STRENGTHENING AMERICA'S HIGH SCHOOLS

David strides into his first-period English class with a lot on his mind: Which parent is he going to live with after his mom's and dad's marriage crashes? And where is he going to get the money, let alone the confidence, to invite Barbara, that gorgeous girl who sits over near the window, to the big party Saturday? And where can he find mag wheels to jazz up his '75 Plymouth?m

Almost none of what troubles educational pundits about America's high schools - ''soft'' curricula, declining SAT scores, indifferent but tenured teachers, financial cutbacks - touches David's personal priorities.

A wide chasm gapes between the students' and experts' perceptions of what high school is all about.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education, the Education Commission of the States, and others studying the American high school view it as the place where knowledge ought to be honored and skills honed.

Their prescriptions of four years of English, three years each of math and science, three years of social studies, and a semester of computer science have a good possibility of raising the SAT scores of our fictional David. High-school administrators think of improving test scores as an achievable goal; the President himself has thrown out a challenge for high schools to raise every student's SAT score by 50 points within this decade.

But the flaw is that SAT scores don't matter a whole lot to David right now. His problems don't begin in the classroom; they come to school with him. He's got other worries.

A high school building can be modern or classical, pristine or splotched with graffiti. The principal who presides over it is likely to be male and the faculty ''graying'' - with enough years of teaching to warrant tenure. In most parts of the country, declining enrollment means few new teachers can be hired.

Into this scene come notebook-toting, locker-banging, daydreaming 14- to 18 -year-olds.

The nation's 22,834 high schools, like the communities they mirror, have diverse goals, unequal resources, varying degrees of effectiveness, and distinctive features that defy across-the-board categorization.

Pelican High School in Pelican, Alaska, has six students. Hyde Park Career Academy in Chicago has several thousand. Job-oriented Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington, Mass., enrolls not only teen-agers but adults in vocational programs. Boston Latin Academy selects its students by competitive examination and qualifies them for enrollment in prestigious colleges.

Most high schools are ''comprehensive,'' offering college-preparatory, business, and manual-training courses.

''We try to do too much,'' says Charles Donnelly, a math teacher at Georgetown High School in Georgetown, Mass., which graduates about 100 students a year. ''Probably small schools should specialize in what they do well and not try to cover the waterfront.''

Experts who have been studying high schools say it's time to raise educational standards and make students more businesslike about school.

On the other hand, students recognize that some teachers do a better job than others. ''I have teachers that are air-heads,'' complains Monica Cummings of Barrington, R.I. ''But I have some good ones, too. Some teachers won't help you after class; the bad ones should get replaced.'' But then she adds, thoughtfully, ''Seniority makes that hard.''

Daneen Rorro of Provincetown (Mass.) High School says: ''Teachers have to be more professional. They shouldn't waste class time by bringing in their personal problems.

''But kids have to help, too,'' she adds.

''The kids are laid back at my high school,'' says Liz Hunter of Weymouth, Mass. ''Kids who want to learn more have to make the effort,'' she says. ''The teachers don't enforce the rules.'' She wishes they would.

David has copied down the homework assignment in a special notebook. It slides off the tablet arm of his chair. When he reaches for it, everything else slides off. The teacher glares. ''Why is she so uptight?'' he wonders. ''Still 14 minutes to go? Drag.''m

The sprawling hilltop campus of Laguna Beach High School in Orange County, Calif., commands an enticing view of the Pacific. The sparkling surf puts book learning in direct competition with beach yearning for the thousand students in grades 9 to 12.

At one time Laguna Beach students received credit toward graduation for a course entitled ''beach sports.'' Today, Dr. Robert Hughes, principal, is tightening his academic ship in response to stiffer California college entrance requirements and parental demands.

Asked what the school does best, Ledeane Brislen, the dean of students, pauses, then answers carefully: ''Offering an opportunity to each student to develop to his fullest potential.'' In the arts-conscious community of Laguna Beach, this response implies that students talented in the performing or fine arts will receive the kind of recognition usually granted those who excel in sports or academic subjects.

Asked what aspects of the school need improvement, Mrs. Brislen mentions that the school should bring more awareness of the larger world to this somewhat isolated community. Steps already being taken include having exchange students from Europe, Japan, Latin America, and Australia.

''No, we don't have many Hispanics or Orientals. Just one family, I think, of blacks,'' the principal's secretary says.

David concentrates on the mag-wheel problem. ''Would it be better to hang around and maybe just happen to bump into Barbara? But how can I invite her to ride in such a grungy car?'' The bell rings, and David walks to his locker, jostled by the other kids, still thinking.m

What's important to Samantha Powers, a senior this year at Laguna Beach, is the friendliness at school.''I love it here,'' she says. ''When I came down here (from Newport Beach), everybody was so warm. There aren't any cliques.''

But she's looking ahead, too. Samantha, whose grades and SAT scores are ''about average,'' plans to go to a four-year college in California (''near the beach'') after she graduates. She credits her high school with an excellent career center. ''They helped me out tremendously. They told us about SATs and colleges and stuff when we were sophomores.''

She thinks the school needs a bigger sports budget:

''When we play Dana Hills or San Clemente, they come out in really nice (basketball) uniforms. It's kinda embarrassing when you're on varsity and you have to wear an old uniform. But we buy our own.''

Even though she drives to school, picking up neighborhood friends on the way, she likes being able to walk downtown to eat lunch with her friends. She also likes the state ROP (Regional Occupation Program) that allows her to earn money and academic credit simultaneously while working at McCalla Pharmacy.

Meanwhile, a Laguna Beach teacher wonders out loud how a transcript is evaluated by a good college when the highest grade on it was received for ROP. The teacher thinks adults have a responsibility to set higher goals for children.

''Students are spending far less real time in the academic curriculum than assumed in previous research,'' says Clifford Adelman, associate of the National Institute of Education in Washington. Mr. Adelman analyzed the transcripts of a nationwide cross section of 8,800 public school graduates.

Between 1969 and 1981, school time spent in academic subjects (such as English, social studies, math, and foreign languages) fell, while credits for driver training, chorus and band, consumer education, and personal guidance rose. Advanced courses lost students; introductory and remedial courses gained students.

And most American students now attend school fewer hours per day and fewer days per year than students in other developed countries.

Heading out to the parking lot, David suddenly realizes how much this big night is going to cost, but he decides it's worth it. ''Maybe Mom'll let me wash the car for a start and loan me the rest,'' he thinks. He heads for the nearest car cemetery, searching for his mag wheels.m

Laguna Beach is not immune to problems of drug abuse and alcoholism. Samantha says the school is taking constructive steps to combat these problems.

''They are doing something about it,'' she says, citing ''a lot of parent programs and assemblies where kids from other schools who've kicked their habit tell about that.'' The National Institute on Drug Abuse says abuse by high school seniors nationwide has declined for the fourth consecutive year. In l979 , 1 in 9 smoked pot daily; only 1 in 16 seniors admitted being daily users in 1983.

At Laguna Beach, which has a total of 17,000 residents, problems with absenteeism arise from the temptation of the beach and sun, wanting to play, and out-of-town visits to the noncustodial parent. ''Parents abdicate their responsibility, but they don't want the consequences,'' laments an intermediate school teacher. ''When the police bring in truants, parents won't support the police; they make alibis for their kids.''

Richard H. Hersh, graduate school dean at the University of Oregon, says: ''Schools shouldn't do police work, social work, hunger work.They have to be more ruthless in showing the community that they mean business.

''In school, we can make much better demands on kids. We're getting exactly what we ask for. We're telling kids to give us about 30 to 40 percent of what they can give.''

Yet the results are not all bad. Three decades ago only 55 percent of whites and 30 percent of blacks in the United States finished high school. Today 85 percent of whites and 75 percent of blacks graduate.

''Much of what appears to be declining student performance,'' says Derek Bok, president of Harvard, ''is actually a result of the public schools' greatest success: educating a far larger percentage of school-age young people than formerly or than is possible in many countries even today.''

Nor is it fair to blame the schools for shortcomings of parents, families, and community leaders, Mr. Bok says. Schools have no control over the disintegration of families and distractions like drugs and television.

But to use these problems as alibis for inadequate high schools is, he says, increasingly unacceptable in this country.

The date proceeds brilliantly. Dave and Barbara leave the party and start out for a romantic drive.Barbara loves the mags. ''All a guy really needs are his own talents, sport wheels, and a party to start with,'' David figures. . . .m

Where, then, is the real arena of school reform? Observers increasingly see it at the local level - where kids, not statistics, command top priority. Most parents and taxpayers want students graduating from high school to be able to behave responsibly: to get and hold a job, or go on to college.

''We see young teen-agers entering into a period of considerable personal, social, and physical turbulence while constrained daily in a setting where the dominant expectations are academic or intellectual and require considerable passivity,'' says John I. Goodlad in ''A Place Called School.'' As the momentum of school reform mounts, it is essential to remember that we are dealing with kids, not just with subjects and test scores. Intellectual development is one part of the task, but teen-agers' lives have many dimensions, none of which can be ignored.

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