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A New Lesson Plan

(page 1 of 5)

For decades, teachers decided exactly what high-school students should learn—and how they should learn it. But an innovative student-centered model has turned that old methodology on its head as educators now work with pupils to ensure that "no child left behind" is more than just a rhetorical catch phrase.

The school day winds down at St. Charles North High School.

The target audience didn't seem to be getting the message, so it was time for that standby of modern marketing, a focus group. Only in this case, the questions didn't focus on a new brand of fast food or the tag line for an ad campaign, but the junior-year history class at St. Charles North High School.

Because the students seemed to be underachieving, given their performances in other classes, an assistant principal called together a group of them to find out why. The answer: They were having trouble juggling the assignments for U.S. history and English, both work-intensive courses.

In response, the school stepped up training in study skills for some kids and worked with teachers to rejigger the assignment load. The solution seems to have helped, and Kim Zupec, the principal of St. Charles North, gives much of the credit to the work of the focus group—a tool, she says, that is vital to "making sure that fewer of our students struggle each year, and more excel." At her school, focus groups tell her how well the opening of the school year went, which freshmen felt adequately prepared for the rigors of high school, and which courses or teacher methods might need tweaking.

"We don't want to sit back and be surprised at the end of the year" when students have failed, Zupec says. "We don't want to say, 'Oh, where did I lose them?' after they go home for the summer. We check our progress all the time, so we can get them what they need."

That sort of student-centered innovation is taking hold in successful high schools all over the city and suburbs, as Chicago learned when exploring the methods of the top performers in its analysis of high schools. For the third time in the past dozen years, the magazine tabulated numerous bits of data on all public high schools in the city and six surrounding counties.

This year, in addition to examining the typical standards of success—class size, graduation rates, teacher education, and so on—we added a new wrinkle: comparing a school's average ACT scores with per-pupil spending. (For a further explanation, see "By the Numbers") Big-spending schools often score well; we were looking particularly for those that spend moderately—St. Charles North, for example, which spends $4,716 per student, well below the median for the region—and still get strong results. But we were also interested in relative success by this measure; Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire belongs to the small, elite group of schools spending more than $8,000 per student (a figure reached by fewer than 10 percent of the schools in our survey), but Stevenson tests better than many of its spending peers.

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