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Former Sec. Margaret Spellings talks about 21st Century Skills [City Schools Close-Up / The Parent Diaries]

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Director of Communications
City of Fairfax Schools
Editor, City Schools Close-Up
Winter 2009

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings visited Fairfax High School on November 19 to view the AVID program and observe other cutting-edge initiatives it has embarked on with the goal of improving students’ 21st Century Skills.

As one of the principal authors of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, Spellings said throughout her four-year tenure, “We cannot prepare students for the global economy if we don’t get them to grade level first.” In 2005 she convened a Commission on the Future of Higher Education to recommend reform at the post-secondary level.

The reason for concern, she explained during her trip to FHS, is that students are not being adequately prepared to land jobs after they graduate from high school. Spellings pointed to a national survey of human resource executives that reported:

• Nearly 70% believe high school graduates fall short when it comes to critical thinking skills
• 81% say high school grads have deficient writing skills
• Almost 1/3 said they will reduce their hiring of employees that only have a high school diploma

The Language Lab

Spellings’ first stop on her tour of FHS was Michele Campbell’s Spanish 4 classroom. Soon after the Secretary took a seat in the language lab, baskets containing interconnected headsets were mechanically lowered for students to use. The system enables students to hear the lesson Campbell is delivering. The roar of the giant machine slightly startled Spellings, who looked to the student seated to her right for assistance. “It’s ok, Mrs. Spellings,” said Edward Koh, the junior beside her. “This lab helps us learn to speak Spanish more fluently, and that actually makes learning a lot of fun.”
Spellings smiled a relaxed grin, then intently listened along with the other students. She later spoke with Campbell about the relevance of the high-tech approach to reinforce 21st Century Skills.

“For years, language teachers have been successful in teaching students to read and write in a foreign language, but not to hold fluent conversations,” explained Campbell, who is chairman of the language department at FHS. “The headsets are wired to the teacher console and docking station so as students practice their interactive communicative activities I can listen in and provide immediate feedback with the click of the mouse. The lab allows for communication between paired and grouped students without wasting valuable class time. I have seen a marked improvement in the students’ fluency and willingness to speak in the target language.”

AVID

Spellings then traveled to Eric Kinne’s freshman AVID class. A three decades-old program, AVID stands for Advancement through Individual Determination and targets students in the academic middle—B, C, and even D students—who have the desire to go to college and the willingness to work hard. “In a nutshell, AVID helps students who are capable of completing rigorous curriculum but are falling short of their potential,” said Kinne. “Typically, they will be the first in their families to attend college, and many are from low-income or minority families. AVID pulls these students out of their unchallenging courses and puts them on the college track. Our focus is acceleration—not remediation.”

Kevin R, 15, said he doesn’t know what he’d have done without the AVID program. “My AVID teacher has also helped me realize that college is something I should shoot for,” explained the freshman who hopes to get a scholarship to Boston College. “I think one of the most important things is that I learned how to take notes, and that helps me better focus on what the teacher really wants me to learn and remember.”

Proper note taking is something few students seem to know how to do instinctively, Kinne admitted. “We teach our students the fundamentals of organization, and make sure they use one notebook instead of several binders. Inside it, they keep their pencil case filled with pens and highlighters, pencils and sharpeners, and most importantly use the Cornell Note-taking System to organize what they are learning.

State-funded, independent research, together with AVID’s own data, validate that the AVID college-readiness system works, Kinne adds. “Studies show that AVID students are more likely to take AP classes, complete their college eligibility requirements, and get into four-year colleges than students who don’t take AVID.”
Indeed, almost all AVID students who participate for at least three years are accepted to college, and roughly three quarters get into four-year colleges or universities. AVID also helps ensure students, once accepted to college, possess the higher-level skills they need for college success. (For more, visit www.avidonline.org.)

Bottom line

The final stop on Spellings’ tour of Fairfax High was a meeting with two AVID students, teachers, Fairfax City and Fairfax County Public School officials to discuss the impact of the powerful AVID program.

Jim Nelson, the CEO in charge of the administration of the AVID program who accompanied Secretary Spellings on the FHS field trip, said he was very impressed with how well students are doing in Fairfax County.

“Doing well in life starts by doing well in school,” Nelson told the group of about three dozen people that had gathered for the last leg of the tour. “Ultimately, it’s about rigor. Our goal is to teach AVID students to master the academic program so they will be prepared to master all the challenges and opportunities they will face throughout the rest of their lives.”

Peter Noonan, FCPS Assistant Superintendent for the Department of Instructional Services, commented that the coursework offered in the AVID curriculum also helps close the achievement gap. “It has been my experience and observation that students in the AVID program feel incredibly engaged and supported,” Noonan said. “It’s a moment in time when they feel the school saying, ‘We are on your side. We are going to challenge you, but we are also going to do everything we can to support you.’ That’s very powerful and something we aspire to do for all of our students.”

Fairfax High Principal Scott Brabrand echoed Noonan’s belief, and added the AVID program also serves to hold the school and teachers accountable for results. “It’s one thing to have high expectations for all of our students, but to ensure they actually learn exactly what they need to get a job after high school or get into a two-year or four-year college is something we can measure. This program, along with other lessons and classes that teach 21st Century Skills, is the first step in making sure every student is successful.”

Secretary Spellings then turned to FHS guidance counselor Renee Service to find out how Fairfax High has engaged so many students and gotten them to participate in the AVID program. Service responded that she and the other guidance counselors do exactly what a good employer will do when these students graduate.

“We have them sign a contract saying they agree to complete the course, and have them promise they’ll take at least one AP class,” she said. “In exchange, we make sure they know what to expect, and we hold an AP Boot Camp to prepare them for the rigorous classes we know they can handle. It’s a system that seems to works for everyone.”

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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