Back to the Future: What My High School Reunion Reminded Me about High School Reform

The Non-Academic Essentials for High School Students’ Success

Dear Colleagues,


I hope that all of you had a great summer. . . but for some of you, the summer is over, and the new school year has just begun (or is about to this or next week).

A few weeks ago—during my summer vacation—I traveled back to Massachusetts to attend my 45th High School Reunion (YES—I am THAT old !!!)

While catching up with old (pun intended) friends, we did what everyone does at a reunion—we reminisced about what our school, and teachers, and classes were like. . . and how High School prepared us “for life.”

But in listening to the stories, and the recollections, and the memories. . . I was struck by the fact that what we learned about and how high school prepared us “for life,” was less about our coursework, and more about the “non-academic” lessons, interactions, and opportunities.

And in contrasting my High School experience and its “life preparations” with the high schools that I now visit across the country, I wonder if our national pursuit of (obsession with???) academic proficiency has robbed our current high school students and graduates of the opportunities to learn these important non-academic lessons. . . lessons that will last far longer than how to “Represent data on two quantitative variables on a scatter plot, and describe how the variables are related” (Common Core Algebra I Standard S.ID.6).

And yes. . . the now-fully-in-implementation Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/ESSA) does require districts and schools to choose and track a non-academic indicator. . . that correlates with academic achievement.

But, as you will see below, and as is already evident in the State ESEA Plans proposed thus far (the rest are coming next month), the law is requiring a formal, measurable, and scalable “institutional” non-academic indicator.

And, often it is the informal, messy, unique, and yet planned non-academic experiences in high school that have the most impact on our students.

Our Addressed and Unaddressed Non-Academic High School Experiences

While I may have been blessed with a large high school graduating class (numbering approximately 430 peers), proximity to a large cultural center (15 miles from Boston), and many highly experienced teachers . . .

We also “grew up” well before the days of the Internet (or even computers). There was no Cable TV (we had three channels and Public Television). And, many of our parents worked for the same employer for their entire careers.

And so. . . my high school was not like every high school in America at that time, and thus, my high school experience (as for today’s students) was impacted by my high school’s size, location, and instructional staff.

But, all of us . . . were equally impacted by our place in history (e.g., the war in Vietnam, the Civil and Women’s Rights movements, landing on the Moon, and our music) . . . and whether our high school teachers were willing to discuss all the embedded historical questions and moral/ethical dilemmas to guide us through.

Given all of this, below are some of the most-important non-academic experiences that were addressed—and not addressed—in and during high school . . . that need to be specifically or figuratively considered by high schools now relative to fully preparing their students today.

High School Experiences Addressed:

  • Our High School had a required class for all First Year students in public speaking and debate.
  • During our Senior year, there was an ongoing “lecture series” where experts from our community came in to discuss their educational and experiential backgrounds, their current jobs, and how they got to their vocational choices and positions.
  • Our teachers were never hesitant to discuss current national and local politics, events, and crises occurring in all our lives during class.

For example, we discussed the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, the 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations and riots, the student killings at Kent State University.

  • We were required—in Junior High School—to learn typing skills (Yes. . . on typewriters).
  •  Our High School had phenomenal music, visual arts, and drama courses and programs—with many after-school extracurricular clubs (including sports) that involved the same, as well as literary and other artistic pursuits.

[I was amazed at our reunion as to how virtually everyone had a story regarding the importance of their after-school extracurricular activities.]

High School Experiences Unaddressed:

  • Our High School and graduating class had cultural, racial, religious, disability-related, and demographic diversity, and yet there were no guiding discussions or structured opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds to learn about or from each other.
  • Our High School did not do a good job of addressing teasing and bullying, and students were not taught how to get along with each other (the “behavior management” system consisted of ultimatums and consequences).
  •  While receiving some attention, our High School needed more attention to health, mental health, disability, and wellness knowledge and skills.
  • There was very little attention to economic and financial literacy/management knowledge and skills.
  • Our High School could have more explicitly “valued” and reinforced students’ interest and preparation for a wide range of jobs. Students in the “vocational track” were not always viewed as equals to those in the “college track.”

Implications: Consciously Embedding Non-Academic Experiences into our High Schools

While I know that our nation’s high schools cannot do everything (indeed, their respective communities and parents need to be involved also), I fear that—once again—the dominant focus on preparing graduating students for academic proficiency (i.e., “passing the test”) has overshadowed many of the non-academic experiences that prepare them to be (future) contributing colleagues in the workplace and citizens in their communities.

Moreover, I still see a reticence in today’s high schools to involve the students themselves in the “non-academic” planning and implementation process.

That is, I truly believe that—when we were in High School—our needs, wants, opinions, and involvement were requested and respected. We had a “student voice” that many of today’s high schools survey, but do not actively involve.

And so, the Recommendation here is for all high schools—with their students, staff, parents, and community to look at the non-academic areas below and determine which areas . . .

  • Are currently well-addressed [Maintain Them]
  • Need improvement [Plan, Resource, and Improve Them]
  • Are important, but unaddressed [Plan, Resource, and Implement Them]
  • Are less important, unimportant, controversial, or unfeasible [Dismiss or Delay Them]

Based on the discussion above, the recommended areas are:

Cultural, Civic/Political, and Demographic Diversity Knowledge, Skill, and Appreciation

While this may be controversial, today’s high school students (not that it should first start in high school) need to engage in formal and informal experiences that help them understand the facts, factors, differences, and effects related to cultural, racial, gender, political, religious, ability and disability, and other demographic diversities.

The interactions and discussions here need to represent a wide variety of views with a goal of both understanding and appreciation—not agreement and acceptance.

Moreover, learning needs to emphasize the inclusive, democratic values and history that are at the foundation of our country—past and present.

The ultimate goal here is not to resolve the differences (and, sometimes, divisiveness) in our present or future communities. The goal is to arm students with the information and personal experiences needed to meaningfully reflect on their beliefs and behavior, attitudes and attributions, and conclusions and choices.

Health, Mental Health, Interpersonal, and Wellness Knowledge, Skill, and Appreciation

Today’s high school students (not that it should first start in high school) need to engage in formal and informal experiences that help them learn, practice, and master the interpersonal, prosocial problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills needed for school, peer, home, and community success.

These are the “hard skills” (some of my colleagues call them the “soft skills”) that make them socially and academically productive (especially in project-based groups), and that will make them productive in college, in the workplace, and in their future personal lives.

Also included in these experiences should be information on how to develop and practice physically, emotionally, and behaviorally healthy lifestyles; and how to recognize and avoid the detrimental impact of the unhealthy choices that are so prevalent in our communities.

Finally, issues and preventative peer approaches to teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression should be embedded, along with skill training in how to resist peer pressure and negative group processes and dynamics.

Technology and Communication Skills

Today’s high school students (not that it should first start in high school) need to engage in formal and informal experiences that help them to effectively communicate across multiple “platforms”—orally, in writing, and through different technologies.

These experiences need to be geared to non-academic personal and other situations (e.g., college or job applications/interviews, writing a complaint letter, responding to bank or insurance company). And, they need to be skilled in how to express themselves succinctly, politely, cogently, and sensibly.

High school students also need to know how to effectively discuss, debate, agree, and disagree; and how to check for understanding and consensus.

Finally, issues around and interactions related to cyber- and digital safety, law, ethics, etiquette, and propriety need to be explicitly addressed. More specifically, cyber- and digital sexting, bullying, intimidation, and unlawful persuasion need to be topics of discussion.

Workforce, Employability, Financial Literacy, and Vocational Knowledge, Skill, and Appreciation

Today’s high school students (not that it should first start in high school) need to engage in formal and informal experiences (and even apprenticeships) that help them understand the wide range of jobs available (and to-be-available) across our country, what degrees and expertise they need to attain these jobs, what “21st Century” skills they need for maximum employability, and how to appreciate others’ vocational choices and status.

In addition, they need to be financially and economically literate.

That is, they need to have (a) financial planning and money management skills; to understand (b) how to save and pay for their future education or training, and about credit, debt, and insurance; to be knowledgeable about (c) investing, the stock and bond market, taxes, and health care and retirement; and to evaluate (d) national, state, and local economic trends, indicators, proposals, and ballot referendums.

The Arts

Finally, today’s high school students (not that it should first start in high school) need to engage in formal and informal experiences that help them to understand and appreciate the world of music and drama, the visual and literary arts, and the world of nature and the outdoors.

While this may involve live or virtual performances during or after school, field-trips or weekend outings, and/or clubs or extracurricular activities, the goal here is to expose all students to “the arts”—increasing their understanding and appreciation in one or more of their many areas.


When students are asked—years after high school graduation—what they remember or cherish most about these years, they rarely talk about a specific academic course, a grade they received on a paper or test, or the fact that they were accepted to the “college of their choice.”

They most often describe an extraordinary teacher, a pivotal event that changed the course of their life, or a shared experience that resulted in a lasting relationship.

For some of my High School peers, it was the one time when they performed in our annual “Talent Show,” when we went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, or when we shared “Senior Skip Day” and talked with someone who we had never met during our four years “together.”

Indeed, most of our fondest high school memories have nothing to do with our academic classes, status, or standing. And most of our “life successes” are due to the non-academic “lessons” that we experienced in high school or during our high school years.

Today’s high schools (and the students who are attending them) need to think about the five areas above, and how we can balance the academic and non-academic experiences that address the “whole adolescent.”

What do we maintain? What do we modify or add? What do we “throw away?” How do we prioritize?

We can’t do everything. But we must do something. Because, it’s not just about the test score. It is about how our graduates score in life.

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I hope that this Blog triggered some of your high school memories, and that you found it helpful and meaningful to your work (even if you don’t teach high school).

As always, I look forward to your comments. . . whether on-line or via e-mail.

And—with the new school year now upon us: If I can help you in any of the school improvement, school discipline and behavioral intervention, or multi-tiered service and support areas where I specialize, please do not hesitate to contact me.

I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students, staff/colleagues, school(s), and district.

Welcome back! It’s going to be a GREAT YEAR !!!