"Students budget their own time based on the projects we're working on."
"Going to a movie is too demanding for some kids today; 90 minutes is longer than they can concentrate," muses Michelle Swanson a 16-year veteran of the classroom. Conventional teaching methods -- lectures designed to load kids up with facts which they then spit out during tests -- actually contribute to the boredom that many of today's young people experience, Swanson believes.
So in 1989-90, teachers in the Tamalpais Union High School District began developing an innovative, integrated studies program for some 200 students at Sir Francis Drake High School in Marin County, California -- DISC, the Drake Integrated Studies Curricula. With initial support from the Autodesk Foundation, funded by the successful, Sausalito-based software company, Sir Francis Drake ultimately won a $708,000 grant from the RJR Nabisco Foundation.
"This is a new mousetrap, and it's working -- more kids are learning," says Bob Banos, one of 12 teachers involved with DISC. The ultimate goals: integrate academic subjects; use technology as a tool rather than an end in itself; insist that students think critically and solve problems; encourage students to collaborate with each other. In short, DISC is everything that conventional, passive learning is not because it seeks to create students who are "self winders."
The curriculum has been restructured into three major areas:
Restructuring time was a major element of the effort to restructure curriculum, but just one aspect of a program that also included:
But the Drake experiment is also a lesson in the difficulty of making major changes within existing school bureaucracies. The enthusiasm of many students was nearly overwhelmed by implementation obstacles.
The school district, Swanson told the Commission, did not anticipate the needs or effects of Drake's efforts to extend the school year. The RJR Nabisco grant arrived just in time to surmount bureaucratic obstacles.
According to Swanson: "Vital functions such as the public transportation schedule (which changes to meet the needs of the public high schools during the regular year), cafeteria services, and school staffing were closed down." Custodians began their summer clean-up -- which tore the school apart and reconfigured it.
"Everything on campus indicated to the students, 'the school year is over.' The kids were very clear about the message they were receiving: 'School's over for everyone but you and you have to go an additional 17 days because we say so. We don't really care enough to create the right environment for you, but we've decided you should be in school, so be here.'"
Scott Rostoni attends Sir Francis Drake and is enthusiastic about his work in the integrated curriculum. "It's hard to distinguish between work in school and homework because the students budget their own time based on the projects we're working on," he said. "Our projects have benchmarks which force us to think about how to use our time and also to think about broad ideas and information, not just isolated facts."
One of the program's exciting aspects is that it works for all kinds of students in the school -- from the least well motivated to the high achievers. "We've gone out of our way to make this a non-elitist thing," observes Swanson, universally regarded as the "spark plug" of DISC. Communications Academy student Ava Ruley agrees: "DISC draws from all the groups on campus: football players, fringe kids, popular girls, computer nerds, 'homeys'... everybody's here."
For additional information:
Sir Francis Drake High School
1327 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
San Anselmo, CA 94960