Local News

New concept for high school rewards with college-like amenities, more trust from teachers

Posted July 27, 2014

Comfortable chairs and high ceilings mark the lobby at Union High School in Tulsa,  Okla., where administrators are breaking traditional education molds. (Photo by James Robinson/The Fayetteville Observer)

— Visitors to Union High School’s newest wing are greeted by a gleaming glass entryway, a two-story atrium and plush chairs in shades of beige and brown.

Instead of a cafeteria, the visitors will find a cyber cafe and a food court, small alcoves with soft-sided chairs, and modern-age science and environmental labs.

The wing has the feel of a college campus – not a sprawling high school.

And that is exactly the intent.

The $26 million Collegiate Academy – funded largely by voter-approved bond issues – is Union Public Schools’ grandest attempt to make students want to succeed through a shared vision of trust, freedom, accountability and responsibility.

So far, Superintendent Kirt Hartzler said, it is exceeding his expectations.

This is a new concept in high school learning, one that Hartzler said the school district began to develop about six years ago.

The district started by separating ninth-graders from the high school, then assigning a principal, an assistant principal and two counselors to every sophomore, junior and senior class.

The way it works now, Hartzler said, is the administrative staff follows each grade through its high school years, then loops back to the sophomore class after the seniors graduate.

The students are given a significant amount of freedom to come and go and to make their own schedules.

“As long as you stay up and do your work, we don’t care,” Hartzler said.

The Collegiate Academy is reserved for the top-performing juniors and seniors who plan to go to college, but it is open to everyone on the Union campus, Hartzler said.

All the administration asks in return is that the students work hard — and that they graduate.

In fact, that has been the school system’s goal — a 100 percent graduation rate — for about three years now. The school met the goal last year, and Hartzler said he sees no reason why it won’t happen again with the class of 2014.

The class has 14 students who failed to meet graduation requirements. Hartzler said staff members will track those students down and do everything in their power to see that they earn a degree. That is in a school in which 67 percent of the 3,300 students are in the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.

Students who fail a class can retake it in the summer in the credit-recovery room at the Collegiate Academy.

Sophomore Immanuel Payne was doing just that on a rainy day this month. Payne said he will become a junior if he can pass his history class.

Payne said he likes the way he is treated at Union High School. He said it affords him more opportunities and better direction.

The payoffs

Hartzler said the emphasis on trust and accountability is paying off in other ways, as well.

Before, he said, Union was like any other high school, with its share of fighting among students.

“Overall, aberrant behaviors are pretty much nonexistent,” Hartzler said. “They still happen, but, oh my gosh, we can count the number of physical altercations on one hand now.”

Students are offered college courses through a partnership with the many colleges and universities in Tulsa.

Tulsa Community College has a branch in the Collegiate Academy, allowing students to take college courses for less than $13 each. Many students are well on their way to an associate’s degree by the time they finish high school.

Tulsa also is recognized as a national model for Tulsa Achieves, a program that pays up to full tuition at Tulsa Community College for any student who graduates with at least a
2.0 grade point average.

Hartzler acknowledges that the new high school structure has hit many bumps along the way. He said about half of the counselors have resigned or transferred elsewhere because they did not agree with the changes.

“I tell all of them, if your heart isn’t it, you need to go to a traditional system,” Hartzler said. “It’s tough damn work.”

He also acknowledges that his system is still a work in progress.

“I think we are on to something that other schools will take notice of,” he said. “But it will take time.”

This article is reposted with permission of the The Fayetteville Observer, a media partner with WRAL News. Observer staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at barnesg@fayobserver.com or 486-3525.



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