Saturday, June 01, 2013

Let's Keep What Works in Schools

June 1, 2013, 3:00 p.m.

Seldom do I reproduce others' writing in this blog. This morning I make an exception for my wife, Mary Vasey's, column in The Gazette regarding changes in Cedar Rapids' formerly nationally prominent alternative school, Metro High School -- along with examples and analysis of what made it successful during the 1980s and 1990s.

Some of our greatest technological innovations had their beginning in someone's garage (think Apple). Educational innovations are also more likely to come from two or three creative, caring teachers than from school boards or superintendents. So it was with Metro. Metro's first innovative efforts were carried out in two nearby structures, pictured here: an old abandoned fire station and grocery store. The effort was so successful at what was originally called Metro East that a Metro West was begun. Eventually they were all brought together in the former Tyler Elementary School building, which is the current Metro home. [Photo credit:]

Three years after Metro began in the firehouse, Mary joined in helping build what Metro ultimately became, taught there for 21 years, and was one of the first teachers asked to join the national faculty of the Coalition of Essential Schools. She was a part of the group that helped plan what is now Iowa City's alternative school, Tate High School. Both are (or were) examples of one sub-set of the kinds of creative thinking that is needed today throughout K-12 (and higher) education -- and what can be accomplished when administrators are willing to stop insisting round students be squeezed into square holes, trust the teachers, and support and encourage their creativity rather than snuffing it out.

-- Nicholas Johnson

Know What You Had Before It's Gone
Mary Vasey
The Gazette, June 1, 2013, p. A6

Echoing Joni Mitchell’s warning, “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/Till it’s gone” (Big Yellow Taxi), former Metro High School teacher Bonnie Sovern warns us: “Metro changes in wrong direction,” May 27 letter.

As a former Metro teacher myself, from 1979 to 2000, I couldn’t agree more.

Why is it institutional administrators so often seem to find more comfort with the common than the truly creative? Why are successful innovations, recognized nationally, ignored or worse locally?

Metro’s national recognition included a number considered “presidential awards” during the administrations of Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton. Metro has been recognized as one of the nation’s top 212 schools (1985), First in the Nation in Education (1991), Redbook top 140 (1992), and National Blue Ribbon Award (1993).

Presidential recognition is nice. But the greatest reward for teachers, and taxpayers, is watching these potential dropouts go on to successful careers.

What was unique? Metro’s innovative programs and activities were the result of teachers, staff and students living in a culture that rewarded, rather than punished, creative responses to needs.

Half-day sessions meant students with job or family responsibilities could attend morning or afternoon. Small classes made possible needed individual attention. Each teacher had 15 to 20 advisees throughout those students’ time at Metro. Teachers made regular home visits.

Teachers could innovate with “team teaching” and “block scheduling,” like combining literature and American history.

In addition to job training, students learned the attitudes and social skills necessary to keep a job. Those in Metro Farm planned, planted, cared for, harvested and sold the produce. The Daycare Center enabled young parents to attend Metro, while teaching them parenting skills. The Bake-a-Teria taught marketing as well as baking skills, with an on-site restaurant for group meetings. There were Metro businesses doing bike repair, laundry and clock making.

Local businesses and Kirkwood Community College partnered with Metro and its students — internships in real jobs, classes at Kirkwood.

Arts were no “frill.” Some students feel conventional high schools have failed them, rather than the other way around. They drop out. By contrast, Metro was a place they wanted to be. For many, arts programs were their primary magnet.

Their visual art was displayed wherever an opportunity arose. The Metro Theater Group performed two plays every year, often at CSPS. Some were original; all enthusiastically attended. The Dance Troupe performed with the Theater Group.

There was experiential learning: a class taking samples of river water, contacting other science classes, lobbying for conservation policies. Researching and then lobbying the Iowa Legislature regarding rent-to-own schemes. Groups went on weeklong camping and bicycling trips. Students kept journals. Metro produced a literary magazine from student writing. Students had enthusiasm about such a variety of learning opportunities. [The water project, pictured, continues (although no longer as an integrated, multiple-disciplines, major curriculum); many other programs and activities have been cut entirely, contributing to Metro's student population decline from 600 (as reported in an abandoned 2009 blog) to less than half that.] [Photo credit: Metro High School (active blog).]

Perhaps, given the times and attitudes about education, we shouldn’t be shocked that the school district’s administration would want to squeeze the life out of what was once recognized as one of the best high schools in the nation.

Hopefully, in not too many years, the spirit of Metro will rise again. Three or four teachers will decide to start an alternative school in an old house or deserted building. Maybe a future administration will have the courage and wisdom to let them have their way, as administrators once supported Bonnie Sovern, me and our colleagues.

Meanwhile, I guess we’ll just continue to frustrate ourselves and our students by trying to fit those sometimes difficult, often creative and bright, sometimes confused and alienated kids into an assembly line mold.

Mary Vasey, a retired Metro teacher, lives in Iowa City and is board president of Combined Efforts Theatre. Comments:

The old Tyler Elementary School that serves as the Metro High School buiilding today. [Photo credit: Metro High School (active blog).]
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