A regional high school of excellence
By Sammis White and John Wagner
Unfortunately, one of the most neglected segments of our student population continues to be left out of the debate on education reform. Throughout the nation, and certainly throughout our state, programs for students who are academically gifted and talented are inadequate, if indeed they exist at all.
It is ironic to find out that students possessing the most promise are also the most neglected in terms of both resources and attention. There is much discussion about the failures of our current education system in effectively teaching minority students, poor students, and inner-city students. While attempts to focus on these populations of students is necessary and long overdue, we must not neglect the gifted student–regardless of his or her race, economic status, or residence. By addressing the educational needs of gifted students, cutting across ethnic and socio-economic status, the state will be focusing needed resources on a segment of the population that has the greatest potential to benefit the community, the state, and the nation.
In this report, we propose the establishment of a “merit high school” or a “high school of excellence,” with a rigorous curriculum focusing on science and mathematics–two disciplines in which even America’s best students are woefully ill-prepared. What would differentiate this proposed high school from area “magnet” high schools would be the admissions criteria, based solely on academic potential, and its total commitment to academic excellence. The school would serve all school districts in the four-county metropolitan area. It would educate about 1,000 students per year. It would be funded by a combination of state and local district revenues, supplemented by corporate and non profit donors. It would be governed by a new independent board, composed of state and local education officials, business representatives and other private citizens. And it would also draw together the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, all of which have a critical interest in ensuring that Wisconsin has some of the best-educated citizens and workers available.
In this report we assess the general programs presently available to academically talented students in Milwaukee-area high schools. We focus on the availability of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and examinations. AP courses contain a standard curricula, are taught across the nation, and consequently have been used by many colleges and universities to derive some notion of the quality of high schools. We conclude that Milwaukee-area students are largely deprived of the challenging curricula available elsewhere in the U.S.
We also examine other “merit” schools throughout the country that have a proven record of educating some of our nation’s brightest high school graduates. We have conducted several interviews and have examined much of the literature on “merit” schools in order to address many of the questions on this subject. These questions and their responses comprise the second part of this report.
Given the failure of our current approach to education in meeting the needs of so many differing subgroups of the student population, it is time to rethink how we educate them. Our proposed solution, greater segmentation of the student body into schools that can address their specific needs and potentials, seems appropriate. A magnet, merit high school for the gifted and talented youth in the Milwaukee area is a critical segment of this solution.