01/26/2012 03:34 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

Parents Attend High School, Too

My recent blog on school culture struck more than a few chords among readers eager to have the role of parents included in the education dialogue. Parents ARE critical role models for students. In a way, parents go to high school, too. But the role of the parent is complicated. I decided to go "to the source" -- and ask parents about their current experience with high school.

Emily emerges from her shell

Emily, a junior in Danville, Illinois, was particularly shy in school and it affected every aspect of her high school experience. According to her mother, Lisa Bueter, Emily had a core group of friends and found it difficult to branch out beyond that group -- that is, until she started at Danville New Tech. "Emily's experience at New Tech has been wonderful," said Lisa. "She had struggled a bit in the traditional high school setting, but is really thriving in the culture at New Tech."

For a shy student like Emily, the idea of giving presentations in front of a group of adults and students can be overwhelming, but Lisa says that Emily has grown confident in her public speaking skills. Emily has also found working within groups and learning to collaborate to be positive experiences. "Emily asked me if this was similar to the business world," said Lisa. "She wondered what to do when you are working in a group and not everyone wants to do their share of the work. She feels this school culture has given her a look into what a business environment is like, something she wouldn't have encountered in a traditional school. It is so gratifying to see how this shy girl has really blossomed by becoming more self-assured, confident and outgoing."

Kalley re-engages in school

Students that seemingly have few struggles, either academically or socially, perform equally well in a school environment that promotes a positive culture. Kalley is a senior at Da Vinci High School in Davis, CA. She completed her middle school education at the top of her class. She felt confident in handling the competitive climate at a highly ranked traditional school with excellent teachers. She took AP classes, was involved in two sports, did community service and loved to participate in class discussions. But according to her mother, Karlen Harmison, the large number of students in the classroom, as well as the intense level of competition, became more than she could bear without getting drained. "Kalley was no longer thriving in high school," said her mother. "She had lost the joy of learning and was more focused on just completing her work rather than really absorbing the material. We made the joint decision to transfer her to Da Vinci High."

According to Karlen, Da Vinci's focus on project-based learning and collaboration was just the recipe for Kalley to once again become engaged in her school life. She was able to strengthen her already competent presentation and public speaking skills, and discovered the smaller classes were especially invigorating. "She found a sense of community at Da Vinci where she was very visible in her classes," explained Karlen. "She was able to meet a broad cross section of students, many of whom she would otherwise never have gotten to know without the group presentations."

As Karlen explained, "Kalley found it exciting to learn something in greater depth, rather than studying only the basics of a topic. Also, group collaboration enabled Kalley to learn critiquing skills -- not only critiquing other students in a positive way, but also having the opportunity to critique the teachers' assignment and provide positive feedback as to how the assignment could be improved. It's a wonderful example of how she's developed her critical thinking and analysis skills."

Kalley is now waiting to hear from colleges; she plans on majoring in a social science area such as economics or international relations. Kalley's experience at Da Vinci had been so successful that her younger brother, Kobey, is now attending Da Vinci New Tech middle school.

Caleb grows while following his passion

What's it like for a student who has a particular passion -- perhaps art or music -- to attend high school today? According to Jackie White, mother of Caleb, a sophomore at Ruston@ New Tech in Ruston, Louisiana, it can be a wonderful experience, but the school has to enable the student to follow his passion. In addition to having a strong interest in the sciences, Caleb had always wanted to pursue drama and music. In a traditional school, the opportunities are not always available to include the arts - or they can sometimes be available only at the expense of another part of the academic curriculum. For Caleb, with his potential desire to pursue either a medical or teaching career, it was not an either/or decision - he wanted both - the sciences and the arts. "We researched the various educational opportunities here in Ruston and determined that Ruston New Tech would be a good fit for Caleb."

At Ruston, Caleb was given the opportunity to try out choir and drama as part of his electives. He has found that especially rewarding. "He had always been engaged and is a really good student, but the environment at Ruston enabled him to learn independent responsibility and accountability," said Jackie. "At Ruston, he is responsible for getting his work done. The New Tech environment enhanced the personality he already had. The independence expected of New Tech students really taught him how to get his assignments done."

Sean reboots his school experience

But what about the student who has struggled so much, he actually dropped out of the traditional high school before finding a school with a different, positive culture. Sean Garcia now attends nex+Gen Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His mom, Alberta Garcia, describes the struggles Sean experienced. "He was ditching classes at the traditional high school," she said. "He never really liked school, but kept up his grades in middle school so he could continue to play football. However, when he got to the high school, he felt the other players were so much bigger than him that he couldn't succeed, so he stopped playing. Once he stopped playing sports, he stopped trying in school."

Alberta says that Sean was always a child who "needed to learn differently." He needed "hands on" instruction which was not the norm at the traditional high school. The end result - Sean dropped out of school. But his parents believed in "tough love" and said he needed to get a job. Sean soon realized he really wanted to return to school and after much research, he applied to nex+Gen Academy.

"The class size at nex+Gen is very small," explained Alberta. "He knew if he skipped classes, he'd be missed."

Sean was very excited when he started at nex+Gen, especially because of the technology. According to his mother, he loved the idea of doing his homework on a laptop because it was new and different for him. Also, and most important, said his mom, "it showed Sean that the administration and teachers trusted him by giving him that computer."

Sean tried to ditch his classes one time during his tenure at Nex+Gen, but an immediate intervention took place before things got out of control. "The principal reminded him that he was accountable and it was his responsibility to attend class and do his work. Sean realized the school was not messing around, but was serious about his contribution and what he needed to do to succeed," said Alberta.

Everything changed for the positive for Sean within one year. "After his last project was done this past year, he said to me -- 'Mom -- I have never felt like this before. I feel so accomplished. I feel as if I've done something.' "

The common denominator

It's said it takes a village to raise a child, and when it comes to education, that village is comprised of caring, concerned, involved parents who serve as positive role models for their children. Parents like Lisa Bueter, Karlen Harmison, Jackie White and Alberta Garcia all had children who were in very different places as students. Yet, these four parents had something very important in common. Each parent worked to understand options and support their children to take steps to achieve success on all levels in school. These parents did their homework, and together with their children, created an educational environment that will enable their children to thrive in high school, college and beyond