Guest Column: UHS, BASIS are undeserving of Star's columnist's apparent disregard

2013-05-08T00:00:00Z 2013-05-10T12:31:51Z Guest Column: UHS, BASIS are undeserving of Star's columnist's apparent disregardAlex Swindle Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

I'm a graduate of University High School and have spent the past two years teaching math at BASIS Tucson North. Therefore I have both a very personal and unique stake in Tim Steller's recent claims ("Let's keep the top ratings for Basis, University High schools in perspective," May 5) that the two schools' rankings are hollow.

It's true that many of Tucson's schools aren't recognized for the good work they do beyond preparing students for college. Rincon High School has programs for refugees, computer repair and networking certification; while Catalina has an aviation program that allowed my brother to obtain a pilot's license in high school.

I'm sure most of our schools have similar stories to tell but we just aren't told them. We aren't doing enough to promote strong trade schools and technical certifications within our public school system and national rankings overlook them. However, to demean the work of the students and teachers at two of Tucson's best schools is unfair and unhelpful.

I can't speak for my teachers-turned-friends at UHS, other than to say they're among the finest educators I've had the honor of knowing and they gave me the best college preparation possible.

Education reformers call for teachers to be accountable and for students to be held to challenging standards emphasizing valuable skills. UHS and BASIS both accomplish this goal through their alignment to the AP curriculum. While the AP program isn't perfect, the exams are comprehensive, high-quality metrics by which to judge our students' progress.

Mr. Steller may have highlighted every line in his American History textbook, but he didn't pass his AP exam if he wasn't capable of analyzing documents and articulating his thoughts in essays.

My students will not pass their AP Calculus exam this week without understanding and explaining the concepts, just as I passed the AP exams I took at UHS by having mastered the material.

To say we aren't measuring our students' growth is unfair. At BASIS we hold our students to high standards and do everything within our power to help them reach those standards. A student doesn't reach an AP course without having passed the courses leading up to it. Rather than simply move students through the system, we require that they show mastery of content at each step.

I teach calculus knowing that each one of my students has shown a solid understanding of pre-calculus and so on back to fifth grade across all subjects. However, our students aren't left to fend for themselves. We have a peer-tutoring program, an academic-support team that works with struggling students and a requirement that every teacher be available for at least one hour of open-door office hours each week (though in practice we spend far more than that helping students).

I also take issue with Mr. Steller's apparent disregard for the high success rates demonstrated by the two schools' students. At BASIS, we take fifth-graders from a huge range of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. It's true that we end up weeding out some students, but our graduating class is just as diverse as our fifth-graders. There's no selection based on race, income or intelligence; it's simply a matter of working hard.

Mr. Steller briefly quoted our head of school and ignored voices from UHS and our student bodies entirely. Much of his information apparently comes from someone directly competing with the AP program who argues that our curriculum can't measure our students' "perseverance" and "work ethic."

However, Mr. Steller complains that we unfairly select those students with the best work ethic despite thinking it can't be measured.

He has accepted an invitation to meet our students. I suspect he'll see what I see every day: a diverse group of hardworking, creative, hilarious students who enjoy learning and feel supported by their teachers.

We should do more to honor schools that excel outside of the traditional college-preparatory framework.

However, we are incredibly fortunate to have two schools that can give our children a world-class education in a state known for the opposite. We should celebrate our strengths while pushing to replicate them in as many schools as possible.

Alex Swindle teaches pre-calculus and calculus at BASIS Tucson North and was a member of the University High School Class of 2007.

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