Learning Curve: Riverview High

Teacher Debra Davis

WUSF's series 'The Learning Curve' visits Sarasota's Riverview High to look at high school reform efforts. By all accounts, Florida is the first state in the nation to require ninth-graders to declare a major. A reform lawmakers believe will help focus the teenagers on learning and staying in school.

The Riverview campus is home to 2500 students and a constant rumble of construction equipment. After almost 50 years, a new school is being built next to existing patchwork of buildings.

Like the revamped campus, there's a push to restructure high school. That retooling started statewide when lawmakers mandated that all freshmen pick a major. The Florida Department of Education approved more than 400 majors statewide, but not all are offered at every high school.

Requiring teenagers to take four courses in a selected major may make a difference to a few students, but it's only a theory at this point according to Dr. Sherman Dorn. He's an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida and author of 'Accountability Frankenstein.'

'As far as I'm aware, there's absolutely no research on this idea at all,' says Dorn. 'What I've seen is that districts have just taken their existing electives and just packaged them.'

But, Riverview teacher Debra Davis offers anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

'We try and explain to them it takes 6.3 years to get through undergrad school,' Davis says. She created the curriculum for a Critical Thinking class mandatory for all freshmen at Riverview. It's based on Sean Covey's book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens.

One of Covey's core principals is to set goals. When Davis started teaching Critical Thinking a few years ago, she took a picture of each ninth grader dressed in a graduation cap-and gown. A bulletin board at the back of her room is plastered with those freshmen photos.

And every semester, it gets to be a bigger challenge, because Riverview High keeps growing.

'The school is too large. We don't know our students,' says Effa Beauette, a veteran teacher who runs the executive internship program and played a part developing Riverview's small learning communities.

Creating smaller communities inside large high schools is a growing trend. Overall, USF Associate Professor Dorn says high school reforms come from two competing camps.

'One is to make high schools far more academically rigorous,' says Dorn. 'An entirely different proposal is to essentially eliminate compulsory education at 16.'

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