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One-size-fits-all doesn't suit our students

I ATTENDED two high school graduations this month. One was for my own son, and the other was for students at Boston's Josiah Quincy Upper School, a grade 6-12 school that I helped to create seven years ago, and that was graduating its first class. At these ceremonies, teachers, administrators, and guests spoke with pride and excitement about the colleges to which the students had been accepted and from which scholarships will be received.

But what about our ``other" students -- the ones who do not graduate from high school and do not attend or ultimately graduate from college? According to an exhaustive study of the Chicago public school system conducted by the University of Chicago and presented at the Harvard Graduate School of Education last month, such students make up more than 90 percent of our urban public school student body.

According to this study, 46 percent of inner-city ninth graders will not graduate from high school. A third of those who do graduate have a D average. Only 18 percent of those ninth graders will eventually attend either a two-year or four-year degree program; only a third of those, 6.5 percent, will graduate with an associate's or bachelor's degree. For every 100 African-American males who enter ninth grade, only 2.5 will graduate from an institution of higher learning. These numbers become starker when we consider that, according to the study, 79 percent of inner-city high school students report they want to go to college.

Why are we subjecting these students to a one-size-fits-all, college-or-bust ethos and college prep curriculum when so few of our inner-city students either want what we are offering or want it badly enough to put in more than a minimal effort? In doing so, we create a culture in which dropping out is a norm, and we insure that the lion's share of our students leave high school with an indelible sense of failure.

What if, instead of focusing exclusively on college, we identified success as the ability to earn a living, support a family, and be a contributing member of society?

Suppose instead of a college prep curriculum that so many public urban high school students abhor, we gave all our students the skills in the areas they showed interest in, whether in automotives, carpentry, computers, electricity, electronics, HVAC/plumbing, or medicine, to name a few, together with training essential to turning those skills into a business? What if we, unlike the for-profit technical schools that currently offer those programs, enabled our students to gain those skills for free? What if we helped our kids find hands-on internships and occupations in their chosen fields with as much fervor as we try to find them colleges?

If we did, this might happen:

The two-thirds of urban students who drop out or put in minimal effort might find new meaning in their education when it provides hands-on, real-life applicability.

Students would leave high school with the skills necessary to obtain a real job and earn a real living rather than the way they leave now -- without training and direction-less.

They would leave high school having achieved something, perhaps with offers of employment.

We would eradicate this culture of failure that dominates our urban secondary schools and that is so damaging to teenagers' psyches.

And nothing would prevent a student with an understanding of electronics, as opposed to European history, from applying to and graduating from college.

But to do this, we need to free ourselves from our singular symbol of success -- the college degree -- that excludes those who are capable of doing academic work, but are bored by the theoretical emphasis in college prep programs and who long for real-world applications. We need to get over the elitist notion that what was known as ``vocational education," and that is now known as ``career and technical training," is only for ``dummies."

To their credit, the Boston Public Schools have moved ever so slightly in this direction. The small programs contained within the larger high schools offer career-oriented courses. This is a start, but not nearly enough. Career and technical education is only .6 percent of the system's 2007 budget.

Let's create a culture of achievement for our students, letting go of artificial notions of success and achievement. Perhaps someday college grads will look with envy at Boston's high school graduates who have achieved successful careers that enable them to raise and support families, while those grads, armed with degrees, wonder what they are going to do with the rest of their lives.

David Crane is a teacher at the Josiah Quincy Upper School, a Boston pilot school.

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