January 25, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
If 18-year-old Jose Rios could do it all over again, he would get ready for college by taking
tougher courses during high school.
"For the most part, I tried to take
it easy," said Rios, a first-year student at Manchester Community
College, where, based on test scores, he had to enroll in a remedial
English course last summer to qualify for college-level classes.
Rios, of East Hartford, did not know
what to expect at college and concedes that his high school years
could have been better spent - including his senior year, when he
avoided more rigorous courses and succumbed to what educators call
senioritis, or the senior slide.
"I was on the top of the slide
going down," Rios says.
His experience is all too common for
thousands of young people, according to a state committee that is
looking for ways to revamp high schools, motivate students and make
the high school experience, including the senior year, more productive.
As early as next month, the committee
is expected to issue a preliminary draft suggesting potentially
dramatic changes in high schools, possibly including off-campus
experiences, college-level courses or student projects designed
to pump new life into secondary education.
Over the years, high school "hasn't
significantly changed, and our kids are suffering," said state
Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg, who expects to make recommendations
to the legislature next year based on the advisory committee's report.
She said research studies have found
that many high school students complain of boredom.
The question, she said, is: "How
do you hook kids into something interesting to them and get them
to be analytical and creative?"
The study is part of a national movement
to re-examine and reform high schools, spurred by concern over stagnant
achievement test scores, a lack of challenging courses and discouraging
Especially in urban schools, "many
of the students who do not drop out altogether attend irregularly,
exert modest effort on schoolwork, and learn little," said
a 2003 report by the National Research Council.
The senior year, when even the brightest
seniors often look for easier courses, cut back on homework and
ratchet down their academic goals, is ripe for reform, some educators
Experts say the problem is far more
serious for disadvantaged students, including those who have avoided
rigorous courses altogether or who are applying to less selective
"The senior slump has been around
so long it has become part of American high school culture,"
Stanford University Professor Michael W. Kirst wrote in a 2001 report
that included recommendations to reclaim the senior year.
Kirst said the consequences of a less
rigorous schedule include a rising demand for remedial courses in
college and poor academic skills among high school graduates who
enter the workforce or the military.
"I don't believe my high school
prepared me at all," said Kevnesha Boyd, 18, who enrolled at
Eastern Connecticut State University after graduating from Hartford's
Weaver High School last spring. "The teachers never pushed
us. I took Algebra II, and we weren't doing anything at all. In
English class, I never wrote a research paper."
Kirst said part of the problem is that
colleges rarely let high school students know what is expected of
them or whether they are ready for college work.
"High schools can't motivate these
kids on their own," he said. Students "need to know why
the senior year is important."
He cited a California State University
program that tests high school juniors on college readiness and,
for those who fall short, recommends what they should do during
their senior year.
A report five years ago by the National
Commission on the High School Senior Year, sponsored in part by
the U.S. Department of Education, suggested alternative possibilities
for seniors, such as allowing them to start college early, enroll
in courses at technical colleges or work in internships or apprenticeship
programs aimed at specific careers.
In Connecticut, members of the advisory
committee commissioned by Sternberg have talked about creating alternatives,
including some off-campus options, for high school seniors.
"What would happen if 25 to 30
percent [of seniors] didn't have to come for one-third of the year
and were sitting in college classes or doing internships in the
work world?" asked Wayne Sweeney, a consultant to the state
One program already underway is a longstanding
arrangement that allows qualified high school juniors and seniors
to take courses at Connecticut's two-year community colleges.
"It gives them a sense of what
college is like," said Doris Arrington, dean of student services
at Hartford's Capital Community College, where 60 to 70 high school
students earn credits every semester.
The senior slide occurs even among
students who have packed their schedules with tough courses during
their first three years in high school - especially those students
who receive early admission notices from colleges.
"Once you get into college, the
pressure is off," said Matt Babcock, a senior at West Hartford's
Hall High School who plans to attend the University of Notre Dame.
He still carries a schedule that includes advanced courses in physics,
calculus and economics, but estimates he spends about half as much
time on homework as he once did.
"It's nice to have not as stressful
a life for half a year," he said.
Some schools have tried to find ways
to keep seniors engaged. Hall, for example, allows seniors to drop
one of their second-semester courses and replace it with a self-designed
project, including off-campus assignments such as working as a teaching
assistant at an elementary school or doing an internship in a business
or government office.
One senior, Alyson Isaac, came up with
a novel idea: She plans to write and film a mock documentary on
The project, she said, will take a
tongue-in-cheek look at what it's like to be a senior.
"How do we amuse ourselves when
we have nothing left to do second semester?" Isaac asked.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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