When I was in 9th grade, Coolidge High School in Washington, DC, had a full honors program. I took honors English in a class of maybe 15 students. It was a pretty good experience.
Honors programs were eliminated the following year to make way for the academic houses: Math/Science/Technology, Humanities, and Business Careers Prep would join the already existing Teaching Professions Program. The catch? Only new 9th graders were eligible to join the new houses. The remaining sophomores, juniors, and seniors were lumped into a faux house called “Ventures” which was short for Ventures in Education. (I do not know if this Ventures later became the Ventures Scholars Program, but the logo looks similar to what I remember.)
Although our principal seemed to really want us to believe that Ventures was a real house, there were no dedicated administrators and we actually seemed to be hemorrhaging opportunities. With no honors program, the high achieving students were split among the general population. There was one English teacher for a good 200 or so Sophomores and she was not performing well under the pressure–there was probably little support for her.
By the middle of the year, the students who might have been honors kids were pulled out a few times a week by an administrator, given a book to read, discuss, and report on. I recall my book was The Stranger by Albert Camus. This was a pretty good band-aid to a larger problem, but it cured nothing.
That summer, through a partnership with the National Library of Medicine, three seasoned teachers planned a new program that was designed to target the 25 high performing Sophomores who needed a more rigorous academic program in order to keep them engaged in school and remain competitive for college admissions. That program eventually was called the Bioethics program.
Coolidge, which already had “block scheduling”–90 minute classes every other day, would take this model to new heights. The Bioethics pilot had Ms. Gwendolyn Logan teaching Biology II, Mr. Sheldon Lisbon teaching US History, and Mr. Robinson teaching English. On Wednesdays, for one semester, we would spend all day at a lab at Howard University through another partnership.
We had debates, mock trials, and case studies in History and English class. In Science, we’d do the research and experiments behind those debates.
One unit which I remember is the one on assisted suicide. We had a great debate with that one.
I felt really lucky to be in that pilot, and I do believe it was responsible for giving many of us in that group a better pathway to college, or at least to the rigors of AP classes the following year.
But I do have one teeny, tiny, major humongous gripe:
To this day, I have huge gaps in my knowledge of US History due to the emphasis we placed on bioethics and current events.
I recovered a lot of that knowledge in college thanks to Professor Adam Rothman. I would have never understood the Civil War through a lens of justice without him. And I picked up a lot from reading, too.
But don’t ask me anything about US involvement in World War II. Or World War I. Or any other war, really. I can’t tell you much about any president after Lincoln. Or before Lincoln. I have a rudimentary understanding of the industrial revolution. Betsy Ross–she makes cakes, right? The list goes on.
I’m nearly 40 years old now. I place no particular blame on Coolidge for my gaps in knowledge. And as a grown-ass-man, I know where to find the answers. And again, I am grateful for the novel approach to our education that those brave teachers took, and to our principal for letting them do it.
But I get tired of educational pundits calling the DC Public Schools a failure. We didn’t fail. We weren’t failed. Kids from Bioethics went on to Ivy League colleges, and others, mostly on full academic scholarships. I don’t feel failed.
I do feel like a heavy risk was taken on us, though. And while the benefits did outweigh the risks, I do feel like had I had a more traditional education, I wouldn’t have to stop and use a search engine before I jump into a debate about confederate memorials.