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You Want Higher Graduation Rates? Put Students in Charge

I recently read a fascinating Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by Susan Engel about a project in Massachusetts that gave eight high school students the chance to run their own mini-school within their larger public school.  With the assistance of an adult advisor, they chose the curriculum and subject matter and evaluated each other.

What to me sounded like a possible recipe for disaster turned out to be an incredible experience for those involved, as the students began to take sincere interest in their education, their thirst for knowledge growing as they took ownership of their academic fates.

One student who was close to dropping out at the beginning of the experiment was asking permission to take on extra work and study more by the end of the experiment.

The members of the mini-school, known as The Independent Project, made a film, teaching other students how to create their own schools.  All eight students have transitioned back to traditional public school and are doing well.

Engel wrote, “The students in the Independent Project are remarkable but not because they are exceptionally motivated or unusually talented. They are remarkable because they demonstrate the kinds of learning and personal growth that are possible when teenagers feel ownership of their high school experience, when they learn things that matter to them and when they learn together. In such a setting, school capitalizes on rather than thwarts the intensity and engagement that teenagers usually reserve for sports, protest or friendship.”

Young adults are often treated like children until they’re suddenly thrust into the world of adulthood.  There should be a better way of transitioning them from one extreme to the other and this model looks promising.  At a time when education reform is all about improving graduation rates and college readiness, it’s refreshing to hear about an approach that points to changing the lives and perspectives of students in the pursuit of those goals, rather than simply trying to cram their heads full of more information.

Kathryn Thompson is a mom to two school-aged kids, a toddler, and a deceased betta fish. She can also be found at The Parenting Post, and occasionally the gym.