Choice has become a buzzword in education, and even in these difficult times millions of dollars are being spent to expand choice for some students. At the same time, comprehensive high schools, which can and do offer true choice to all of their students, are operating with continuously decreasing resources.
Generally speaking, magnet schools and other "choice" schools have a thematic focus and an application process that targets a specific demographic of students. Space is often limited, which means there is a selection process by lottery, a selection criteria or some combination of the two. This means the school is often making the choice, not the student.
At comprehensive high schools such as New Britain High School, this is not true. We have no applications, we are never full and we welcome and embrace every student who lives in our city. Sometimes students come to us after trying a choice school and discovering that it was not a good "fit." The job of a comprehensive high school is to offer its students, regardless of background or skill, enough guidance and choice to find direction that will make them productive adults.
At New Britain High School, they find real choices. They find, for example, a Health Careers Academy designed for all students — those planning to go directly to work in health care, those pursuing a health profession that requires a two-year college degree, and those hoping to be a nurse, medical doctor or other health care professional who needs a four-year degree or more.
In the Health Careers Academy there are students who are English language learners, students receiving special education services and students in courses where they earn college credit. Some of these students will graduate and go right to work as certified nurses' assistants or emergency medical technicians. Some of them will go on to two-year colleges and others will attend the most prestigious public and private colleges in the area. This is because at our school, all students have the opportunity to choose to be part of this academy.
This is also true of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy we began this year, as well as many existing programs. Any New Britain High School student can take part in a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program that has won more competitions than any other in New England. Some students who choose this program do so because they are interested in preparing for the military. Most of our JROTC students, however, do not go into the military but find the structure of that program prepares them for college or work.
Among the other choices a New Britain High School student can make is to participate in an award-winning music program or to work with other students to build a solar car. Students in the solar car program competed in a national competition in Texas the last two summers.
Our students often want to explore a variety of choices before deciding where to focus. We know that adults today change careers more often than ever before, so it is unrealistic to think that most students are going to know exactly what they want to focus their learning on at 14 or 15 years old. Some choose several of the 16 advanced-placement courses that we offer so that they can earn college credit.
We have students from 33 countries who are learning to speak, read and write English while they exploring their interests. Students from poor backgrounds struggle to gain the confidence and belief that through education they can break the cycle that their family may have been in for generations. Even those from relatively affluent families face challenges, as do all young people today.
New Britain High School, like other comprehensive high schools, is committed to providing choice and opportunity for all students, a role that is critical in developing solid citizens and workers.
Mike Foran is principal of New Britain High School and the 2012 National High School Principal of the Year.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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