In the 1950s and 1960s, most high school graduates would take a job right away, where “you waited for direction, and your boss told you what to do,” said Superintendent Jerome Belair. Public education was geared to that, focused on taking instruction and doing simple tasks.
During the same time, special education, social problems and a variety of other issues were essentially left to the family, Waterford High School Principal Don Macrino said. Poor students and special needs children were often neglected, he said.
Today, public education is much different, both men said. Today, the majority of students hope to go off to college, and public schools take on more responsibility than ever. In the workforce, jobs are increasingly more complicated and harder to find, they said.
“You are just not a guest lecturer,” Macrino said of being an educator today. “The job is much greater than that.”
What Is Success?
With the complexity of today’s public schools, one key is to define success, Belair said. The tagline is “to be college- and career-ready,” although that term “is being used perhaps before it was really even truly defined,” Macrino said.
Patch interviewed several community leaders, asking them exactly what they consider success by a high school graduate. The consensus was this: a successful graduate is a complete person who has the capabilities to be what he or she wants to be.
“We want to give them the ability to have choices,” Waterford High School Director of Guidance Kelly Shannon said. “And have the tools to be successful.”
Macrino said a person should be “literate, in a rigorous sense,” have basic math skills needed in every day life and be able to work with others and be mindful. Belair added each student has “to have some facility with technology,” not that the technology will be the same in a few years, but at least an understanding and openness to it.
The community plays a part in the process as well, First Selectman Dan Steward said. The person needs to be able to be “a contributing member of society,” and realize it’s not just about oneself, but about helping the bigger cause.
“Ultimately, what we want these kids to do is to graduate from the schools with the basic tenants of an education, but we also want them to be a good person in the community,” he said.
So How Do You Accomplish It?
Success for a Waterford High School graduate, as defined, can be broken into two major parts: academic standards and social standards. The academic standards are changing, Belair said.
A key focus of the district is to focus on the ability to read text, understand it and then make judgments off of it, Belair said. Reading for pleasure is good, but that is not the focus of the school district, he said.
Belair also cited a Harvard study that said employers are looking for potential employees to be able to communicate as clearly and succinctly as possible, both orally and through writing. That can be achieved through presenting to groups and working with others, he said.
Most importantly, the student needs to be able to think critically, to solve big problems, he said.
“The problems they are going to be facing in their generation are going to be problems that don’t have one answer,” he said. "That means taking a variety of skills; math, reading and others, and using them all to solve a problem."
Social skills are another issue. Part of that is again having students work together and present in groups, Belair said.
Second, through internship programs in the high school, students need to understand real-life expectations, and “understand you show up on time, you don’t call in sick, you don’t show up late. And when you're asked to perform a task and you have a deadline you really do need to complete that because people are relying on you.”
Aside from internships, teachers need to give the responsibility to students, not reminding them over and over about deadlines they have to hit, Belair said. It has to be ingrained that the student is responsible for his or her deadlines, he said.
Finally, a person needs to be well rounded, and understand “they are not just out on their own,” Steward said. The learning through service program, which mandates students volunteer in the community, and the activities offered from both the town and the school all help that, he said.
“If you have exposure to the arts, to music, to athletics, those all help you become a better person,” Steward said.
Who Is Responsible
The community, the school and the family all play parts in a student’s life, which varies from student to student, Macrino said. For example, often a student who doesn’t have the support of the family will get more support from the school, a “responsibility we take willingly,” he said.
All three make a big impact, and all three are responsible, Belair said. The success of the greater community to turn children into successful adults is ultimately the best indication of that community, he said.
“The school, the family, the community can’t take sole credit, but together they can take credit,” Belair said. “I think they need to. Each of us has a responsibility and each of us plays a part.”
Editor's Note: This is part two of a two part piece.