LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
We're going next to Boston where kids do not have to leave the public school system if they want an alternative to bigger but high schools. They can take Another Course to College. That's the name of a small public high school with just 216 kids. Every student at Another Course to College must get accepted to college before getting a high school diploma.
NPR's Larry Abramson has this latest installment in our series about innovative high schools.
LARRY ABRAMSON: It's 9 a.m. The 15 kids in Robert Comeau's world literature class are sitting down for their daily dose of Virgil. Over the next year, the seniors will read nearly 5,000 pages from Plato and Sophocles, to thinkers like Foucault and Nietzsche.
Professor ROBERT COMEAU (World Literature, Another Course to College): And then, here's a common form. I want you to watch for it in "The Aeneid" and coming up in Dante, these extended similes.
ABRAMSON: Robert Comeau's literature class is one of two English classes that all students must take throughout their four years. One focused on reading, the other more on writing.
Prof. COMEAU: Just as all too often some huge crowd are ceased by a vast uprising, the rabble runs amok. All slaves to passion.
ABRAMSON: Comeau runs his discussion of "The Aeneid" like a college seminar. Students offer their interpretations of the text, Comeau types notes and displays them using a computer projector.
As in any school, some students are very well prepared. Others hang back. The difference here is how Robert Comeau challenges them. One student says that Virgil uses extended similes because they make the book more interesting.
Here is how Comeau response to that student.
Prof. COMEAU: Often I get - so why this is sort of (unintelligible) like affect there? It does what you're meant to do, which is to hold our intention. I try to redirect students away from that kind of analysis to how does this particular work. Work in this particular moment, work to create a particular marriage between form and content. We're going to go through the text more fully. And you've just sort of dipped your toe into it, and I hope tomorrow you'll be better prepared.
ABRAMSON: I know that you don't miss your words when somebody is not prepared, you tell them that they need to do a little better.
Prof. COMEAU: I'm pretty direct. Yeah. I have a philosophy that is both firm and supportive. They really have to know. I'll give them a second chance. Tomorrow is a brand new day. I'm a boss and a professor, and might not…
(Soundbite of people talking)
ABRAMSON: Despite the pressure, ACC, as its known, has a relaxed feel. The halls quiet down quickly after transitions. Principal Rachel Skerritt says it's easy to maintain discipline for such a small school.
Ms. RACHEL SKERRITT (Principal, Another Course to College): The former headmaster, Mr. Howland, he used to do attendance in his head. If he just stood out in the hallway the first three periods, he knew who was absent. I don't have that kind of photographic memory, but it is, you know, pretty accurate. If someone said is so and so is here today? Any teacher could pretty much give you the answer.
ABRAMSON: Skerritt is the only administrator here. The school district gives such pilot schools a lot of autonomy so they have the freedom to spend most of their money on teachers. That keeps class sizes smaller and it allows teachers to ask a lot of students while giving them plenty of support.
Unidentified Man: Court, all rise. You may be seated.
ABRAMSON: Teacher Gerald Howland has turned his constitutional law class into a courtroom for a mock murder trial.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)…
ABRAMSON: Throughout this trial, Howland preserves the illusion of a real proceeding, treating the student defense and prosecution teams as they were like really were on the line. Mr. Howland is tall, lean and gray, a distinguished presence in this Boston public school. He has just returned to the classroom after years as the headmaster here. Howland concedes schools this small cannot offer a lot of exotic languages or many AP courses.
Mr. GERALD HOWLAND (Teacher, Another Course to College): You can't be comprehensive. We made a decision. We're going to have one curriculum that's going to be a college prep curriculum. You know, we can't have college prep, career prep - anything in between. We had to pick one area to focus on and that's what we chose.
ABRAMSON: Students say the narrow focus and small size keeps them focused. Lily Ge is a senior who spent six years at the elite Boston Latin School then transferred here.
Ms. LILY GE (Senior, Another Course to College): For me, it was a more constructive attitude here that they believe that every student can achieve to their best instead of not exactly elitist attitude of Boston Latin School, but definitely a more - you're already at a certain level, so you better get it.
ABRAMSON: So the message here is apparently that getting kids to college isn't brain surgery, and it doesn't require a whole lot of tricks. You just have to work harder.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You can find out about other high schools trying something new and tell us about innovative schools in your area by going to npr.org.