A group of Franklin County freshmen are hard at work this year seeking a unique reward: the chance to graduate high school in half the time it will take their peers.
About 50 teens from Franklin County and Western Hills High schools have joined a national pilot program called Excellence for All in hopes of earning a diploma in just two years.
Kids who successfully finish the intense program can leave high school early and go on to trade school, community college or one of Kentucky’s four-year comprehensive universities, like Kentucky State University.
But most – if not all – say they plan to stay at high school to focus on their interests, enroll at the Career and Technology Center or earn college credit through advanced classes or local universities.
They will take year-end exams in English, world history, biology and up to two math classes, and they must pass to move on in the program. If they don’t, teachers will offer additional help and let them try again.
“This curriculum is more rigorous than a normal classroom would be because these students have to meet certain standards on the test to be able to proceed with the program,” said Carrie Williams, an English teacher at FCHS.
“There are some accelerated kids, so they are used to the workload, but at the same time it’s still challenging for those other kids.”
Williams likened the program to “jumping a year ahead” in some ways but says her students are working harder than typical freshmen to accomplish the task. The same company that writes the ACT college entrance exam developed the curriculum.
“It really gives them a drive and a focus to be into school,” Williams said.
“This is important to them – they know that they have to take these tests at the end of the year to continue with the program.”
Schools have traditionally offered advanced classes for gifted kids, remedial classes for struggling students and general classes for most everyone else.
But officials with Excellence for All – formerly called the Board Examination Systems Program – say their goal is to “make basic changes to the structure of our high schools … to make sure that no student leaves high school without being ready to succeed.”
That means offering the same, rigorous two-year curriculum to all kids “whether they plan to be plumbers or brain surgeons.”
Six high schools in Kentucky are participating this year, along with 15 more in Arizona, Connecticut and Mississippi. The National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C., launched the pilot program in the fall of 2011.
Here in Franklin County and at Estill County High School, a select group of students are enrolled.
But at Paris, Logan County and Todd County Central high schools, the entire freshman class is participating, said engagement officers David Osborne and James Williams, who travel to high schools to watch the program in action and offer advice.
In some ways it’s easier to include all students, said Williams, who visited Franklin County this week with his colleague. Teachers are all on the same page and working with similar techniques, he said.
The challenge is making sure all kids achieve at a high level without leaving anyone behind. Osborne says schools are getting creative in solving that puzzle.
At Logan County High School in southwestern Kentucky, it’s a “triage system” that pairs struggling students with a teacher mentor. When the lunch bell rings, the kids pick up their meal in the cafeteria and then head back to the classroom for one-on-one study time.
At Paris High School in central Kentucky, it’s after school math tutoring sessions three days a week that draw a standing-room-only crowd – in not one, but two classrooms.
A rural Arizona high school has perhaps done the most by putting teachers on school buses to squeeze in an extra two hours of instruction each day.
“They’ve literally wired the school buses for Wi-Fi, put a teacher on each bus who’s living in that area anyway, and the teacher is teaching on the bus,” Osborne said.
“So we’re seeing some really interesting, creative responses to get to the same thing, which is how do you help all kids – not just the kids who are really high achieving students?”
Williams and Osborne say it’s still early to judge how the pilot project is going in Franklin County, but it’s “so far, so good” based on their visits.
“There are good teachers in both schools, and the administrators are very strong too,” Osborne said.
Local educators say next year they’d like to see more kids join who are interested in the vocational track. So far, the program has drawn mostly accelerated kids who want to get a jumpstart on college.
Teachers in the pilot high schools are being trained to teach the program to students from different backgrounds, using a set of about 60 classrooms strategies provided by the national organization.
Lessons are hands-on and based on real-life experiences that make learning fun and relevant to kids, Osborne says. Students are writing more and doing assignments that push them to think deeply.
“The students would say that the materials are more challenging than they were last year, but I also think the students would say they’re having more fun this year than they’ve had before,” Williams said.
“It’s more about student engagement and being student-centered than teacher-centered.”
Brian Tramontin, a freshman at FCHS, says he knew the program wouldn’t be easy, but it’s a lot tougher than middle school.
“I definitely have to read and write more than I usually do,” he told The State Journal at school a few days ago.
Freshmen at FCHS are taking four pre-Advanced Placement courses and their choice of electives, world languages and vocational classes at CTC
“(I decided to sign up because of) the fact that I could be done in two years and have the time to do the stuff I’ll have to do in college and get that out of the way,” said Brian, who wants to be an architect someday.
Brian – along with all the other teenagers who spoke with The State Journal – says he wants to say in high school for the full four years, even though they could move on after two.
He had one classmate who wanted to leave early and join the workforce, but that student moved away.
“I don’t want to go to college when I can’t drive,” WHHS freshman McKenzie Jones said, with a laugh. “And you’d have so many friends and other stuff you’d miss out on.”
McKenzie said she signed up for the program so she could start earning college credits early – she has siblings and wants to help her parents save money on tuition costs.
Program officials and local principals agree that the majority of kids will spend four years in high school. The benefit, they say, is that students have a plan to follow for two years – and greater options when they finish.
“We’ve never really done a good job of telling kids what exactly they needed to achieve and how to get there, and this program does that,” Osborne said.
FCHS Principal Sharon Collett said the freshmen in the program seem much more focused than their peers because “they have a precise plan for what the next two years will look like and a focus beyond those first two years.”
The school will probably have to add more AP classes and build partnerships with local colleges to accommodate the group during their junior and senior years, she said.
The 21 high schools participating in the pilot serve a diverse group of students and represent a mix of charter schools and regular public schools, as well as schools with low-performing and high-performing students.
Participating schools are using federal grant money, support from local and state philanthropies, and state and local tax dollars.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed to the planning, research and evaluation phases of the pilot program and the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan is conducting an independent evaluation of the pilot’s effectiveness.
The Kentucky Department of Education is overseeing the pilot project here, and KSU is partnering with the school district to develop courses and offer classes online and on campus.