Building a New Student in Michigan

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In another example of life-skills training, the school is heeding calls from corporate leaders for employees who can work well with others. "Working in teams teaches you how to interact with others, and how to be more sociable," says Lori Ismail, a junior who often collaborates with classmates to perform science experiments and solve trigonometry problems. "It's important because if you're going to work at a company you're going to have to acknowledge and work with everyone around you."

The heaviest dose of instruction with real-world relevance is the Academy's innovative senior mastery process. The two-year seminar beginning in eleventh grade is both a tutorial on searching for a job and an exercise in self-exploration. Each student fills fat white binders with biographies, personal mission statements, lists of life and career goals, and assorted essays in which they articulate and assess their own strengths, interests and ambitions. A boy who wants to be a mechanical engineer composed an essay titled "How To Be A Better Me," outlining the steps he intends to take to "become successful in everything in life." Through interviews with working professionals, consultations with career advisors, and Internet research on the qualifications, salary and duties for a range of jobs, students weed through options and select a career. During a PowerPoint presentation to classmates reporting on her career research, a girl explains that she's attracted to counseling, despite the high burnout rate and meager staring salary, because "people need someone to talk to about their problems and I think I'm good at listening and helping."

As a final step, they create electronic portfolios that include resumes and lists of colleges they would like to attend—along with the attendant admissions criteria—and interview with local employers to secure a senior-year internship in their chosen field. Michael Trail, the senior, is producing blueprints and 3-D models with set-design software as part of his job assisting the technical director of the Detroit Opera House this season.

Even students who aren't as computer savvy as Trail must successfully complete the course and fulfill all the other graduation requirements, in keeping with the policy of Academy principal Cora Christmas that no child will be left behind, held back, or put on a separate track. To that end, the Academy embeds within its 20-week semesters 10-week remedial classes for students performing below grade level and offers previews of advanced classes for those who've surpassed their classmates. Christmas believes the strategy is a better way of keeping advanced students stimulated and helping struggling students retain what they learn than if they tried to absorb the lessons during disconnected summer sessions. "There's not this thing where you just have to go along with everybody else," says Ismail, who took geometry and calculus a semester early and, having exhausted the math curriculum, will study college calculus at a community college in spring. "Here, you can always find the pace that fits you."

Farmington High School

John Barrett, the principal of Farmington High School, is a fervent disciple of the theories espoused in Thomas Friedman's book, The World Is Flat, about vanishing U.S. economic supremacy on the now-level global playing field, and he worries that complacent Americans are perilously close to sliding off the edge. He distributed copies of the book to teachers last spring and made it the sole topic for discussion at the first faculty meeting this fall. To build a less xenophobic student body, students are served a steady diet of internationally focused programs and projects.

A group of students from Lisa Sievert's international affairs class organized a model U.N. where they debate the practical implications of such abstract concepts as sovereignty and self-determination in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Iraq War. Sievert says many of the insights they're gathering extracurricularly while researching mock resolutions inform the class discussions, adding intellectual spice to the sessions she flavors with student-produced Power Point presentations and documentary screenings, as well as reading assignments from foreign affairs journals and memoirs of genocide survivors. Barrett required students to attend an on-campus debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict he organized between a Muslim cleric and a Jewish rabbi. In another assembly, Pakistani and Indian students explained the sources of ethnic tensions in the Kashmir region, and plans are under way for Farmington's exchange students from Macedonia and Bulgaria to discuss the conflict in the Balkans.

Although the school's college placement record is impressive—77% of last year's senior class enrolled in four-year colleges— Barrett says the Friedman book's admonitions led to the decision this fall to "kick up the level of rigor" in the curriculum even more. "It becomes more apparent the deeper you get into the book that what we used to consider third world countries are now outdistancing us in terms of research and, more than anything, work ethic," he says. "I want our kids to realize they're not just competing with the kid next to them who didn't do his homework. They're up against a much [bigger group] that's working very hard to take the job they want."

Roosevelt High

While train tracks still course through the streets of Wyandotte, Michigan, many of the factories that for much of the 20th century made the city a hub from which cargo containers filled with paper, steel, tires and chemicals were dispatched to consumers around the country and across the ocean are now shuttered. "The opportunity to go to college is about all the students here have now, besides low-paying service jobs," says Mason Grahl, assistant principal at Roosevelt High, where traditionally far less than half the seniors go on to college. To change the mind-set, Grahl and his boss, head principal Mary McFarlane, are administering tough love by enforcing the new state graduation requirements now. This year's seniors are exempt, but for juniors, it has meant adding an extra math and science class to their schedules this year.

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