'No bored, shut faces in this high school'
St. Louis — The neighborhood is industrial, commercial, not residential. The building itself is recycled industrial, its corrugated walls painted yellow, with scarlet doors. Inside, the cove in front of the director's office bubbles with students visiting with Rose, the secretary.
There are no bored, shut faces in this high school. Attendance never falls below 97 percent. In its eight-year history probably no more than five students have transferred back to regular high schools voluntarily. "I like it here," said Jackie. "Everybody's closer; everybody knows you." Michael earned his way back. "There's more freedom and responsibility, a big change from my old high school." I like the independence, but we're still supervised. It's free, but it's close." That from Adam, who came to Metro from a magnet school.
Metro was set up before the magnet school era in St. Louis. The demand for it developed during a series of seminars on secondary education for the St. Louis Board of Education sponsored by the Danforth Foundation. The idea was to provide an alternative academic high school, similar to those springing up in other cities during the late 1960s and early '70s. Betty Wheeler, still its director, was given a planning grant and the task of coming up with a proposal.
The school is open to any ninth-grade student in the City of St. Louis who scores at least 7.9 on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills at the completion of Grade 8. And who can show a good attendance record in his previous school. It opened its doors eight years ago, and it has been providing an academic program for average to above-average students, using community resources in conjunction with regular classrooms. From its staff it requires imagiantion, commitment, hard work; from its students, self-disciplined time management, openness to the community within the school, and interest in the community without; from the community, willingness to accept responsibility for the education of its young people in new ways.
"Metro demonstrates that educating our students is not just the job of the schools, but also of the business community and cultural institutions," says its director.
The staff is small: eight full-time teachers, a counselor who also teaches Latin, a secretary, the director. The curriculum nonetheless is both sturdily academic and rich in options: four years of English (always a requirement at Metro, even when the state standard was three years), two years of science (only one required by the state), a Metro-designed course in sex education which every student must take, Spanish, French, biology, chemistry, art, drama, typing, business, introduction to law. The school is on the quarter system which allows some extra latitude and flexibility in planning.
Some classes are held in the Metro building -- English, math, and art, for instance. Many more are held around the community at different sites. Botany is taught at the botanical garden, zoology at the zoo, astronomy at the planetarium. Typing classes meet at another high school; a theater class convenes at the Third Baptist Church; Spanish and French are taught at St. Louis Univesity.
In all, about 10 different sites are used each quarter. Classes run for an hour and a half with 30-minute breaks to allow for movement about the city. For travel, students use the public bus system; weekly passes are partly subsidized by the Board of Education.
Metro is strict. A student who falls below C (a no-credit on Metro's grading scale) in more than one subject is put on academic probation. One no-credit the next quarter sends him back to a conventional high school. If he wants to return to Metro he must prove himself where he is and apply for re-entry. Generally, fewer than 7 percent of the students are on probation, most of them victims of their failure to manage their time effectively.
Every Metro student must give 80 hours of community service each year to a nonprofit agency in the city. That is a vial part of the program, according to Mrs. Wheeler. "We want our students to learn that the community doesn't owe them anything, bu that they have special talents and skills they owe the community. By going out to serve this way, they learn what the community needs are. They learn to give of themselves."
All students are assigned to counseling groups which meet weekly. Attendance is required, for these are the basic community-building units of the school. The groups are small, with 20 or 21 members. They provide a set of relationships which is by design interracial and intergenerational. In a school which is 60 percent black and 40 percent white (the ratio is 75-25 systemwide), the counseling group fosters better racial understanding and supports communication between students and staff. The groups also serve as forums for decisionmaking and planning and as an information network.
Through the counseling group parents are kept in close contact. Each counselor calls the home of every student in his group at the end of five weeks in every quarter to report on the student's progress. When a student is on academic probation, he works with his parents and hsi counselor to set goals and monitor progress.
There are no extracurricula activities in the ordinary sense -- no clubs, no school paper, no competitive sports. Physical education focusses on lifelong sports like bowling, ice skating, jogging swimming volleyball, basketball. But there are proms, picnics, parties. The difference is that everyone is invited to everything and everyone comes. Every prom, picnic, or aprty is an all-school event.
From the students' viewpoint, Metro's prime asset is its size. Close contact with teachers provides structure in an environment which is otherwise designed for freedom and variety. Close contact with teachers also helps generate a demand for performance from both teachers and students. Teachers are acutely conscious both of the material and method of teaching and of the way individual students are learning or failing to learn. Students respond to that care.
The results are impressive, 88 to 92 percent go on to college, to places like Princeton, Vassar, the University of Chicago, Rochester, and Northwestern as well as to major state universities and good small colleges. Students do well on the PSAT and the SAT, according to Betty Wheeler. "Since the first year," she continued, "colleges have been coming to us. They knock on our doors. They're interested in getting Metro students."
"I was never tempted to transfer," said Howard Park, now at Beloit College in Wisconsin. "You really get to know your teachers at Metro. That's more important than huge facilities and specialized resources like you get in big high schools. Here the whole school can be your friend."
"Before they come to us," concluded Mrs. Wheeler, "some students don't really know what it is to care about someone else. With us it's always been academics andm caring. You have to work on it."