23 years of innovation at school yield to change

February 18, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

After decades of innovation, Wilde Lake High School in Columbia is scaling back its experimental program in an attempt to combat low student achievement and concerns about educational quality.

The most conspicuous change will begin next school year, when the school drops its "no-fail" grading policy in favor of a traditional A-through-E grade scale.

Among other changes in store for the 847-student school are a new curriculum, special attention for ninth-graders and construction of new school building.

Years of gradual changes already have left Wilde Lake a far different institution from the school that drew national attention for its innovative design, curriculum and grading policy when it opened in 1971 as Columbia's first high school.

"Wilde Lake at the time reflected Columbia itself," said Doug DuVall, a teacher at the school for more than 20 years. "It was an experiment. Any time you pilot something, it's hard to get people to accept the differences."

Wilde Lake is retaining some unique programs, including flexible schedules that let students take up to 12 credits a year and teachers who act as mentors for small groups of students.

The building has the shape of a doughnut, and the classrooms were built without walls in an effort to foster openness and communication.

The school was among the first in the nation to start adviser groups for students and to embrace outcomes-based education, the idea that students should demonstrate a minimum set of skills before graduation.

Students were able to decide what subjects to take, when to schedule them and how intensively they wanted to study them, on the theory that students learn at different paces and should pursue their interests.

Then there was the no-fail grading system, under which students couldn't earn less than a C. If their work didn't measure up to that standard, they were given the chance to take tests and do the work over until they had mastered the material. Only a few schools in the nation still use such a system.

"You never gave up on the students," said Jack Jenkins, the school's first principal and now a professor at the University of Florida. "You kept working with the kids, and you kept trying to find the right thing to suddenly perk [the student] up who'll say, 'I can do it.' "

The latest changes come at a time when Wilde Lake finds itself the center of a redistricting battle and when top school officials are trying to polish the school's image.

Wilde Lake students' scores on the Scholastic Assessment Tests once ranked among the highest in Howard County, but the school is now third from the bottom. (It did, however, have the biggest increase in the combined score among high schools last school year.)

Wilde Lake has the most diverse student body among county high schools; almost half of the students are black, Asian or Hispanic.

The 23-year-old building itself, once considered ultra-modern, will torn down this summer to make way for a three-story, $20 million building with a $1.2 million performing arts center. During construction, students will attend River Hill High School in Clarksville for two years.

The changes, which have been discussed at Wilde Lake for two years, were first presented to the school board in 1991.

The new grading policy could result in D's and E's for students for the first time but still will give them chances to improve their grades.

In addition, ninth-graders no longer will have an open-ended period of time in which to master the work. Though they can repeat tests and classwork without penalty during a particular quarter, their grade at the end of the quarter is final.

Sophomores, juniors and seniors also will have the option to retake tests during a quarter without penalty, but, unlike freshmen, they will be able to ask a teacher for a two-week extension after the end of the quarter if they need more time to master the work.

Administrators who were at Wilde Lake when it opened lament the demise of the school's no-fail grading policy, which lets students take tests over and over again until they've mastered the objectives.

"What the traditional grading will do, it will take away a lot of the original objectives of the school," said Rosalie Bowen, Wilde Lake's vice principal for some 10 years. "Kids who don't master at the C level will be passed along. I'm sorry to see that happen."

But students, teachers and parents say the change in grading is needed because the old system had become too cumbersome and harmful to unmotivated students who need structure.

"Under the current system, good students will succeed and bad students will be left behind," said Neel Desai, a junior. "Under the new system, hopefully some of the not-so-advanced students will be able to learn better and not fall so far behind."

Teachers and parents had varying reactions to the overall changes.

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