Policymakers Seek Value From Something Now Largely Wasted: 12th Grade

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Instead of warehousing 12th-graders, some schools try to give them study and life skills.
By The Hechinger Report | Contributor May 11, 2016, at 3:02 p.m.

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Seniors at High Tech High School’s Media Arts campus in San Diego work on a project examining teenage stress and how to decrease it at a point in students’ lives when they’re making high-stakes decisions about college and careers.

High school senior Brody Ford is looking forward to the final weeks of the school year, but not for the reasons you might think.

At San Diego’s High Tech High School, Ford and his fellow 12th-graders take end-of-the-year courses in personal finance, cooking on a budget, even sewing. The charter school, which has five San Diego-area campuses, uses the classes not only to battle senioritis, but to make the last year of high school into something more than just a slack-off waiting period.

Ford, who goes to High Tech High’s Media Arts campus, is looking forward to learning how to be independent, something he’ll need to know when he goes to college in Chicago in the fall.

“It’s mostly life skills, the kinds of things most people learn about by messing up,” says Ford, 17, who adds that he’s particularly interested in personal finance. “I’m pretty stoked to learn that. It’s weird that in the school system they don’t teach something that everyone should know.”

Now, policymakers are urging schools to put the 12th grade to better use – teaching students skills that many haven’t learned – as a way of improving college enrollment and college graduation.

Senior year in most schools is “a laissez faire period that offers little challenge, motivation, or direction,” according to the nonprofit group Jobs for the Future. In a new report, the group argues that many seniors spend their last few months of high school doing little more than waiting to pick up a diploma.

Meanwhile, students enter college unprepared for the more rigorous academic environment and life on their own. “There’s a huge learning curve when you enter college, and a lot of kids aren’t ready,” says Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who studies how to improve students’ engagement and reduce their stress.

Some schools are trying to simultaneously solve both problems – senior slacking and unpreparedness – making the last few weeks of senior year more useful by offering college-readiness courses about everything from note taking and budget cooking to bike repair and self-defense.

Many high school students aren’t ready for college, lacking both academic and independent living skills, research shows. A 2015 survey by the nonprofit advocacy group Achieve found that nearly 80 percent of university and college faculty and two-thirds of employers think high schools do a poor job of preparing their graduates in areas including work habits, writing, and the ability to read and understand complex information. A “financial wellness” survey by Ohio State University found that more than 30 percent of students at 52 higher-education institutions could not correctly answer a majority of basic questions about managing their finances.

To improve academic readiness, students deemed ready for 12th grade should start taking college-credit classes their senior year, Jobs for the Future recommended. Those who aren’t should take “transition courses” to ensure that they’re prepared for college.

And all seniors, the group’s report said, should take classes on study habits and time management and participate in school-led community service and internships.

High schools and colleges should work together to ready graduating seniors for life in general and higher education in particular, says Joel Vargas, a vice president at Jobs for the Future.

That should include providing courses that carry college-level credit, he says, using time that’s now being largely wasted to give students a head start toward a degree.

“We know there are a lot more young people in high school who are ready for college-level work than are being served,” Vargas says.

These kinds of so-called dual-enrollment or early college programs are proliferating. In the Rio Grande Valley area near Texas’ border with Mexico, for example, more than 80 high schools have partnered with South Texas College to provide college courses.

But making better use of senior year is about more than dual enrollment. Exclusive private schools and charter schools like High Tech High are pioneering other innovative ideas.

Take the Castilleja School, which serves girls in grades six through 12 in California’s Silicon Valley. The private school in Palo Alto makes 12th grade more useful with workshops the final week of school on subjects chosen by students. Topics have included personal finance, bicycle repair, cooking – even date rape, featuring a screening of the documentary “The Hunting Ground” with a panel from nearby Stanford University.

Castilleja’s Paris Wilkerson, 17, who will attend Columbia University next fall, says all high school students could benefit from more practical 12th-grade classes.

“I’m definitely nervous, and I think that’s how any senior would feel,” says Wilkerson, the student-body president at the approximately 450-student school. Campus rape has been a particular worry among Castilleja seniors, she says, but the school’s assault-prevention classes have helped. “That’s something we’re all nervous about, but that eases some of the stress.”

This kind of interest is essential to catching the attention of graduating seniors, says Stacey Kertsman, who runs Castilleja’s experiential learning center. That’s why the school lets them choose the topics, she says.

“They’re 18 years old,” Kertsman notes. “They’re not coming unless they’re invested in it.”

At High Tech High’s Media Arts campus, seniors are working on a project called “The Making of the Modern Teen,” which looks at teenage stress and how to decrease it at a point in students’ lives when they’re making high-stakes decisions about college and careers.

“It’s a really critical time and they’re definitely emotionally anxious and stressed out,” says Margaret Noble, the 12th-grade digital media teacher who is leading the project.

A few schools are doing more to weave life lessons and college preparation into the regular curriculum, says Clark Pope, of Stanford. Some 12th-grade English classes, for example, are using college admissions essays as class assignments, which both helps students apply for college and teaches them how to write about their lives.

But more high schools need to teach students how to live as independent adults, Clark Pope says.

“I’d like to see more of those life skills,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many kids get to college and don’t know how to cook or do laundry.”

That lack of life preparation can plague even high-performing students, Wilkerson says.

“Some families have kids do chores,” she says, “but I have other friends who don’t know how to do anything.”

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