Education

After three years of chaos, six US teens tell us how school could be different | US education

Trying to learn AP physics over Zoom. Cancelled standardized tests. The end of Ds and Fs. Masked proms with no slow dancing. While Covid undeniably changed the world for everyone, one place that was truly upended was high school.

What started as a short break from in-person class has now affected three different school years. Some changes have been hard: hybrid schedules, masking through eight-hour days, suspended extracurriculars. But the drastic changes have also posed the question: what else could be possible? Could school be more fun, inclusive, different?

Here, six seniors across the US offer their best ideas on how high school could be better.

Cory Michalec, 17, Tallmadge High School,  Tallmadge, Ohio

I have cerebral palsy, and I use a wheelchair. At my school, awareness about special needs has grown. But still, some things aren’t accessible. I can get into every classroom on campus, but in some, I can only access the front right corner. At lunch, there are tables that fit my chair, but only some of them, and if my friends don’t sit at one of those, I can’t join them. Honestly, it’s kind of upsetting. I have an outgoing personality, and I like to talk to people. But most of the time, I eat lunch by myself.

It’s really important for schools to be inclusive, because they can open up a whole new world for students in wheelchairs. At my school, we have a wheelchair basketball team, and when our team plays a home game, we can fill one side of the bleachers. After we were runners-up at the state championship, the mayor shut down the traffic circle in Tallmadge and gave us a police and fire escort on our way back. It made us feel happy, special and a part of the community. People recognized our accomplishments!

I’m also the manager for the football team. I go out and shake hands with the other players, and hang out in the locker room. Being part of the team has been really helpful for making friends. Everyone knows me. We joke that I could be the next mayor of Tallmadge.

High schools need to make sure a special needs student is part of the committee preparing for homecoming and prom. This year, I’ll be able to go to graduation because my school moved it to a football stadium with a ramp, which the old location didn’t have. My goal is to walk across it with my walker, not in my chair. Most of my classmates and teachers have only ever seen me in my chair, so their minds will be blown away when I start walking.

Eric Thompson, 17, Waldorf, Maryland

I don’t think high schools should push college as much as they do. The college route isn’t always the right one. A lot of people don’t have the finances to pay for school and won’t be able to afford the debt. But the program I’m in, it’s free. I believe it’s going to help me with my future.

I was going to a regular school my freshman and sophomore years. I thought it would be just like middle school, but I got a rude awakening. My grades weren’t the best, and I didn’t have a relationship with my teachers. I was ashamed to ask questions. One day, my mom got an email about career and technical education programs. I did my research, andapplied to the program. Now, I love school. I’m really good with hands-on things – working with tools and knowing how things work. I want to be great at my craft. That’s what I stand for.

I have now learned how to braze copper pipes. I have an internship at a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) supply store. I’ve been there about a month and a half, and I have to learn all of the parts, so I can help customers.

I’m on track to graduate in the spring, and I want to join the union – Steamfitters 602. I’ll be working and going to school at night, two nights a week, 15 Saturdays per year. You go to college, you do your four years and then you graduate, but you still have to find a job. With this program, I’ll get a job like that. I’ll get a fair shot at providing for my family straight out of high school.

Eventually, I want to start my own business. But right now, they’re teaching me how to do the work. There are 15 people in my class, and it feels like a family.

Annie Weeden, 18, Rio Americano High School, Sacramento, California

Schools should really consider starting later and offering more flexible schedules. Students will have more downtime, and be more focused when they get to campus.

I’m an extrovert, and I did not like doing online school. But I’m also self motivated, and I was able to create my own schedule, so I could do the things I like – like yoga – during the school day. I feel like I grew up a lot during that time. Having school start at 8.05am again this year was rough. I get up at 5.30, but I’m really busy, so it limited what I could get done before class. Lots of my friends sleep until the very last minute and roll out of bed and come to school without even brushing their hair. Even an extra half hour would have made the adjustment easier. Going back to school and having to ask to use the restroom also felt odd. My friends were feeling it, too.

I work in an after-school program. During quarantine, a lot of kids got jobs during the day, and did school work late at night. One friend of mine works at Starbucks. His school lets him take a free period first period of the day, and he works from 4.30 until 7.30am, then goes to school

Melissa Morales, 17, Mission High School, Oakland, California

I’m the child of a single mother who is an immigrant. My mom only got a middle school education, and when she came to the US, she got a job cleaning houses so I could pursue a better life. I always thought higher education wasn’t an option for me. But programs at school have made me realize it is possible.

Right now, I’m one of the 10 students sharing my input and my experiences within the public school system to help create an intensive, one-year program for students at different high schools in San Francisco looking to get into Stem-focused careers called the Mission Bay Hub. We’re hoping it will offer tools and equipment that actual scientists use. I’ve told them that it’s really important to have a big open space, because many of our classrooms are cramped. When volunteers come into the hub, they should be a diverse and representative group – like us.

Honestly, being part of the program feels awesome – I feel like I’m doing something positive for my younger siblings and cousins in this system. I feel like I’m creating a change in our education.

Schools should allow students to meet with the principal and board members, instead of having one-minute, once a month opportunities.

Rylie Spaulding, 17, Wagoner High School, Wagoner, Oklahoma

Last year, I started community college classes during high school. Next spring, I’ll graduate from community college three weeks before I graduate from high school, with 62 hours of college credit.

The state of Oklahoma covers a lot of the tuition for concurrent enrollment students. And the Creek Nation, which I’m a member of, covered most of the rest. My mom estimates that my parents paid for the cost of a couple of books – that’s it.

Everyone should have opportunity to study the same way I did. It helps students become familiar with the college application process, how to navigate the different departments at college, and the difference between high school and college classes. In high school, you’re with this same group of kids, and the teacher is pushing you to do your work. In college, it’s all on you. I have a head start on my future. I should graduate in two and a half years – and save my parents about $50,000.

It prepares students for college, and is a huge self esteem booster. I look at it and think, “I did that.”

Jenna Fuehrer, 17, McCool Junction High School, York, Nebraska

A lot of kids my age don’t even know how to sew on a button.

If I were going to change high school, I would make sure that students learn the basic life skills you need outside of school. Personally, I don’t know anything about cars. Something happened to my tire when I was at school, and my boyfriend and I had to call another friend to show us how to change it. So I’d make the first quarter of the class automotive – how to check your oil and your coolant, change a tire – things like that.

In the second quarter, you could teach students how to cook from scratch. It’s cheaper than fast food, healthier too. And I would know. One of my three jobs is working at McDonald’s as a shift leader. I’ve been a member of a youth organization called Future Farmers of America that prepares students for careers in agriculture since I was a freshman, and it has had a huge impact on my life. Now, I know different breeds of pigs and cattle, and what they’re all for.

The third quarter would focus on sewing. I only learned how to sew recently when I made masks with my grandma during the pandemic. I don’t want to have to pay a fee every time I want to get something fixed.

The fourth quarter would be more about financial literacy, and setting up a savings account. My freshman year, a teacher taught us how to write a check. But here I am about to graduate, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

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