Seeking advice on how to build the high school of the future, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, chair of the National Governors Association, is soliciting the help of some unlikely visionaries: the high school class of 2005. More than 10,000 high school seniors nationwide will be asked to voice their thoughts on school reform through an online survey intended to show how educators can make the high school experience more engaging and relevant for today’s teens.

The survey is part of Warner’s year-long “Redesigning the American High School” program, a national reform effort intended to better prepare graduating seniors for success in the 21st century–whether they plan to attend college or jump straight to the business world.

Warner announced the program Sept. 9 during a morning press briefing at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va. He said he hoped the plan would help eliminate so-called “senioritis” among potential graduates by providing students with access to more college-level courses–giving them the ability to take what credits they earn with them as they move on to college or begin work in a vocational career.

By allowing students to begin earning more college credits at the high school level, Warner said, parents could save as much as a full year’s college tuition.

“The voice of the students has been missing in this conversation about high school reform that has been going on among the experts and policy makers,” Warner said. “The Class of 2005 may have the best ideas we need. If the students we are trying to help don’t see the value of redesigning high school, we are wasting our time.

“We will seek out the ideas of parents, teachers, and administrators as well,” he promised.

Despite an increasingly competitive world economy, Warner said, American students–especially high school seniors–continually lag behind students in other countries.

Dubbed the “Chairman’s Initiative,” Warner’s reform effort was born out of some rather alarming statistics that seem to indicate a steady decline in student interest and performance across the board.

Warner said he was discouraged by the fact that just 70 percent of all U.S. high school students actually earn their diploma. The situation, he said, is especially acute for African-American and Hispanic students. According to national findings, barely half of these kids are able to finish high school within four years.

The United States, once a leader in high school graduation rates, has plummeted to 17th among developed nations in the percentage of youth graduating from high school, according to Warner’s report. Of those students who do graduate, only three in 10 leave high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, Warner said. As a result, only 40 percent of students who enter college actually come away with a degree, the report states.

“College readiness rates in this country are abysmal,” Warner said. “Too many states have been unable to administer high school exit exams because they know too many of their high school students would flunk the test. States must put in place system-wide intervention and remediation programs so seniors can pass these tests, but more importantly so we know that they are ready to make the transition to college or a good job.”

As the number of high school dropouts rises, America’s economic outlook dims, Warner said. And it’s low-income and minority students who will suffer most. “We are going to develop and recommend a common, national definition for dropout and graduation rates that governors can use to compare their progress to other states,” he said. “There is no way to know if we are succeeding if we can’t adequately measure our progress.”

Under the initiative, leaders will use students’ input to raise national awareness of the need for reform. In addition to the online surveys, Warner said he plans to hold learning institutes for senior education advisors that will highlight successful approaches and support new ideas for helping at-risk students graduate. Other ideas include town hall meetings where educators, parents, and students will be invited to talk about high school performance, the senior year, and the barriers to success, as well as a series of best practices and a “Top 10” list of policy actions governors can take to spur system-wide reform and increased student achievement in their states.

“High school students, particularly seniors, increasingly report they have checked out of school long before the last bell rings,” wrote Warner in a letter introducing the program. “Too many college students–in both four-year institutions and community colleges–don’t stay in school. And, employers aren’t getting the kind of skilled workers they need to succeed and prosper in today’s increasingly competitive economy.”

Warner has joined forces with three governors–Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Maine Gov. John Baldacci, and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft–to lead his Chairman’s Task Force. In constructing their agenda, the leaders plan to look at successful school reform efforts in play in other states–many of which involve the use of technology to make the final year of high school relevant for students.

In Virginia, for example, educators reportedly have harnessed the power of the internet to provide virtual Advanced Placement courses to students. The advanced online classes enable college-bound seniors to get a jump on earning their bachelor’s degree by providing up to a full semester’s worth of college credit while still in high school. And in Maine, state leaders reportedly are transforming vocational education programs to offer high school students a full year of technology- or career-based postsecondary learning, tuition-free.

“The nation’s governors are eager to make sure high schools offer students the kinds of choices that will make a difference in their futures,” Warner concluded. “Our goal is to begin to put into motion, in as many states as possible, the actions that help students make the best use of their high school years.”

Links:

Gov. Mark Warner’s official web site
http://www.governor.virginia.gov

National Governors Association
http://www.nga.org

Chairman’s Initiative home page
http://www.nga.org/chairman04