Students, families benefit from more school choices

The Beaufort County School District should endorse a plan for more programmatic choices.

info@islandpacket.comDecember 8, 2013 

It's good to see the Beaufort County School District embracing more choices for its students -- both in the variety of programs in which students can enroll and the schools they attend.

The district's Curriculum and Instruction Committee recently approved a list of 10 programs it will recommend to the full board Tuesday. If the board approves the list, it means all district schools will develop a specialty to attract and inspire students to achieve at the highest academic levels.

For example, one school may choose a dual language immersion niche and use a variety of techniques throughout the school day and in every class to teach its student two languages.

Other schools might pick an arts-infused program where students interested in the visual arts, music and theater would still learn math, English and the other fundamentals, but those lessons would be done with an eye toward infusing the arts whenever possible in lesson plans and class activities.

And students enrolled in a school that adopts the International Baccalaureate program would take intense, high-level courses to prepare them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the world's top tier students.

Some of the other 10 offerings schools can pick from include an advanced math, engineering and science program, a career-focused program and a Montessori program.

Teachers and administrators will receive intensive training so they'll be prepared to teach in these remodeled schools. And all students will continue to learn and be tested on the fundamentals -- they'll just receive those lessons in a new way that will, hopefully, interest them more than traditional programming.

More choice is a positive step forward -- and one that many districts across the state are adopting. It's an acknowledgment that one size does not fit all when it comes to the way students learn. And it's a wise use of public money to push beyond the basics and encourage students to get more out of their 12 years of public education than a standard high school diploma.

Students who take advantage of these choice programs could reap lifelong benefits, such as being bilingual in an increasingly culturally-diverse world, getting a jump-start on college work while still in high school or receiving training for a cutting-edge career while still teenagers.

And families and students are more apt to be engaged and satisfied with their schools if they have a choice. It's human nature.

Still, there's big challenges ahead as the district forges this new path.

Determining a transportation plan will likely be one of the biggest. The initial plan calls for students to be assigned to a school according to the attendance zone in which they live, the same as now. Parents who want a different program for their child could send them to another school within a larger region, provided space is available there.

For this to work, the district must provide transportation to students who attend "choice" schools that are not the schools for which they are zoned. Otherwise, students who lack transportation will be left out.

This will likely require the district to devise a complex busing plan to transport various students to various schools. We don't envy them the task, but believe it's doable and a worthy pursuit.

Also, the district must tread carefully to ensure that the fundamentals do not play second fiddle to the niches. It does no good to teach students Spanish if they cannot properly write in their native language or cannot solve basic mathematical problems.

A new report reminds us that American students are not mastering the basics. They are lagging behind their top international peers in math, reading and science, according to a new report by The Program for International Student Assessment.

Students in 29 countries scored higher in math, while those in 22 countries did better in science, and 19 countries did better in reading.

Students from Singapore, Japan and South Korea topped the rankings while several countries, including Ireland and Poland, pulled ahead of the United States for the first time.

Offering more choice could help the U.S. reclaim its former education glory. But only if school districts use the approach to teach and reinforce the fundamentals, not overshadow them.

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