High school could be ... better. But how?

The American high school is one of the country's most iconic institutions. It's also proven to be one of the most difficult to change.

Earlier this month, Gov. John Baldacci of Maine sat before dozens of students and listened as they spoke about their high school experiences.

The dialogue was one in a series of student town hall meetings convened around the country by the National Governors Association over the past year, and part of a broader discussion that has come to include everyone from educators and business leaders to President Bush.

Students continue to drop out of high school at an alarming rate - in some groups, as few as half of students graduate. Those who do graduate too often are unprepared for college or work. Recent studies have found that many high-schoolers feel unchallenged and unengaged. This, and the shift from an industrial to a global, knowledge-based economy, has made rethinking high school a priority for many.

As with much of education reform, "the bursts of interest come and go," says Theodore Sizer, an education professor and author of the 1984 book "Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School." In the late 1950s, the fear of falling behind the Soviets led to a push to improve math and science instruction. The trend in the '60s was to consolidate small high schools into larger structures to support more diverse courses. The '80s saw yet another wave of reform.

But the focus always seems to return to younger children. And by many measures, years of elementary school reform efforts are beginning to pay off.

To some degree, high school has been thought unfixable, its institutional culture too entrenched. "The story of the American high school is extremely powerful," says Paul Schwarz, principal in residence at the US Department of Education under President Clinton. During his tenure, Mr. Schwarz pointed out that while money was being poured into elementary and middle schools, high schools were largely ignored. He was told that tackling high school was too big a task. But he's encouraged by the newfound willingness today.

Among the raft of reform efforts under way:

Challenging curricula. In an attempt to undo tracking, many districts and states are implementing college-preparatory curricula for all their students. The Los Angeles Unified School District recently decided to make college-prep standard, and similar moves are afoot in Oklahoma, Indiana, Mississippi, and Delaware. But critics wonder if imposing a one-size-fits-all approach is the best solution.

Small schools. The idea of splintering large high schools into smaller learning communities has been evolving since the 1970s. However, it remained a fringe effort until it was championed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; its grants have been awarded to more than 1,500 schools in 42 states.

Early college. Some schools, like Bard High School Early College in New York, enable students to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree. In 2002, 57 percent of colleges and universities enrolled high school students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. College-level courses, like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, are also becoming more popular; 1.1 million students took AP exams last year.

Eliminating grade levels. Rather than having students earn credits to advance to the next grade level, under this system there would be no 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th grades. Mastery of a subject would determine whether a student moved on to the next level. And students would retake only classes they failed, rather than repeat a grade. Boston Public Schools have explored this system.

Some see reinventing high school as a high-stakes test for the entire public school system. "There is a sense of urgency now," says Constancia Warren, director of urban high school initiatives at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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