Erie High School: A Shining Star, Or Lost In Space?

by Steve Wyckoff on January 30, 2010

Erie school district has been blessed. By Mike Carson, Rose Frey, Ted Hill, and many many others who were involved in the transformation of their school. Erie high school is unique. What makes them unique is that their focus is on their students, and their student’s futures.

Erie high school has changed what the students learn, how the students learn, and how they organize the students to learn. In addition, while the students do take the state mandated standardized tests, their students are measured in much different ways than almost all other kids across the country.

The curriculum used in Erie high school is based on projects and problems designed by each individual student, based on their own interest, needs, and desires. And the results have been equally unique, students, and I mean all students, have far exceeded the normal expectations we have for high school kids. And, as former superintendent Mike Carson is fond of saying, “It isn’t just the head cheerleader and the quarterback that are doing great things.”

What Erie high school has figured out is how to not just expose their kids to curriculum with all the standards, but how to actually engage the students in meaningful work, whereby the kids learn the things that they want them to learn. Is it perfect? No. There have been, and continue to be, many issues. But unlike school improvement in traditional schools, they are getting better at the right things, rather than just getting better at what schools have always done.

I’ve observed for the last 40 years scores of creative an innovative projects. Some big, some small. The thing that they all had in common was a champion. The sad truth is, as soon as the champion moved on, and eventually they always do, the gravity of the status quo always pulled the project back into the mainstream and morphed it into a traditional program. There seems to be no way to make real systemic change in the educational system.

So I’m watching Erie high school with great interest. The superintendent has retired, as has the high school principal responsible for the project-based, problem-based learning curriculum. Other changes have been made with key personnel. My hope is that the model employed in Erie high school will spread across the state and the country.  The hope is that new champions have replaced the old champions.

I have low expectations. In spite of the fact that their kids are doing exceptional things and are truly well-prepared for the life they’re going to live; and in spite of the fact that it is actually cheaper to educate kids in this model; and in spite of the fact that we are in a financial crisis; I fear that it is impossible to actually make sustainable systemic change in public schools.

Time will tell.

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