High School Reform: Reclaiming The Senior Year

In many high schools, the senior year has been lost. Half or more of the senior class are part-time students, taking their required senior courses, perhaps adding a teacher aide period or a PE class and leaving mid-day to work at minimum wage jobs. Underclassmen look forward to their senior year and the opportunity to be unschooled and carefree. This is considered a rite of passage, an earned reward. Unfortunately the consequences of this tradition are paralyzing our kids and our high schools.

The senior year is also the time when students are selecting colleges, completing college applications and applying for scholarships and financial aid. Seniors who avoid academic challenges and rapidly fall out of the habit of being students and scholars will struggle mightily their freshman year of college. College poverty can be untenable to the senior used to cashing her paycheck and having expendable income. Academic rigor can be a shock to the college freshman who took on no work tougher than her most rigorous junior class. Even regular class attendance in college requires a change of habits from the soft senior year of high school.

Consider also that by encouraging our high school students to work during school, we have put two unintentional forces in motion. The first is that we have reduced their eligibility for financial aid. Student income is presumed to be 100% saved and available to offset college costs. Of course, I've yet to meet the high school student who saved his earnings. College becomes financially more of a challenge then for the family whose eligibility was reduced by the student's high school paychecks. The second is that few students' earnings from their jobs are needed for living expenses, apart from perhaps car insurance. Most of their earnings are expendable income, more play money than they will see as adults and possibly creating unsustainable spending habits and appetites for fancy cars, electronic gadgets and expensive clothes. Feeding this will make the penniless years of college all the more difficult and may lead to overburdening themselves with debt that forces them out of college early and back into the unskilled, low wage workplace.

Add to this the unlikelihood that a senior non-student as described above would even be admitted by any competitive college. Colleges look first at the rigor of coursework taken in the senior year to best glimpse the student they can expect in September. Our typical senior will not compete well against others who kept academics first all four years.

Since seniors are our school leaders, leadership evolves into leadership by the absent and our ideal becomes the student who is not a student, demeaning coursework, academics and attendance school-wide.

The high school where this pattern is established will also suffer from a lack of advanced coursework. Advanced Placement courses and advanced levels in the arts, second languages or technical education are unsustainable without the senior class. Smaller high schools particularly do not have sufficient advanced course enrollment to offer much for seniors. The cycle completes itself with too few seniors to take advanced courses and therefore too few advanced courses for them to take.

At North Valley High School, we recognized that our students' futures were more crimped by this tradition than by anything else we were doing. Through a series of sometimes very difficult changes, we created a valuable senior year. From 2005 to 2009, we increased the percentage of our graduates going on to higher education by 70%. Here is what we did:

First, we focused on expanding advanced coursework availability at the school. At a staff meeting, I distributed all 33 of the Advanced Placement "acorn books", the overviews of AP coursework available. I invited teachers to adopt one of the AP courses, preparing for and offering it the following year. I supported them by offering (and requiring) the AP Summer Institute and by purchasing textbooks for the courses if enough students signed up. Our previous AP courses were AP Literature, AP Composition and AP US History. Teachers came forward and proposed to develop curricula for and teach AP Statistics, AP Chemistry, AP Psychology, AP Government and AP Art History. During student scheduling, four of these new courses attracted enough students to be offered and those four teachers taught the classes the following year. One year later, a teacher proposed and successfully offered AP World History. Other teachers proposed advanced courses in their subject areas outside of the AP system. All new classes were subject to appropriate curriculum planning and recruiting sufficient students for the class to be viable.

In one year, we grew from three AP classes to ten classes (seven subjects). Teachers were so excited about their new classes that they got their students excited and our juniors and seniors jumped on the opportunities. We also made taking the AP Exams a requirement for AP credit at North Valley, awarding Honors credit (not AP) for any student who did not take the exam in May. We subsidized half the cost of the tests to make them affordable.

That was the fun part. The not so fun part was restricting seniors' opportunities for Lockout (a period away from school) and Work Experience. Previously, having a job gave automatic Work Experience credit and a period off from school. Having sufficient credits toward graduation constituted eligibility for up to two Lockout periods. I created an application form for Lockout that required students to have one of the following conditions: caring for a minor child, attending college classes, primary caretaker for a disabled family member, or working 15 hours or more and supporting oneself financially. I also tightened the Work Experience expectations though not much: students had to schedule a meeting with me as the WE coordinator, submit monthly evaluations and verify 130 hours of work during the term.

The reaction of the first class of seniors under the new Lockout process was negative. Seniors accused me of ruining their senior year and of being a dictator. It took two years of conflict with the senior class to institutionalize the new rules and for incoming seniors to "forget" the old patterns. I have often shared this experience with other high school principals but few are eager to endure the predictable conflict.

Take a look at the benefits though of taking on this issue. My first year at NVHS was 2005-06. The changes were implemented for the 2006-07 school year but note the continued improvement over time. NVHS has approximately 150 seniors each year.

NVHS Seniors Enrolled in…



AP Enrollment (more than just Seniors) grew also, though it moderated after the first year, when some students could not be dissuaded from taking 4 or 5 AP classes at once!

Advanced Placement Course Enrollment

2005-06 61 students
2006-07 221 students
2007-08 131 students
2008-09 136 students

Improvement 123%

At the same time, a focus on attendance and scholarship raised our attendance rates significantly and lowered NVHS' dropout rate from the embarrassing 6.2% of 2005 to 4.1% two years later. This data is always two years behind but we are expecting further reductions more recently.

50% of our Graduates in 2006 entered college the following September. 86% of our Graduates in 2009 entered college the following September. Since high school is no longer enough in our region or our nation, we need to do everything we can to encourage our students to go on to higher education. Whether they choose a 4-year college, a community college or a technical school, higher ed is no longer optional.

86% college enrollment is impressive but we are aiming for 95% and hope to reach it in the next few years. Eastern preparatory high schools and some upper middle class suburban high schools are already there. North Valley though is a 50% free and reduced lunch, high poverty rural high school. Most of our families have not experienced higher education and many of our parents did not complete high school.

Of course, there is much more we can do to improve rigor and readiness for college, but first we have to make our seniors full-time, serious students.