Opinions on five-year high school

December 29, 2005

The idea of building an optional fifth year into high school, which Chicago plans to do next school year, got a national airing this summer. Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, advocated it at the union's July convention as a way to stem dropouts. One other city where the AFT represents teachers, Rochester, N.Y., already was planning a five- year program that would allow students to take fewer classes for longer periods of time. The Rochester school system enrolls about 37,500 students and has a 45 percent dropout.

Here is a sampling of what some Chicago educators who teach in or study high schools think of the five year option:

Melissa Roderick, co-director, Consortium on Chicago School Research. "As it is, we're allowing kids to drop out of high school right and left, consigning them to a life of poverty. We have to simultaneously address their skills deficit and prevent their dropping out. If a fifth year is linked to extra support for freshmen--to get in kids' faces to build their ability to do algebra, for instance--that's a good idea. And an extra year transitioning students to college makes lot of sense. But if you're just saying, 'Let's give kids a fifth year because they flunk so much,' that's not good. Nothing will change that way."

Fred Hess, director, Center for Urban Social Policy at Northwestern University: "In the old days, we held time constant but let student achievement vary, from kids dropping out to those in AP classes. Now we want everyone to meet standards, and some kids need to take some courses half as fast. That's an acknowledgment that while kids can learn the same stuff, it just may take them longer to do so. If this is done thoughtfully, a kid may take two years to master algebra but one to learn World Studies. The question here is: How can we become flexible to adapt to individual needs?"

Ted Dallas, education-to-careers coordinator, Wells High School. "We've always had kids who want to persevere and who make it through in five years." But the school has had a hard time keeping many students for even two years, he adds. "Our school has immigrant kids, Hispanics, and they need to make money--now. They say some of these kids need more time, but the ones falling into that category [need to work] are going to say adios."

Louis Pyster, history teacher, Schurz High School, and a high school vice president, Chicago Teachers Union. "I don't see a fifth year as much of a solution. Kids should be better prepared before they come to high school. We need to go back to elementary school, deal with the class-size situation, reduce the time spent on test preparation and get them ready. What [Schools CEO Paul] Vallas is attempting to do with a fifth year is solve the problem of kids dropping out of high school, but it seems to be an excuse for kids coming in without reading and other skills."