Mayor says high school is too boring

Chicago Sun-Times

September 18, 2003

BY FRAN SPIELMAN AND ROSALIND ROSSI Staff Reporters

After an eight-year campaign to improve Chicago public high schools, Mayor Daley on Wednesday reached a simple conclusion: High school is boring.

Daley said the morning curriculum in particular has to be changed, implying that teens have trouble getting up early and focusing on classwork.

"Maybe we have to change our high school system,'' Daley said during a news conference at Field Elementary, 7019 N. Ashland, about the latest Principal for a Day effort.

"You go to school at 8 o'clock. Ugh,'' Daley said, making a face at the thought. "It gets boring, high school. You have to really change it. I think they have to change the curriculum in the morning. I firmly believe it. It gets boring. It gets too bureaucratic.''

High schools have been a top priority from the beginning of the Daley era. Since 1995, the system has launched test-based high schools for smart kids, given all high schools a souped-up homeroom -- called an advisory -- modeled after a $1 million program at Winnetka's New Trier High School, and offered extra reading and math periods.

Meanwhile, dozens of high schools are on academic probation, some have even been restaffed, and many have new principals.

And yet, state data indicate Chicago's one-year high school dropout rate last year was 14.4 percent -- nearly three times the state rate of 5.1 percent.

Despite an eight-year crackdown against social promotion, Daley said students still enter Chicago public high schools who "can't read to high school level,'' posing a challenge for teachers.

Daley also revealed he has received lots of ideas on how to improve high schools from teachers and that he has passed them on to schools CEO Arne Duncan.

Both Daley and Duncan refused to outline those ideas Wednesday. But Duncan said Daley has expressed interest in the late start of the school day now used at a new high school -- Community Links Academy, housed inside Spry Elementary at 2400 S. Marshall. There, students attend JROTC from 11 a.m. to noon, spend two hours helping teachers in elementary-school classrooms, have lunch, and finally start their own classes at 2:30 p.m. Classes end at 6:30 p.m.

Community Links freshman Maria Guzman, 15, agreed that "most high schools are boring.'' She said, "You get up early. You're tired. You get bored. You're sleepy.''

But she said Links, which eventually will expand to 100 students but currently has 33 freshmen and two teachers, is fun and that she much prefers its late start.

Her brother and sister get up at 6 a.m. to attend other high schools and often come home so tired they have to take a nap before plunging into homework. But Maria said she can do her hardest homework -- reading and social studies -- in the morning and tackle math and science at night.

Duncan also touted Links' program in which students tutor elementary kids in the building, initially for free to fulfill a service requirement and then for a stipend.

He also wants to break more large high schools into small schools, each with different focus, so kids can find a niche. And, he said, he believes more after-school programs will encourage more kids to come to high school.

Shorter days and practical classes were among ideas for engaging students offered by a few Chicagoans walking along North Michigan Avenue on Wednesday:

"They should incorporate more real-life study into their curriculum, such as classes in financial planning,'' said Renee Francque, 38, a technology consultant from Chicago. "There are a lot of kids who don't know how to manage money or a budget. There should be courses that will lead students to be more self-sufficient as people.''

Francie Steiner, 32, a senior media buyer from Chicago, said, "Starting later in the day would be better. I remember being very tired all day when I went to high school. There should also be incentives for those who get good grades, and teachers should use visual aids to make their point or reinforce it. People at that age have a short attention span."

But students have some responsibility, said Eric Grzybek, 26, an artist from Chicago. "If you're not [learning], you're basically wasting your time, and you're bored. But certain things could help, like creative scheduling, or programs to learn outside the classroom."

At Hirsch High, 7740 S. Ingleside, junior Elizabeth Conwell said her classes aren't boring, but she knocked an 8 a.m. start that requires her to get up at 6 a.m. so she can take two buses and an L. More after-school programs, more field trips, more one-on-one attention during and after school, and an open campus -- so students can lunch at local restaurants -- also would help, she said.