Assistant Secretary of Education Patricia W. McNeil met yesterday with an unusual set of education experts - 12th-grade students at Eastern Technical High School in Essex - to learn what does and doesn't work in today's secondary schools.
What she learned boiled down to this: Treat high school students like adults, but don't expect them to act like adults all the time.
"We're still kids," said Cory Rodowsky, a 16-year-old engineering student who reminded McNeil that while academic contests and SAT preparation might be beneficial, kids still need time to have fun.
"So it sounds like you're going for balance," said McNeil, who spent the day at Eastern Tech as part of a tour of the nation's most innovative high schools.
A national Blue Ribbon School and 1999 New American High School award winner, Eastern Tech, which offers career majors in computer information technology, culinary arts and medical fields, has played host to many visitors.
McNeil, who stopped by to gather ideas on high school reform, has headed the department's Office of Vocational and Adult Education since 1996.
She knows the challenge of preparing students for the job market and college coursework at the same time.
"Even if you're not ready to go to college now, the likelihood that you'll go back to school is good," McNeil told students. "I believe all students should be prepared."
That's also Principal Robert J. Kemmery's motto, and he repeated it during meetings with McNeil and her staff. He also talked about his experiences taking a good vocational school and turning it into a top-ranked magnet school.
Since 1991, Kemmery and his staff have raised combined math and verbal scores on the SAT from 950 to 1032 out of a perfect 1600.
About 58 percent of students take the college-entrance exam, up from 5 percent a decade ago.
Membership in the National Honors Society has risen, too.
Kemmery, his staff and students work hard to earn accolades, he said.
When students started work to improve their vocabularies in preparation for the SAT, teachers took sample vocabulary tests, too. Many were embarrassed by the results.
Teachers started to use more advanced words daily and learn along with their students.
"You have to work on it every day or you lose it," said Kemmery.
During McNeil's time with students, many praised the school's academic offerings, modern cooking equipment and its mentor program, which matches seniors with staff members.
Shelley Brickell, 17, of Oliver Beach said her mentor has become a good friend who posed with her for her senior yearbook picture.
"He's someone I can talk to for an hour after school," she said.
McNeil and her staff jotted everything down, including tips on creating a caring, respectful atmosphere for students and teachers. She wants all high schools to be nurturing places.
"You're very lucky," she told students who asked her what she thought of their school. "Things could be worse, believe me. You've had an unusual high school experience."