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