Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What is #PHSfit?

What is #PHSfit, exactly?

"PHSfit" was born last summer out of a brainstorming session that was focused on finding ways to get more students to take rigorous courses such as AP, but not necessarily to imply that students should take more AP courses than what is appropriate. We determined that, just like we are encouraging students to look for colleges that "fit" their skills, interests, and needs, and careers that "fit" their interests, values, and skills, students should find balance in their course requests that reflect an overall goal of being college-ready, but not at the expense of one's youth. And from there, we agreed that finding "fit" makes perfect sense for helping our high school students make rational choices amid the many pressures they feel during these turbulent years.

Career Development
First of all, it's important for teenagers to understand that people change careers frequently. For that reason, our goal in high school isn't so much to help students decide what they want to be when they grow up as much as it is to empower and inform them with the skills to make educated choices about potential fields they would like to pursue. There are numerous assessments that are available (John Holland, Myers-Briggs, ASVAB) to help people find careers based on their personality types. Something interesting about learning one's career-related personality type is that you can discover roles in plenty of career environments that satisfy your needs and priorities, without being linked to one specific (obscure, even) career. This comes with open and honest conversations with one's school counselor, parents, and professionals who work in those different fields.

College Completion
Once a student has a broad idea of what type of career he or she would like to pursue, it becomes easy to narrow down the post-secondary choices to four-year, two-year, technical, or military training. For those students who don't choose a military career, technical training, or enrollment at community college (which is hardly deserving of some students' unfair classification as "13th grade"), finding the right four-year college for them becomes a seemingly daunting task. Many of our students perceive that they "must" get into the "right" college, which is patently false. Also, many others feel overwhelmed by all the choices. Because young adults undergo so many changes during their college years, it is almost silly to pick a college solely based on a 16-year-old's 10- or 20-year objective. Rather, students are much better served having a half-dozen conversations between winter of sophomore year and the beginning of senior year with their school counselor about their geographic, cultural, and academic priorities for college, and being open to understanding during that time that their grades and, yes, standardized test scores have a significant impact on their college options.
The goal needs to be more about college completion than just college admission. When looking for college, an article by the Illinois School Counselor Association and the Illinois College Admissions Counselors astutely notes that "the best college for a student is not necessarily the most competitive college he or she can get in to." It is true that there is an element of a game (full of rules, should's, and should-not's) in the college admissions process, but if you talk to an admissions counselor longer than the quick college fair marketing sale pitch, you'll see that they sincerely work to identify students who will be successful at their colleges - after all, a university's retention rate and four-year graduation rate are just as important to the vaunted rankings as its acceptance rate. That being said, students will eventually graduate from a college that they ought to. It just makes more sense to put one's resources into visiting and researching prospective colleges than toward applying to a dozen (or more!) that are impulsively identified.

Academic Appropriateness
In our high school, we have such a college-going culture that students who are at or above grade level ability have a choice of pursuing rigor on their core classes at either the honors or Advanced-Placement level. Students are urged to discuss their options with their teachers, who offer recommendations for the following year's courses based on the students' current effort level, test scores, and analytical ability. We also use AP Potential to identify students who may have been overlooked by traditional recommendations. It is no surprise that in our school, students know the benefits that AP courses offer. However, two areas that our #PHSfit campaign seeks to rectify are some under-identified students' aversion to academic risk-taking, and other students' underdeveloped sense of moderation. We address these by encouraging students who have a statistical probability of passing the AP Exam to "take at least one" in their junior and/or senior year, and by devoting the school counselors' time in February to meeting with every student to evaluate their course requests and discuss whether or not that student is overextending him or herself, considering the student's many other obligations - be they academic, familial, or athletic, for example. Just because five teachers recommend you for AP courses next year, that does not necessarily mean it is in your best interests to take five AP courses next year. Balance, moderation, and fit are key terms, understanding that the students and parents make clear commitments to stand by these course requests when they become the course schedule the following year.

Extra-curricular enrichment
There are two main reasons why students get involved, and should get involved, in co-curricular activities. The most popular one is that it helps students find an artistic, political, physical, or service-minded outlet through which they can express themselves and take a break from the daily academic grind. By interacting with students who have common values and interests, they establish a support system and community that transcends the intellectual stimulation traditionally found in school. The other motivation for involvement is that students accurately understand that activities, service, and leadership are a "look-for" in the admissions process, and they sometimes become generalists who dabble in many areas without pursuing any one passion. It makes sense to use ninth grade as an exploration year, but our hope is that they will finish that year having found a group (or created their own!) that offers them an extra-curricular fit and gives them the chance to seek a deeper understanding of their values, strengths, and weaknesses by challenging themselves in this safe support system.

Social Development
Adolescence is a time for many changes, as we all know. However, many teenagers choose to stay connected to peers and groups with whom they've grown up since elementary school or earlier, and choose that allegiance without considering that some of their childhood friends have chosen paths which are incongruent with their own long-term plans and interests. Unfortunately, the result is frequently a regression to the least common denominator, slowing all involved students' progress toward their potential. The more we can teach students about personal accountability and understanding when certain behaviors are appropriate for time and place, the more we can ensure responsible decision-making and knowing when - and with whom - your peer relationships fit your current and future value structure.

The high school years have many layers and challenges. It is our hope that by maintaining the #PHSfit message, our kids will be better equipped to understand who they are and make decisions that are consistent with their own individual values, priorities, skills, talents, and interests.

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