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Race to nowhere update

December 14, 2010

Tonight, eight other educators and myself from some nearby private schools gathered together to talk about the film Race to Nowhere. In attendance were the awesome internet bloggers Postcards from the Outback, Superfluous thought, and To the Lighthouse. We enjoyed some wine, food and 2 hours of great conversation about how the film resonated in our own schooling, and experiences as teachers, and then what we can to to begin to bring about change to the system. I came away really amazed by some of the descriptions I heard about 5th and 6th grade students at a nearby “feeder” school talking about admission to private Junior High in exactly the same stressed and shallow manner I hear seniors describing the college process.

To me, this just further reinforces the point that we need to work together. When this “feeder school” tried to implement a language program based on Rosetta Stone, to offer kids up to 18 different foreign languages, many parents had doubts about how this would prepare them for “junior high admissions” and these doubts weren’t set aside until the principals from many of the local private Junior Highs wrote to reassure parents that the Junior Highs fully backed these changes and thought it would be a wonderful experience for their children.

While it saddens me a bit that some parents would need to hear reassurance from the Junior High principal before supporting something that is so clearly in their child’s best interest, it also reminds me how easily we in the high school could begin to partner with colleges to help reassure our parents that the things we are doing will leave our students well prepared to thrive in college, and able to distinguish their talents in the admissions process.

One resource that comes instantly to mind is the “Taking Time off” Letter Harvard sends out to all of its accepted freshmen, encouraging them to take a gap year. It’s a truly beautiful letter that more students should heed (and more and more are).

Here’s a quote

Perhaps the best way of all to get the full benefit of a “time-off” is to postpone entrance to college for a year. For over thirty years, Harvard has recommended this option, indeed proposing it in the letter of admission. Normally a total of about fifty to seventy students defer college until the next year.

The results have been uniformly positive. Harvard’s daily student newspaper, The Crimson reported (5/19/2000) that students who had taken a year off found the experience “so valuable that they would advise all Harvard students to consider it.” Harvard’s overall graduation rate of 98% is among the highest in the nation, perhaps in part because so many students take time off. One student, noting that the majority of her friends will simply spend eight consecutive terms at Harvard, “wondered if they ever get the chance to catch their breath.”

During her year off, the student quoted above toured South America with an ice-skating company and later took a trip to Russia. Another interviewed in the article worked with a growing e-commerce company (in which the staff grew from ten to a hundred during the year) and backpacked around Europe for six months.

No, I don’t think we need to go running to Harvard every time schools want parents to do something that is in the best interest of their child, but for those few 5% parents out there, I think few other things will break through, and letters like this might be just what is called for.

Finally, I think we’ve formed a group of 10 or so faculty who can share resources, conversation, and who knows where this will go? We’ve already started plans for a larger screening and discussion for Atlanta area educators.

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