­sor, who be­lieved in re­spon­si­ble risk-tak­ing, per­sonal ini­tia­tive and in­no­va­tion.

“Like the stu­dents, our teach­ers are chal­lenged and em­pow­ered to think cre­atively,” said Prin­ci­pal Deb­o­rah L. Ric­co­belli. “This cre­ates an en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery­one — stu­dent, teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors — are more will­ing and open to ex­tend­ing their cu­rios­ity and try­ing new ideas.”

They make mis­takes. Wenk said she re­grets that she and her son’s IEP team re­jected his re­quest to take AP Physics be­cause they were “sen­si­tive to work­load given Pa­trick’s past re­sis­tance to home­work.” He com­plains that the stan­dard physics course he is tak­ing is painfully easy.

The school’s suc­cesses are not the re­sult of the com­mu­nity’s af­flu­ence. Most schools like that have good test scores and re­sist change. Why fix some­thing that isn’t bro­ken? They should con­sider how much bet­ter they could be if they lis­tened cre­atively to what frus­trated stu­dents are say­ing.

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