Testimony of Alan Marks

Alan Marks
South Valley Charter High School
240 Valley High School
Albuquerque, NM 87105
Phone/fax 505-877-3150
Email jamar@unm.edu

            I have two main comments regarding retention and student performance. The first I would like to situate primarily within the context of charter schools, since I am in the process of beginning one now. In essence, I think most public schools, at least high schools, are too large to give students a sense of belonging. The students often lack a trusting relationship with their mentors, are frustrated academically, are alienated socially, and gradually they withdraw. The staff is likewise frustrated and alienated for several reasons listed  below, and, due to the scale and organization of the institution, cannot compensate for the despair of the students.

            Let me illustrate by my experience at a large high school of about 2500 students over a 14-year period. Typically I would see a 9th grade student (letís call her Carla) in my first period class and never again for the rest of the day. And I might never see her again for the next three years. No matter how supportive I might be in my class, Carla might very well feel very alone in her high school experience. My expectations might not jibe with expectations of other teachers, she might become frustrated with what is expected of her, and her self-confidence might plummet as she experienced defeats in different facets of her school life. Meanwhile, as you well know, events outside of school may ultimately undermine her academic success, lacking that caring, coherent climate at school.

            Let me return to Carla after I describe the same situation from the perspective of a teacher. Given the constraints of size, I might see 150 different students a year and 600 over the four years Carla is there. It is daunting for me, the 9th grade English teacher to feel that I am an integral part of the life of each student who passes through my classroom. I want to know how each is doing in other classes and what common themes of achievement or attitude run through her classes. But I donít know that. Nor do I know what happens to her after my freshman English class. I have 150 new students to worry about. While there is some alignment of curriculum within academic departments, and I stress only some, there is little if any discussion between departments to make the curriculum more coherent, more organic, more meaningful. And socially, there is little communication across departments about the needs of any given child. As such, I feel isolated and frustrated myself in my mission to really make a difference in the lives of my students, to help them see the links that tie this process we call education together, and to help guide them through this demanding process.

            Back to Carla. Lacking integrated, coherent curriculum, Carla may feel she is struggling to find her way through a labyrinth of 24 unrelated strands. And lacking consistent adult mentors in this process, she may feel very hopeless about finding an adult who can understand her fragmentation and frustration.

            The above description barely begins to address the problems caused by huge educational institutions. Although better administration and organization can address some of the issues I raised, really they are endemic to these large institutions. We all know that research has shown that smaller schools provide the security and attention to the academic and social needs of students, that students perform better and teachers are more satisfied with their ability to provide a school family for their students. But we arenít seeing a programmatic shift to small schools. That is where effective, alternative models become critical.

            In our charter high school, for example, we will have a small core of teachers who escort students all the way through their high school experience. We can anticipate problems and deal with them quickly and thoroughly. We can keep parents informed about any inconsistencies because we work daily with these students throughout the four years. We can have high standards for all, but can chart improvement in such a way as to make a low achieving student feel challenged and self-confident about her progress. Essentially we form a school family that is consistent, coherent, and caring. We gain our coherence because, as a small school, we meet and plan together daily. Our curriculum is thematically linked so that a real world problem which students can get their teeth into gives meaning to abstractions such as math or social studies. Students who feel acknowledged, encouraged, and cared for are much more likely to stay in school and experience academic success. And I attribute most of this success to a human scale, a small school.

            That brings me to a key point. What are the constraints that keep these useful pilots and alternative schools from being as effective as they should be? The primary constraint we have found for charter schools is that we lack a facility. Unless there is an empty school building around, we are confronted with a terrible dilemma. Assuming we can even find a facility to lease, shall we use a huge chunk of our operational budget to pay for that lease, and then with our correspondingly reduced budget render inferior services to our students? And what about the long term? As long as we continue to pay for our lease and our operational expenses, we will never have the chance to create a permanent facility that truly embodies our charter.

            In our case, in the poor barrio where we are locating, there really arenít any suitable buildings that we could even afford to renovate to lease except in distant strip malls, and even those would be well beyond our means to renovate. We will end up leasing portable buildings and hoping to find a site with infrastructure for hook-ups. We think we may be able to partner with the county for the use of a vacant site across from a community center. But what do we do for the long term. We are a poor community, and, as you are well aware, we have no authority to float a bond to raise capital for a building. What we need to find, and what you might consider recommending, is some source of funds for loans for capital improvements. Our community, though poor in wealth, is rich in enthusiasm and commitment. They are willing to put in thousands of hours to help us make this alternative public high school a reality. But the limiting factor is access to capital. Please consider a resolution of this issue as one significant path to improve student retention and achievement that your committee could propose.  

            My second point, which I will keep brief, is that many students become frustrated with school and fail to achieve because the goals are very fuzzy.  In sports and music and other arenas, the benchmarks are clear and the assessment of where the student is and how she is improving are much more evident. There is usually even an analysis of what the weaknesses are. Furthermore there is general agreement about the value of the benchmarks. You know if you can shoot 3-point baskets or serve an overhand serve in volleyball or play an A-flat. The goal is fairly concrete.

            In school, I am afraid we have a long ways to go to make the goals both clear and worthy. I am reminded of ďCool Hand LukeĒ when Luke is told by a supervisor to take the dirt out of a hole in the ground. The next supervisor asks him what he is doing and tells him to fill that hole. And then the first returns and wants to know why the dirt hasnít been removed. There is much ambiguity about what constitutes good student performance within schools. Students sometimes lack the resiliency of Paul Newman, and give up when nothing they do seems to meet the fuzzy benchmark. I think we have a long ways to go in our so-called standards movement. I donít think we are clear about what students should achieve, are not convincing about the relevance of these benchmarks, and rarely if ever do we assess these goals. When we do assess them on some huge standardized test, we rarely analyze these results and use them to help students analyze and overcome weaknesses.

            The model I would like to suggest is clear goal-setting at the level of the individual student and frequent assessment so that students can see their improvement. The poorest student will become excited when she knows and understands the goal and sees and understands her improvement. There is so much more to say about this topic which is my passion, but I think the point is raised. You should be able to walk into any classroom in the US and ask any student:

In a world where students can answer those three questions, I think you will find far less dropouts and much higher achievement.