There's something wrong with Estero High School.
It isn't easily visible from the outside: Estero has good attendance, decent test scores, active and involved students. It's diverse, but not overwhelmed by poverty. Its course offering is broad, if not dynamic.
No, the problem lies in what isn't easily seen: the vanishing ninth graders, the juniors and seniors who can't pass the statewide graduation test, the students who graduate unprepared for college, and with few job skills.
Estero, however, is hardly alone. All over the nation, high schools aren't working for all students, and experts say they need a drastic makeover.
"In just about every state now, people are realizing we still have a real problem with kids coming into and coming out of high school. There's a significant number of students who make it into ninth grade with only elementary-level reading and math skills. We also lose about 30 percent of ninth graders," said Mike Cohen, president of Achieve, the nonprofit organization that is working with the National Governors Association to research high school reform.
Now, political leaders in Florida have taken up the cry, with Gov. Jeb Bush launching a High School Reform Task Force. But there are as many ideas as there are high schools in Florida, and some seem to contradict each other.
What isn't in dispute: With test scores declining, retention rates for ninth-graders rising and a workforce that is rapidly changing, high schools just aren't cutting it.
Statewide, nearly a quarter of all ninth graders are held back. And while over the last seven years elementary school students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test have risen, scores for middle and high school students have stagnated or declined.
The evidence that high schools need attention is manifold, from employers who say students are unprepared for the workplace to colleges who say high school students need better math, science and reading comprehension skills.
"Nationally, about 30 percent of students who graduate from high school and go on to college need to take some remedial work, which suggests they're not really fully prepared for college even though they've earned a high school diploma," Cohen said. "Our expectations are lower than the real-world demands."
Estero High usually stacks up favorably against other high schools in Lee County on test scores and other statistical measures. But it is characteristic of why experts say high schools need to be re-evaluated: rigid curriculum, declining test scores and stagnant graduation rates.
Estero Principal George Clover said there are two forces working against each other: reading classes versus electives.
This year's statewide initiative to teach reading in high schools and middle schools is an effort to improve FCAT reading scores that have been declining. Only 30 percent of Lee County 10th-grade students read at or above grade level in 2005. Now, kids who don't pass the FCAT reading must take an extra "intensive reading" class. For many, that excludes beloved elective courses from their schedule.
Most high school kids in south Lee will say it: Intensive reading is boring. And Clover worries that the classes may push alienated students even further away.
"There are some kids who come to school only because they like computer technology or some other class. That's the only bright spot of their day. But if they're struggling, they're more likely to lose their elective," Clover said. "If you're not an over-achiever ... here you're struggling just to get your grades, I think the gap there doesn't do much for their self-esteem."
South Fort Myers High Principal Tommy O'Connell agreed.
"Everybody's got to be hooked into something they want to do," said O'Connell, who previously served as principal of the county's Alternative Learning Center, where students with behavioral and academic problems are sent.
"If you're into car mechanics, then you'll tend to find that out of school if it's not there. If that's what you're interested in, then I hook you into school and you stay and you finish. And you can still be in auto mechanics and in AP calculus."
- SCHOOL GUIDE: Estero High School
- SCHOOL GUIDE: South Fort Myers High School
- ON THE WEB: Florida Department of Education's High School Reform Initiative
State leaders are looking at comprehensive high schools — South High and Ida B. Baker High in Cape Coral are the two in Lee County — as a concept that should be taken statewide, combining traditional academics with career classes.
South — a new School Choice option for south Lee students — offers courses in building construction, auto mechanics and firefighting. All are in-demand professions in Southwest Florida suggested for instruction by local business leaders.
Previously, south Lee students had to travel to downtown Fort Myers to take such classes, a trip most struggling students were unable to make.
Most schools are still operating under a 1950s-style organization that grouped teens into the college track, the general education track or the workplace track, Cohen said.
"Odds are, kids in the college track are being served well and in some, the vocation kids are being served well. You can't write off the rest of the kids," he said.
Florida's task force priorities include increased rigor in high school courses, greater focus on career and vocational training and increased relevance of the courses taken in high school. But how will schools enhance career training classes while requiring intensive reading classes?
Lee Superintendent James Browder believes the reading classes are necessary.
"They don't graduate because they can't do the academics. That's because they can't read," Browder said.
Browder doesn't think high schools need a redesign. Neither does Clover.
"It needs tweaking. We need a longer school year and a longer school day. There's only X number of minutes in the day and something's gotta give, and unfortunately, it's been electives," Clover said.
Even if there were room in high school schedules, it's not enough to simply offer more technical and vocational classes, Cohen said.
"Go to any high school, and a significant number of students will tell you: it's boring, I don't see the relevance of this, it's not very engaging," he said.
It's not that Estero doesn't have some classes that offer real-world skills. Students there take courses in accounting and business management. And its unique Medical Academy has a range of classes and internships. In addition, students can take an exam after graduation that makes them employable certified nursing assistants.
In fact, the Medical Academy is so popular it can't accept all the students who apply. Those that do get in speak in glowing terms about the experiences it offers.
Why? Academic classes that directly relate to the real world. Internships that introduce them to working in hospitals and nursing homes.
Cohen said educators agree: That's the kind of education that 21st century high schools should offer to all teenagers.
"Often academic skills are really important, but lots of students need to see the connection of academic work for where they're headed after school," he said. "Sometimes those connections are made and made well in career or technical training. For many kids, those connections never get made."
Another part of the problem, some believe, are the tests that students must pass to graduate.
A study by Achieve found most high school exit exams — including the FCAT — only test for ninth-grade skills.
Pam Ashley, principal of Steps to the Future Christian Academy, a private school in Immokalee, is the task force's only Southwest Florida representative. Ashley hopes the effort will also re-evaluate how the FCAT is used. Right now, third graders must pass the test to be promoted to fourth grade, and high schoolers must pass the 10th-grade test to graduate from high school.
"Our assessment program is not working. It's not even geared to get us into college or help us go forward. It's here to say you're either a success or a failure," she said. "I hope our state looks at this test and realizes that it needs to be used differently."
Too, students today are coming of age in a much-changed world.
"Students are different today than they were five years ago," Clover said. "The maturity level seems to be coming faster. Kids are just growing up faster."
Dozens of students at Estero take classes at Edison College as part of a dual enrollment program — one senior takes all her classes there.
And, Clover pointed out that many Estero students already work full-time and go to school. He jokes that he can't go out to eat without seeing a student working.
"I think it's a shame kids don't get to have the full high school experience," he said.
No matter what, students can make high school work for them under almost any circumstance, Cohen said. Regardless of their post-graduation plans, he said, every student needs to be ready to go to college because many jobs require post-secondary training to advance.
"This is not college versus vocational. The most important thing for them to do is be sure their youngster is enrolled in a curriculum that will prepare them for college and for a decent job. They can't assume that's automatically where they'll be placed," he said.