The Skyline High Experiment
Is it better, or just different?
by Jan Schlain
Drive north on Maple Road past M-14, and you can't miss Skyline High School, a postmodern monument in brick, glass, and steel. After two roundabouts at the freeway ramps, visitors turn in at a third for the main entrance to the school and the principal's office. The buses, and the kids who are old enough to drive, turn in a little sooner, by the tennis courts--unless they come late, in which case they, too, have to use the main entrance, sign in, and talk with the attendant secretary.
I'm in the "21st Century Library"--which has a lot fewer books than the twentieth-century version--when a pleasant female voice comes over the loudspeaker. The morning announcements echo throughout the school, reminding everyone that this is Spirit Week, so all the classes will be shortened to allow time for a pep rally at the end of the day.
In the library, the kids start getting ready to leave--some without waiting for the bell. "Don't go until the bell rings," yells head librarian Sara Duvall. Only a few slip out.
"Want to go to the pep rally together?" a boy asks a girl as they wait by the door. "No one's going to that!" she replies.
The announcements roll on--the Black Student Union meets today, and the Skyline Poetry Slam is coming up. Finally, the announcer reminds the ninth graders that their applications for the magnet programs are due today.
Just in case a visitor missed the other signs that Skyline is Ann Arbor's newest high school--the digital clocks in the hallways, the three-story, atrium-like "Annex," the banners representing the four "small learning communities"--"Diversity," "Equality," "Innovation," and "Integrity"--that announcement should eliminate any doubt.
"Magnets are probably the one thing that significantly changes what we are," says math department chair Dan Neaton. The four magnet programs--business, engineering, communications, and health--together enroll about 400 of Skyline's 1,600 students. "The student starts some courses in sophomore year, more in the junior year, internship in your senior year--that's unique in
Ann Arbor," Neaton says.
Neaton has been teaching in Ann Arbor for thirty-six years, first at Clague, then Huron, and most recently Community. He volunteered for the committee to plan Skyline in 2005. But he isn't bragging--he doesn't teach a magnet himself. And he doesn't even mention that he championed another of Skyline's educational experiments, mastery learning.
Jeff Bradley, who started the science magnet, returns the compliment: "Mastery is what makes Skyline different," Bradley says. "In the old days, if the kids failed, they were gone. You hope they graduated. If they failed a test, they moved on. In here, if you fail a test, you didn't achieve mastery ... [you tell yourself] 'OK, I have to try it again,' or 'I better study more.'"
I already knew about mastery learning--senior Johanna Glogower had explained it to me. "In order for a student to get credit in a class, they have to get at least eighty percent on every unit chapter test," Glogower said. "If they get below that, they have to do extra work to get caught up. [It's based on the premise] that everyone can learn, but we all learn at different paces, and so instead of having time the set variable, we have mastery the set variable."
She also filled me in on Skyline's three-term schedule: "We have five classes each trimester, which is less than the other schools, because usually in a semester you have a seventh hour, so you're taking seven classes," Glogower explained. "What's so great is that our classes are actually seventy-two minutes long, each--which really helps as far as an introduction to a new topic."
Glogower lives in the Huron High district, but won a lottery to go to Skyline (she takes the AATA bus). When she started in the fall of 2008, her fellow ninth-graders were the only students in the school. "Half the classrooms were closed," she recalls. "It was the biggest deal if you got to go up to the fourth floor."
The class of 2012 started all the clubs and teams, and starred in all the plays. Glogower has been yearbook editor every year. And this June, she and her classmates will become Skyline's first graduates. As they go on to college and out into the world, how they do will be the first test of Skyline's educational experiments.
Its teachers and administrators say that Skyline is better than Pioneer or Huron. Not because it is newer or has better equipment or more windows. It's about the people, and how they interact.
What students need, "no matter what their background or socioeconomic state or family dynamic, is to know that you care," says Sulura Jackson, Skyline's powerhouse principal. It's essential to have faith in their ability to learn, she says, to "believe that they can do this."
I was told Jackson was wary of the press after AnnArbor.com wrote about dress code violations and an off-campus fight involving Skyline students. But once we meet in her office, she graciously spends two hours discussing those stories and explaining her vision for the school she's headed since before it opened (she was hired away from a principal's job in Farmington in 2006).
The fight, she explains, was "between a Muslim family and a black family, right down here [at the public housing complex] on North Maple. Nobody paid attention to the fact that they had been in the same school all day. And nothing happened in school. Because in this environment it's not tolerated, and it's inappropriate."
After she ordered some girls who wore sexy outfits to school to change, Jackson says, she called an assembly and told the kids, "Your mindset is based on how you look. So if you look like you're going to the park, you're probably going to act like you're going to the park ... When you have on appropriate attire for school, the mindset is, 'I am going to school.' And there are certain things you do at school, and certain things you don't do at school.
"If you have on a really, really short skirt, I'll get a complaint that a boy is looking under your skirt. And when he doesn't have far to look--it was making my male teachers uncomfortable. They are fifteen-year-old girls. They sit in the desks, and they forget, and this male teacher can't look down, because he's afraid. That disrupts the learning environment.
"We have the T-shirt for the 'cleavage girls,'" she adds. The oversized shirt announces, "Tomorrow I will dress for success." Says Jackson, "I've used it at every school"--before Farmington, she was principal of Detroit's Pershing High and a vice principal at Cass Tech. "The [students] are big, but they're still children. Some things need to be kept black and white.
"I'm just a bottom-line person," Jackson says. "You don't have to sugarcoat it for me. As a matter of fact, I think you're wasting my time when you sugarcoat it." She's just as direct with Skyline's students. "Some are afraid to take the AP [advanced placement] classes. They say, 'My sister struggled ... Oh it's just so hard.' They just don't try it.
"Well, if we're not taking any risks and showing them that it is OK for us even to fail, then how will the child understand that if you're going to fail anywhere, high school is the best place to do it?"
When Jackson and her staff planned Skyline, they wanted to start over, to think about high school education differently. Even the three Rs changed: at Skyline they are relationship, rigor, and relevance.
As several teachers told me, using exactly the same words, "relationship comes first." Jackson says that research shows that one reason students don't learn is that they don't feel connected to anything or anyone in school. "That's where the SLCs come in," she says, "the small learning communities."
"Every SLC has freshmen through seniors," special ed teacher Suzanne Dickey tells me later. "Once you come in as a freshman in Integrity, you're in Integrity the whole time. That student will mainly have Integrity teachers, and Diversity, because those are the two on the third floor. The two other SLCs, Innovation and Equality, are on the fourth floor."
Jackson prides herself on keeping students in school. So far, she says, she hasn't lost anyone for academic reasons, though one student dropped out last year after being charged with a disciplinary violation. But one of the downsides of this twenty-first-century school is that it can be hard to keep staff. The school hires energetic, outside-the-box teachers, but "as soon as you get them trained, they get the urge to move on," Jackson says.
Last year, Skyline lost two counselors at a crucial time for the seniors--just as they were preparing to apply to colleges. "That was rough on some of the kids," says Jackson. The principal ended up writing several students' recommendations herself.
"I built this," says Jeff Bradley with a smile. "It was an empty space when I came--three adjoining classrooms. I pretty much could design it the way I wanted it."
Now Bradley, wearing his coat and tie, is sitting in the middle of a fully equipped science lab. "That purple machine right there is called a PCR," he says. "Polymerase chain reaction ... basically what it does is it grows your DNA. You take the DNA, you grow it, and you have millions and millions of copies of it." Students are testing their own DNA, learning how to recognize patterns and how the knowledge can be applied in science and medicine. Girls outnumber boys about four to one in his magnet, Bradley says, and almost all of them want to become doctors.
"In tenth grade they take 'Principles of Biomedical Science,'" says Bradley, who came to Skyline after twenty-five years at Slauson and now teaches alongside some of his former students. "Eleventh grade is Human Body Systems. Then senior level is Medical Interventions." By the time students reach that level, he says, "they are saying things like, 'I like that diabetes unit. I really want to cure and help people' ... or 'I want to go out and be a public health official and solve some of these epidemics that are out there.'"
Dan Neaton, Bradley's colleague in the math department, also has been with Skyline from the beginning. "I was there for the whole thing--the planning and the starting," he recalls. "We had a wide-open playing field. No previous history to restrict us." His contribution was mastery learning--he'd tried it previously at Huron, but it didn't take root there.
Every teacher everywhere wants students to learn the content, Neaton says. The difference is that at Skyline, "we really have woven it into our philosophy and carry it into every course ... To me, the number one goal of our school is to bring all kids along."
"Traditional education doesn't fail all kids, but the old model is an industrial age model," adds Duvall, Skyline's librarian. "It sorts out the kids that don't fit," allowing them to fail and drop out. "We can't do that anymore!" Duvall declares. "Right?! No child left behind!"
Lead English teacher Kristal Jaaskelainen is a believer in mastery learning, too--but she says that at first many parents didn't like it. If struggling students got another chance, they wanted to know, why couldn't high achievers also retake tests to get even better grades? Jaaskelainen expressed her response privately in a paper titled, "It doesn't harm your child for another to learn."
A U.P. native who's also lead teacher of the yearbook and assistant girls basketball coach, "Ms. J" is Johanna Glogower's favorite teacher. Glogower also had classes with Neaton, but math is not her thing. In fact, she didn't do so well on one of his algebra tests, at which point, mastery learning came in very handy. She was able to study and review, retake the test, and earn a passing grade.
Jaaskelainen admits that some kids "game" the system--they don't study, knowing they'll be able to retake the test again and again until they reach the "mastery" score of 80 percent. While Neaton allows that "there are definitely refinements to that that need to be made," he also argues that "gaming a B minus is better than gaming a D minus."
Nothing slows the smart kids down, Neaton says. But for the ones who might get left behind, it's essential to "make a very enabling, encouraging, supporting system, because you have to win at that psychological level before you can get a student to engage ... You really have to invest time in creating that [message that], 'Yes, you must, you will, you can.' And then you start pulling people on board, and the whole system works better."
Neaton says that in assessing Skyline's success, his benchmarks are the other comprehensive high schools, because "we basically divided the Huron population and the Pioneer population for Skyline." He says he sees a measurable difference in outcomes, with Skyline kids testing better than their peers at the two older schools in some areas: on the spring 2011 Michigan Merit Exam (MME), Pioneer had the highest average scores in math, reading, and social studies, while Skyline had the highest averages in sciences and writing, with Huron trailing in all five.
Averages don't reveal how well schools do by their weakest students--the ones mastery learning is designed to help. For that, a better measure is the percentage whose knowledge is rated as "proficient" or "advanced" on the MME. In 2011, Huron had the lowest percentage of students achieving proficiency in all five subject areas; Pioneer had the highest percentage achieving proficiency in two areas, and Skyline in three. Most of the differences between Pioneer and Skyline were small--one or two percentage points--except for math, where Pioneer led Skyline by six points and Huron by eight.
In the end, Neaton says, "I would say we are all comparable. They're all Ann Arbor kids." He feels good, with Skyline's first graduating class, to have landed in the middle.
Jackson says she's concerned that people might look at those numbers and assume, "OK, Skyline is a better school than Huron, but not as good as Pioneer"--without looking at the demographic makeup of the three schools' student bodies and how that might affect the results. At Skyline, she says, "We seriously disaggregated that data to drill down to ... where were our strengths, and where were our children weak consistently? Where were my lowest-achieving kids? My highest-achieving kids--where were they weak?" They're using that information, she says, to tweak the curriculum and teaching methods.
"The scores were good," the principal says. "We'd like for them to go to great. We'd like to show--and this is our goal--that if you teach for mastery, you can get all kids there ... [and] if I get all of them there, they're going to push the ceiling up."
As her first class graduates, Jackson is thinking about her next step. Though she's worked in Ann Arbor for six years, she remains deeply attached to Detroit--her church and much of her family are there. "Detroit is home," she says.
While she hasn't made any specific plans, something is telling her to move on. "I can't quite put my finger on it," she says, but "I think it's about time for a change." She says she has already gotten several job offers and has turned them down. "The ultimate challenge to me would be to do what we've done here on a larger scale," she says. "Where that might be, I don't know."
[Originally published in April, 2012.]
On April 26, 2012, Angry Junior wrote:
I am a Skyline junior, and I didn't like the article one bit. This article puts exceptional focus on the graduating class and the Health and Medicine magnet. There are three other magnets who don't get a paragraph between them, but H&M gets several. There are three other grades that don't get a sentence between them, while the seniors get, essentially, an entire article. Anyone who isn't a graduating senior is unimportant and will always come in 2nd place. Onto the dress code. It is frustrating and doesn't deserve so much focus. On any given day, you can see countless students who are not obeying the dress code. Because the dress code is really bad. Having a hole in your jeans is a violation. Shirt straps have to be anywhere from 2 fingers to 3 inches wide. Depending on who you ask. With so many silly and conflicting rules, I find it easier to think of them more as guidelines, which I rarely follow. This article tackles many subjects of Skyline, from mastery learning to the H&M magnet program (wait, there's others?), but for each subject, only one side of the story us brought up. No juniors or underclassmen to discuss the seniors. No students who has been busted for a dress code violation (I have, twice) no Communications Media and Public Policy students (CMPP) to discuss their program or how the H&M magnet has an inflated ego. This peace was purely fluff, making no argument that Skyline is just different, as it said at the beginning, simply better. A lot of students have a lot of negative things to say about Skyline's teachers, the administration, and the bathrooms (or lack thereof), That side of the school wasn't portrayed at all and the article was a resounding disappointment.
On May 4, 2012, JCoska wrote:
I am happy that Skyline students are achieving and that the 'experiment' appears to be working out.
I do think the article should have pointed out that part of the 'experiment' was transfering experienced teachers from both Pioneer and Huron to Skyline. Many of these teachers were very effective at their former schools and undoubtedly contributed greatly to Skyline's success ... and their removal from Pioneer and Huron created a bit of a teaching vacuum at both of those schools. Nevertheless, since 6 Huron 2011 seniors achieved perfect ACT scores I have no doubt that the 'older' Pioneer and Huron high schools will continue to succeed as well. Congrats to all Ann Arbor high school students, you are doing a fine job!
On May 4, 2012, John Hilton wrote:
If we'd written about every grade, every magnet, and every rule, the result would have had a wikipedia entry, not a magazine article. As Calvin Trillin said many years ago, an article is just a snapshot. Thanks for adding your own snapshot of the dress code and bathrooms...