For a second year, I have been privileged to participate in the U.S. Department of Education's Exemplary Schools program as a panelist, screening applications from schools all over the country that feel they have exemplary programs.
This year, the competition is among high schools, and it was a treat to take a close look at 16 of those schools that are doing many of the things that many of Utah's education leaders recognize as progressive.In some instances, the schools are succeeding despite difficult situations - inadequate funding, large numbers of minority students, changing community demographics, a history of conflict within the institution or substandard facilities.
Some of them, on the other hand, already have a leg up toward excellence, being blessed with plenty of resources as well as visionary leadership and the cohesive spirit of community that are hallmarks of the great majority of these schools.
In Utah, we have those who glibly proclaim that "you can't improve education by throwing money at it."
Well, in Presque Isle, Maine, throwing money at the local high school in amounts Utah never will see has produced programs that give students a considerable head start on the world.
At Presque Isle, the average class size is 17. Children with academic problems are in classes of seven or eight - and those in identified special education categories get even more individual attention.
What does a little cash allow Presque Isle to do? How about a special local studies program that includes building a 26-foot boat? Imagine what a student could learn in that process.
How about relationships with nearby colleges and vocational/technical schools - transportation thrown in - allowing a high school student to divide his time profitably and end his public schooling prepared for a job. The school places 24 percent of its graduates in employment. Some of those students go on to higher education, but they have a means to support their advanced schooling.
And then there's an extended day program, allowing students to go to school early in the day or late in the evening if that fits their personal style or need. Not to mention Saturday classes for those who need some extra tutoring or instruction.
The school also has flexibility in scheduling classes (something Utah could feasibly do without an infusion of money) that allows teams of teachers to take more or less time for a particular subject as needed. That's a big improvement on the lock-step rigid scheduling that typifies most high schools.
Presque Isle appears to have a philosophy that designs a school around its students, rather than expecting its students to conform to a one-program-fits-all concept.
Money, obviously, doesn't have everything to do with its success, but no one could argue that it doesn't help.
Utah isn't likely ever to have the kind of money it would take to duplicate the Presque Isle approach to education, but their philosophy is free.
I'd hate to imply that Utah has nothing of which to be proud. Several of our high schools are in the running for exemplary status and are helping to set the standard for the nation.
The national competition allows a healthy exchange of success stories and ideas for restructuring education in productive new ways. It's a pleasure to be involved.