Making up with initiative what the school system lacked in funds, Thayer High School in Winchester, N.H., has managed cut its dropout rate and raise math and science standards without seeking outside help. One of the strongest arguments for local discretion in the running of schools is that education can be better tailored to the needs of the local population. Good support for that argument can be found in the junior-senior high school of Winchester, N.H.
A poor school serving a poor community in a state ranked 50th in state support of public education, Thayer High School has managed to improve attendance and lower dropout rates while increasing math and science requirements -- before the state took such action.
From the outside the two-story, red-brick school building looks rather dowdy for its 50 years. But on the inside is a pleasant mix of flash -- provided by brightly colored student murals -- and New Hampshire rural.
Beyond those superficial features, the school includes a well-used computer room, a new fine-arts wing, and a free-standing, post-and-beam classroom built by students.
The cabinlike classroom, heated by a wood-burning stove, is one example of the school's innovation. In the interdisciplinary program that includes building the classroom, students break out of the traditional hour-long-course routine for a three-hour class that might include local history -- barn-building in New England; English -- writing up reports; and a science. The idea is to break out of the 50-minute-class mold and help students see how subjects interrelate.
The school has drawn attention from at least as far away as Brown University, where education Prof. Theodore Sizer -- author of the recent ``Horace's Compromise,'' a personal look at America's high schools -- got wind of it. Dr. Sizer has selected Thayer High as one of a number of schools around the country to be monitored for a study of what makes for effective education.
Much of the credit for the enthusiasm both the students and the community feel for their school is given to the principal, Dennis Littky, whose experience includes the principalship of what he refers to as a ``state of the art'' middle school on Long Island.
Since Dr. Littky took the 330-student school's reins three years ago, study hall has been thrown out and a simple but no-nonsense discipline code brought in. That may sound like ``back to basics,'' but Littky says much of what he hopes to implement is new -- for the school and the community.
In addition to the interdisciplinary program, the frizzy-blond-haired and bearded Littky has begun apprenticeships that take students out into the community, conferences that encourage a working relationship between parents and a student's adviser-teacher (who often keeps a student for his full high school career), and periodic coffee hours to let the town know what's going on at the high school.
Another innovation is ``Job-shadowing Day,'' which allows students to follow people already in careers they think they might like. ``What we do is useless unless we show the kids there's a reason they're here, and that they can do whatever they want,'' says Littky.
Especially popular among job-shadowing participants are careers in the surrounding New Hampshire woods. And many of the apprenticeships have led directly to jobs in the local economy. But school officials emphasize the school's renewed focus on candidates for higher education, with the guidance counselor taking a more active role.
``Our major focus now is on working with teachers,'' says Littky. Over a lunch of sloppy Joes and wax beans among students in the school's cafeteria, he says staff meetings and training sessions explore ``how to do a better job at teaching these kids the basic skills they're going to need'': decisionmaking, problem-solving, ``training the brain to think.''
And he notes that a great degree of autonomy in hiring has allowed him to fashion a teaching staff that is ``pretty much together'' on the direction the school should go.
``It would be hard for anyone to say this school hasn't moved in a very positive direction in the past three years,'' says Marsha Ammann, a 1965 Thayer graduate who teaches remedial reading here.
Yet the question arises: What about the school that doesn't have innovative and energetic leadership upon which to rely? Doesn't the state have a ``leavening'' role?
Looking philosophically beyond his own school -- and reflecting the ardent, individualistic spirit of the town he's adopted -- Littky says that, just as a school should work to meet local needs, it's up to the local district to determine whether a school is functioning well. ``The state can't tell you what's right or wrong with your school,'' he says. In line with that reasoning, he adds that states should be careful about loading up schools with requirements. ``The more [requirements] they give you, the more fragmented you become.''