By Nat Hentoff
A key demonstrator of part of the potential future of American education is Brent Wise, Director of Innovation and Extended Learning for the Hilliard City School District, located in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. The district includes 16,000 students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.
He currently presides at the McVey Innovative Learning Center (ILC), named for former Hilliard City Schools Superintendent Dale McVey.
As I have long believed, Wise argues that schools should no longer take "a one-size-fits-all approach."
And he explains via email, "Four years ago, a group of Hilliard City School educators came together to develop a plan for what (high) schools should look and feel like (here) in the year 2020."
The genesis of the ILC, he says, came from educators' desire "for a design of a high school of the future. One that personalizes education for each student in a way that allows them to pursue their passion."
Last fall, the ILC opened its doors to more than 800 students.
"This next fall," Wise says, "we have had over 1,200 requests to come to the Innovative Learning Center."
Wise, who is a former classroom teacher, describes the diverse adventures in learning at the ILC:
"We have talented music students ... so we offer a sound engineering course ... Students learn how to make professional recordings while writing and performing their own music.
"For the students interested in the world of television journalism and movie production, we offer courses that allow for creative production."
I'm already fantasizing. At my public high school, Boston Latin School, I would have rushed into a course on reporting -- with guest professional journalists -- in all forms of communication.
Wise continues: "For the students that are not successful in the typical classroom, we offer a personalized route of taking classes online and preparing an individual plan.
"Students can come here and work in the relaxed atmosphere with their learning coach, at their pace and comfort zone.
"We offered a jumpstart on college that provided our students with up to 32 credit hours of college, while they are in high school."
What especially surprised me is the way the ILC builds student confidence by allowing the kids to share their rising skills, which can benefit other learners.
Says Wise: "Students could also come here for authentic learning experiences such as our Career Mentorship program, which allows students to go out and mentor in a field of their choice during their class time."
Moreover, "Students interested in becoming an educator could participate in our Teacher Academy and do student teaching while in high school."
Also, "Students interested in entrepreneurship could participate in our business academy."
He emails quotes from students already immersed in the Independent Learning Center:
"I get to learn as an individual and the teachers here are willing to work with you in the way that is best for you."
"I enjoy the freedom and ability to be treated as an adult."
"I feel as if there is a higher level of appreciation and respect for education on the parts of students and teachers. There's also more respect for each other. We're there for a common goal and also have a common understanding. We all WANT to be there -- and that makes a world of difference."
And you may have noticed that the learning there is not most crucially measured by how these students do on collective standardized tests (and in preparing for those tests), which are still required in so many high schools throughout this land.
Another quote from a student at the McVey Innovative Learning Center: "The best part of being a student at the ILC is gaining a whole new perspective on learning. I found it much more interesting and applicable to my future to learn concepts in an environment that doesn't encourage you to be average. I also loved getting to meet people from three other high schools that I never would have met if it weren't for this class."
And this brings us to how the McVey Innovative Learning Center actually operates. Wise emphasizes, "The ILC is NOT an alternative school. Students come here during their school day ... for 90 minutes of their day; the rest of their day they are back at their home high schools."
Obviously, I cannot speak from any experience in having combined time at a regular high school with daily 90-minute periods at a contrasting, liberating environment, geared to help me discover what I most wanted for my future and how to get there.
Years ago, Duke Ellington wrote a song that has since become a permanent part of me, as it keeps challenging me:
Its title: "What Am I Here For?"
During my six years at Boston Latin School, if I had been also part of an Innovative Learning Center in that city, I would have had a much clearer sense of what -- and how -- I needed to learn to keep answering that question of why I'm here.
I did develop an unquenchable love of learning during those early years, but little of it from school. Most came from reading -- on my own -- histories, novels and biographies that raised my expectations of the kind of life I'd want to lead if I knew how.
But if there had been an Innovative Learning Center in town, I might have experienced a much more inspiring road ahead. And I expect that may also be true of the futures of many young Americans, of all sorts of backgrounds, if each gets a personalized, expanding education.