ELECTION VIEW: Bond won't build schools needed for 21th century learning

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 24, 2013 

Rebuilding Sehome High School as a 20th century factory model high school would be like building a coal-fired electric plant on the waterfront. Both are late19th century technologies widely adopted in the early 20th century and sadly still with us, despite their obsolescence.

Don't you think we can do better to respond to the profound changes we and our teens are experiencing due to rapid technological change and globalization? Bellingham is a highly creative community. We recycle, re-use, support local food and business, buy and invest locally, and care for our neighborhoods, our greenways and our environment. Sustainability and relocalization are more than buzzwords here. Many Bellingham citizens have committed their passion, creativity and their money to these values - and while we have a long way to go, we've already come a long way.

Sustainability and relocalization are bets on the future. They are founded in the belief that the coming decades will be profoundly different from the previous seven decades.

Every institutional form in our society has been changed by our new information technologies and our challenged economy. Why would we want high school alone to stay stuck in its not-so-successful past? Remember, more than 25 percent of teens who start ninth grade don't graduate on time, even after 20 years of concentrated effort in this state to improve schooling. And more than 60 percent of the teens who enroll in college don't graduate in five years.

Isn't it long past time to try something different? What if we took our Bellingham creativity and applied it to the education of teens? Here's one idea for a path we could follow.

We have two conventional high schools, Bellingham and Squalicum. These have room for more than 2,500 students. Invite all the students - and the teachers - who want conventional schooling to enroll in one of these.

Establish the Sehome Experimental Learning Center for a five-year period. Invite the students and teachers who want to experiment and explore what 21st century learning for teens can become to choose this program.

(College admissions staffs love students who participate in such projects, because they are always looking for ways that applicants differentiate themselves from the masses.)

Organize the learning of the Common Core, state-mandated subjects - reading, writing, math, science - into multiple learning formats: online learning individually; online learning in study groups; in-person tutoring in small groups of 3-5; in-person tutoring in groups of 8-10. The 43 Big Picture schools (bigpicture.org) in the U.S. have pioneered flexible individualized and small group learning for 20 years; our teachers could learn from them. Teachers could also use course websites, like KhanAcademy.org, which offer courses, online assessments, and simple ways for teachers to monitor student learning. In the afternoons the students and teachers could experiment with learning opportunities defined by student interest, teacher skills and vocational value. Computer technology skills. Maker labs. Career tech. Robotics. Lean start-up for businesses. Organic farming. Community service projects. All forms of artistic endeavor. Practical economics. History and future studies. World languages. Deep ecology. Practical geography. Local government. This list could go on and on.

Rather than continue to try to compel teens to learn what adults tell them to learn - which we all know we promptly forget - what if we engaged teens in helping to define what they want to learn? What if we asked teachers both to support teens in this endeavor and to offer their own expertise and passions for learning?

With five years of experimentation and organizational learning, we would most likely not want to rebuild Sehome. Classrooms are an incredible waste of money - they are used for only six hours a day, 180 days in the year. Talk about throwing money away. Why not a building with flexible spaces - and a wide array of technological tools - that can be used effectively 18 hours each day, seven days a week, all year by a wide variety of citizens? A community learning center.

The first necessary step is to say no to the school district's bond, which devotes $100 million to "rebuild Sehome" as a dinosaur. Then perhaps our currently foggy-eyed school leaders will wake up to the 21st century.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Marshak lives in Bellingham's Happy Valley neighborhood. He has worked as a public high school teacher and public school district assistant superintendent. He co-founded a high school, consulted with public schools in the U.S. and Canada and taught at Seattle University and Western Washington University. As a homeowner he has voted for 13 school bonds and levies and worked on four school bond "yes" campaigns. Vote-by-mail ballots will be mailed Oct. 19 and the general election is Nov. 5.

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