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Raleigh News & Observer: Durham school gets high-profile visitors
Monday, May 2, 2011
DURHAM -- At Durham's Performance Learning Center, teachers have a motto: "Every child, every day, any way."
The unusual public high school has 200 students who learn at their own pace with online lessons and group projects. Teachers form tight relationships with students, who are set up with career internships and job shadowing. The school, which opened in 2007, is a laboratory for a new way of teaching and learning.
On Monday, the Performance Learning Center drew attention from national policymakers who wanted to see the innovation in action. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan at the school to talk about how to turn around low-performing schools. They toured a math class and talked to students.
Hagan, a Democrat, used the occasion to say she would introduce legislation, called the School Turnaround and Rewards Act, that would target the bottom 5 percent of schools in each state to drastically change their operations.
"We have got to take bold, aggressive action," she said, citing the oft-used statistic that 2,000 U.S. high schools are classified as "dropout factories" because no more than 60 percent of freshmen make it to graduation. "Our students do not have time to wait for better schools."
The legislation would set up a competitive grant program, Hagan said, with $600 million for districts that agree to remake themselves in one of four aggressive intervention models.
The four models could include transforming the school with new staff, extended learning time or a different instructional strategy. Or, a district could convert a school into a charter school, hire a management company to run it or close it altogether. An additional $300 million would be set aside to reward those schools that achieve success under one of the strategies.
Hagan acknowledged the nation's fiscal troubles, and said she supports reducing the deficit in the 2012 budget. But the nation can't lose sight of investments in education and research and development, she said, because "that is the future of our country."
Congress must reauthorize federal education law No Child Left Behind and is expected to rewrite it. Duncan said he hopes it will be revised by the time school starts in the fall, but some observers say political gridlock in Washington may prevent that.
"We have to get better, faster in education than we ever have in this country," Duncan said. "There's that sense of urgency."
No Child Left Behind, Duncan said, is flawed because it is punitive and offers schools little incentive to improve, which is "demotivating" for teachers and principals.
"We have to reward success," he said. "We have to talk about excellence in education. We've been scared to do that. I don't understand why.
"Great teachers, great principals, great districts, great states - why aren't we learning from them? Why aren't we shining a spotlight on them? Why aren't we giving them more resources? Why aren't we taking to scale what works?"
The Performing Learning Center is a partnership between the Durham Public Schools and Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that has helped form schools around the state. The partnership aims to reduce dropout rates and has been supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Joan Robinson, a veteran math teacher, said she came to the school because of its experimental nature and its insistence on success. Robinson and her colleagues have changed the school's hours of operation several times to meet the needs of students in the past four years.
"Whatever is going to work for kids," she said, "that's what I'm going to do."
Challenging, worth it
One of the center's students, Khadijah Stuart, 17, likes the nontraditional school because students have more freedom and flexibility to get their work done when and where they want.
"It's been challenging, but it's been worth it," saidStuart, who will enroll at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, where she will pursue a degree in hotel management. "I've become much more mature."
Duncan asked the Durham teachers how they would adapt their methods to work in large schools. Later, he said the keys to changing low-performing schools are relationships and high expectations.
"Every young person in this school has an adult in their life who won't let them fail," he said.