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Building Blocks: The High School Years [Close-Up / City of Fairfax Schools]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story, May-June 2007

What students need to know by the end of 12th grade [View entire article.]

FOURTH in a four-part series

This cover story marks the last in our four-part series to help parents prepare for their child’s future by having them “Begin at the End: 12th grade.”

That is the advice of Superintendent George Stepp, who retires June 30 (see page 5 for details). His outgoing wish is for students to work as hard as possible and take the most challenging classes.

“My hope for every City School student is that they take at least three Advanced Placement classes in their four years at Fairfax High,” he explains. “To do that, they need to have worked hard in elementary and middle school, and developed excellent study skills. I promise, though, that their hard work will pay off.”

Fairfax High Principal Scott Brabrand says students also need to be highly motivated. “Many students think of high school as an ending, but it is truly the beginning of independent inquiry and thought. In reality, high school is the end of learning for school’s sake and the beginning of learning for life’s sake.”


All students should take four years of math in high school, says Fairfax High’s Math Department Chair Karen Hatchl.

The reason: “Not every freshman who comes into high school knowing what they want to be when they grow up,” Hatchl says. “So taking four years of math is important—just in case they do decide to pursue a career that requires them to have taken advanced classes.”
Even if a student doesn’t want to go into a profession that requires a strong math background, taking math helps them understand logic—a critical skill no matter what career they pursue.

Jean E. Taylor, a math professor at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, confirms Hatchl’s theory.

“For decades, our industrial society has been based on fossil fuels,” writes Taylor in a report entitled, The Importance of Workplace and Everyday Mathematics. “In today’s knowledge-based society, mathematics is the energy that drives the system. It is more than a fixed tool applied in known ways.”

She goes on to say that virtually all levels of management, and many support positions in business and industry, require some mathematical understanding.

“Professionals need to be able to read graphs and interpret information presented visually, they need to be able to use estimation effectively, and they need to apply mathematical reasoning,” Taylor explains.

Which class best prepares students for the challenging high school math curriculum?
Algebra I, insists Hatchl.

“All students should come to high school having at least tried Algebra I in 8th grade. This is a fundamental building block. And if they don’t do well, they can repeat the class in the summer.”

But if they do well, students should take Geometry in 9th grade and Algebra II in 10th. Thereafter, pre-calculus is a good class for almost every math student. “And those who do well should go on to take AP Calculus — especially if they aspire to become engineers,” Hatchl says.

For students planning a career as a psychologist, political scientist, biologist, or economist — AP Statistics is a good option.

“There are lots of choices,” she offers. “The key is to constantly challenge yourself. I’m always pleased when students come to me after taking four years of math, and even though it was sometimes a struggle, they tell me how proud of themselves they are for trying. I always say to most important thing is to keep pushing, because success is right around the corner.”


Beloved science Department Chairman Malcolm Leinwohl will leave Fairfax High at the end of the 2007 school year. And when he does he’ll pass the baton to his colleague, science teacher Chris Bird. “Chris is going to do a great job,” says Leinwohl, who has been a science teacher at FHS since 1996 and the department chair since 2001.
What departing message does the science guru have for students?

“Take four years of science, and enjoy every moment of it,” says Leinwohl, who recommends freshmen start with Biology in 9th grade, then move on to Chemistry in 10th grade. From there, he advises students to pick the science classes that match their skills, and their long-term goals.

“Students who think they’d like to become engineers should take Physics in 11th grade and AP Physics C in 12th grade. If they want to be a nurse, they should take Anatomy/Physiology in 11th grade and AP Biology as seniors.”

And if they want to go into, say, restaurant management, students should sign up for Geosystems or Physics in 11th grade and another academically challenging science class in 12th grade.

“The most important thing is for students and parents to talk about possible scenarios with science teachers and school counselors,” Leinwohl shares. “There are typical sequences of classes, but that sequence should fit a student’s long-term goals. The point of all of these classes is for students to challenge themselves so they can learn to think scientifically.”

For Leinwohl, that means getting students into a classroom and playing with all the cool toys.

“Science in high school is all about the labs—just getting your hands in there to explore and dissect everything from a flower to a fetal pig. We also talk about the legal and ethical aspects of science, genetics and how blood flows through the heart. Scientists don’t just wear white lab coats and chart data of their findings. On the contrary, science is the stuff that life is made of.”

Leinwohl believes parents can help their children excel.

“The number one thing I advise parents to do is know what courses their kids are taking,” he says. “It sounds obvious, but sometimes parents back off a little too much when their children get into high school. I encourage them to talk to their children about what they did in science when they cook dinner. There’s a lot of science going on in the kitchen.”

Leinwohl also suggests students “teach” their parents what they are learning so everyone in the family can start to think about the world in a more scientific way. “Science really is the greatest subject,” he says.


When it comes to mastering the topics taught in social studies class, Department Chairperson Maureen Keck says the key is for students to have great study skills.

“This is not unique to social studies, but because so much of the curriculum is based on being able to read about historical events and comprehend the information, students need to be able to read and write independently, have good analytical skills, and be able to focus in on the key concepts,” she says. “If they can hone those skills, and have the desire to learn the material, they can be successful at anything.”

Doing homework well is another critical skill. “No matter what class they are taking, I encourage my students to go through their text books and make outlines of the information they are reading. If they develop an outline for each chapter, they will have a simple guide to follow when it comes time to prepare for a test.”

Which social studies classes should kids take?

In 9th grade, students have the option of World History and Geography I, or a class that is new this year: Pre-Advanced Placement World History, Keck says.

“Although the basic World History class provides an excellent review of pre-history to 1500, I highly recommend the pre-AP class for freshman because it gives them a taste of an advanced placement course will be like, and more importantly it gives them the opportunity to learn how to analyze information. This is essential for success in the classes they’ll take in the coming years.”

In 10th grade, Keck says students can choose between the highly challenging AP World History class, or World History (which covers 1500 AD to today) and Geography II. The following year, options include AP U.S. History or U.S. History, and in 12th grade students can take AP Government (which focuses on foreign policy), or the general Government class. Other options include Psychology, Sociology, and AP Psychology.
The big question Keck is often asked is which class to take: the AP version, or the “regular” one.

“I know parents want a definitive answer, but the truth is that it depends on the student,” she shares. “Those with good study skills who are excited about learning the material will do beautifully in an AP class. The other courses are chock full of information, too, but we work a little harder on teaching them to study well. Either way I recommend students take a social studies class all four years of high school.”


What else can parents do to help? “Structure your child’s life, make sure they know school is a priority, and help them organize their time. I have children and know how tough it can be—but if you do this, the benefits will pay off for the rest of their lives.”
Writing well is the goal of the English program at Fairfax high, explains English Department chair Aileen Scharl.

“When students enter college, and then the real world, one of the most important skills they’ll need is to be able to write clearly and concisely,” she shares. “Although the ability to be a great writer is somewhat of a gift, I truly believe that everyone can learn to write well. It just takes time, patience, and determination.”

Scharl says another goal of the English program is to help students become critical readers.

“The more well-written works students read, the more they’ll learn how language is used to enhance content. I want them to hear the music in the words—and this doesn’t just happen in fiction. Well-written documents and non-fiction books also provide students with insight.”
To be prepared to master the English program, Scharl expects students to come into 9th grade with a basic knowledge of how to construct a sentence and a paragraph, and have an understanding of subject and verb agreement. Plus, she doesn’t just want them to be able to comprehend the meaning of an article, story, research paper, or a book.

“Students must be able to infer meaning from what they read,” she insists. “They’ll then be able to draw conclusions, and use the same techniques to write their own research papers, stories, and articles in a way that others can not only comprehend, but enjoy.”

So that students are well prepared by the end of the senior year, Scharl recommends they begin high school taking English 9, English 9 Team (for students who need to boost their reading or writing skills, as well as ESL and LD students), or Pre-AP English 9.

In 10th grade, the options include English 10, English 10 Team, and Pre-AP English 10.
By the time they get to their junior year, class choices include English 11, English 11 Team, and AP English—where the focus is on non-fiction. All students must write a research paper, which is certainly something they’ll be expected to do in college.

Senior year, the options include English 12, English 12 Team, and AP Literature—where the focus is on plays and poetry.

To get as much out of the high school English program, Scharl encourages all students to read outside of school, then sit with their parents to talk about what they’ve learned.
“Students should pick up the classics: Hawthorne, Steinbeck, and Faulkner,” Scharl notes. “And every day they should read at least one article in the newspaper. Even editorial cartoons provide students with ideas. Just read as much, and as often, as possible.”


“Being bilingual boosts brain power,” says Michele Campbell, Chairman of the FHS Foreign Language Department. “Research shows the bilingual brain develops more densely, giving it an advantage with various cognitive abilities.”

Campbell points to research conducted by neuroscientists in London and Rome who looked at brain densities of bilingual people. They found that bilingual speakers had denser gray matter—a portion of the brain that is associated with intellect, especially in areas of language, memory and attention.

“The effect is strongest for children who learn a foreign language before age 5,” says Campbell, but notes that even if students don’t take a foreign language until middle school, the benefits are significant.

“So long as students start taking a language in 8th grade, they’ll come into high school with some knowledge under their belt,” she explains. “The fact is that students who studied a foreign language for four or more years outscored other students on the verbal and math portions of the SAT. Starting in 8th grade is just fine.”

Is one language easier to learn than another? “No,” Campbell insists. “That is a myth.”

But what is important, she says, is that the student chooses which language to take—not the parent.

“If the student doesn’t have the power to choose, they aren’t going to be as engaged. And wanting to learn a language is key to how successful the student will be.”
The best way to learn any language is for students to immerse themselves not just in the language, but also in the culture.

“Knowing a second language gives students the ability to communicate with more people, and provides them with a better understanding of other cultures, geography, and history. It not only helps them become more tolerant, it will likely land them better jobs—especially as the world gets more global and companies look for people who can be successful in a variety of settings and with a diversity of people.”

Seven languages are taught at FHS: Spanish, Spanish for fluent speakers, French, German, Latin, Korean, and Chinese.

How should a student decide which language to take?

Campbell offers the following guide:

• Latin — Study of this ancient language helps students do well on their SATs for the Latin vocabulary provides insight into the roots of most English words.

• German — This language is similar to English, so it is familiar and not as difficult for most students to learn. About 109 million people, of 6.5 billion on earth, speak German.

• Spanish and French — These romance languages are the most popular, and have their origins in Latin. Approximately 265 million people speak French, and 320 million speak Spanish.

• Korean and Chinese — For upperclassmen only, these languages have a different alphabet and are best suited to for students who have an affinity for learning languages. However, about 1/6 of the world’s population (1.12 billion people) speak Mandarin Chinese.


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