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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum


by Mark J. Zintek
Delta/Greely School District


What I would like to do in this paper is compare the U.S Department of Education's recommended curriculum, as proposed by former Secretary William Bennett in 1987, with that of the Delta/Greely School District. I will then list the curriculum we used last school year at the Alternative High School and compare it to the proposed 1988-89 curriculum, making several observations. I will also enclose the University of North Dakota and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln independent study course listings. All of our correspondence high school students use these services and several of our "regular" alternative high school students enroll in one, or maybe two at the most, of these courses. I will then wrap up with several generic statements detailing exactly what all good high schools should possess.



According to Bennett, in an ideal high school every student would learn about quadratic equations, the Gettysburg address and Shakespeare. Bennett's outline of a solid academic program includes: four years of English; three years each of math, social studies, and science; two years each of foreign language and physical education/health; and one year of art and music history. The elective offerings would encompass just 25 percent of class time.

In the United States we now enroll more than 12 million students in grades 9 through 12, which is better than 90 percent of our 14 to 17 year old population. No other country's system of education serves so many students for so many years and for such diverse ends. Even by the standards of most other industrialized nations, American education is more comprehensive, more prolonged, and more democratic. 

All too often, though, U.S. public education is less rigorous and less productive. Bennett, like many others, believes it need not be. According to Bennett, only 15 percent of U.S. students get the preferred type of curriculum. He also indicated that such courses should be mastered, even if some students need an extra year or more to do so.

How do we in Alaska compare with Bennett's standards? Below is a comparison of the U.S.D.O.E. and Delta/Greely curricula:

The Recommended
Curriculum by U.S.D.O.E.

The Existing Curriculum
Of Delta High

4 years of English
3 years of Social Studies
3 years of Math
3 years of Science
2 years of Foreign Lang.
2 years of Health
1 year of Art/Music History

4 years of English
3 years of Social Studies
2 years of Math
2 years of Science
1 year of Physical Education
1 year of Fine Arts/P.E.
8 electives

Delta lacks somewhat on a couple of the "core" requirements (one year each of math and science), but Delta also requires the completion of 21 credit hours for graduation, while the U.S.D.O.E. model requires only 18. Most of the elective hours at Delta are in the languages or vocational/agricultural areas. There is presently no high school health course offered.

Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says that "holding high expectations is fine, but we need to devote more time, money and manpower to remedial programs" for students who can't handle tougher courses. This is, of course, true in most every corner of the United States.

But it seems that Bennett may look beyond those basic needs of that ever-growing group of students when he said "If we focus on failure, we might get it. And if we focus on success, we might get it." No real guessing where he's coming from now, is there? Of course, no one wants any of our students to fail, whether they are in the honors program or the resource room. But somehow provisions must be made for the students at the lower end too.

Delta's Alternative High School

Most of the kids that I work with in the alternative high school setting have a mixture of learning study/behavior problems. Several of them, on the other hand, are also accelerated academically. It takes a responsible student to complete a correspondence course in addition to a regular course load. And we have several students doing this. They seem to work quite well on their own, yet often come to school starved for social intervention of any kind. They know that they can complete work on their own, so sometimes, maybe after spending an entire weekend working on their assignments, they come to school and end up disrupting the entire environment.

We only have twelve students and they have "taken in" all new students immediately upon arrival. They have developed into a tight knit group and thrive on and support their classmates in nearly any way one can imagine. We have, luckily, a group of pretty good kids. Our birthrate may be a little above the norm (two with kids, one on the way), but even this situation serves as a learning tool for all of us. We also have two kids that have attempted suicide. These two girls concerned me very much when they came to us. I am without a counseling background and, until earlier this year with one of our basketball players, had never been directly associated with any of these situations. It is most terrifying when you wonder if something you say or do just might set them off. Later, as we became accustomed to one another, I dragged the topic into the open and all the students participated in the discussion. They were very supportive, which at first I didn't understand because all I could think of was that they were making some kind of wild pact to do a group send-off. But another of our students did a nice report on suicide for our end-of-the-year publication. I believe that this was done because she really cared about the other two girls and knew that threats often become reality.

Making Choices

I've strayed into the personalities of our students for a reason. High school students in general cannot always be expected to react and behave in a mature manner. It's just not going to happen. Most students aren't expected to act like adults, though we periodically allow them to make some "big" decisions, like deciding which course(s) they think they'd like to take. What they want, however, and what we can afford to pay for often differ, particularly in a small school like ours.

The options are many when one considers the correspondence selections available. We utilize the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of North Dakota high school independent study programs. The students pick the courses that fit into our district's requirements. They also must complete the course or they pick up the tab. Six-month extensions sometimes are necessary. Listed below are the independent study courses available to our correspondence/alternative high school students:


North Dakota



Business Education

Computer Science


Foreign Languages

Home Economics




Physical Education

Practical and Mechanical



Social Studies

University of Nebraska-Lincoln



Business Education

Computer Science


Home Economics

Industrial Education






Social Studies

Study Skills

The alternative students can take only one of these courses as long as they aren't offered during the entire school year. We don't see any of our students taking "core" subjects through the mail service. They enroll in the elective courses such as driver's education, Russian, typing, Spanish, specialized art courses, etc.

Because we service students in grades 9-12, we often must stagger the progression levels when the students use different texts. For example: a freshman will find him/herself in basic composition before taking on a tougher, more involved course like journalism, which is geared toward the student who is versed in the basic English/language practices.

We attempt to keep the overall district requirement picture in mind when we pre-schedule, and a balance must be secured. The students are aware of the fact that 21 "basketweaving" courses will not produce a diploma. 

Below are the subjects from our 1987-88 school year, and the proposed curriculum for 1988-89:

1987-1988 School Year

Technical/Vocational English

World History

General Science

Algebra I

Physical Education

Alaska Studies



1988-1989 School Year


U.S. History

Health Science

Algebra II

Physical Education

Vocational/Agricultural Science



"Good Schools!"

Everyone wants their kids to attend good schools. But just what is a good school? The U.S. Department of Education decided to find out. They studied 571 exemplary public secondary schools that they had previously cited for excellence as part of the "Secondary School Recognition Program." The Department has honored these schools since 1982 as shining examples of what American schools can become. 

What makes these schools work? For starters, they all have strong principals and good teachers, according to the Department's study. Good secondary schools - middle,junior high and high schools - are vital and dynamic. They have some sort of identity. They pursue clear goals. They tackle obstacles that might deter others. They set high standards, for which they take risks to meet.

Excellent teaching conditions allow these schools to draw talented, dedicated staffs. They create caring, positive environments for their students and encourage adults and adolescents to work in harmony. They invite the community to use the school and in turn ask the community for its support.

Although exemplary schools share many traits, they are far from identical. Some have long-standing reputations for excellence. Some are urban schools, some are suburban, some rural. Some are big (the largest of these recognized houses about 4,000 students); some are small (the tiniest educates just 64). Some serve wealthy neighborhoods; others are in ghettos. Good schools face the same problems many schools do: inadequate facilities, declining enrollments, not enough money. Many have low-income or minority student populations.

Any school, despite the hurdles, can strive for excellence. We owe it to this country's students to make all of our schools good. Parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members can do their part by helping their schools develop the seven characteristics of exemplary schools identified by U.S.D.O.E.:

1. Good Principals

Exemplary schools have principals who know what it takes to get the job done and aren't afraid to do it. Successful principals are innovative, enthusiastic, creative, and knowledgeable. They often are the major factor in their schools' successes. Principals lead their schools in various ways. No one leadership style dominates. Some principals are dynamic and powerful, others low-key. What matters is that the principal's style fits the school's needs.

2. Good Teachers

An exemplary school has good teachers who maintain order in their classroom, know their subject well, and successfully get it across to their students. Students recognize good teaching. In fact, most students at outstanding schools were quick to point out that the teachers made their schools good.

3. Teacher Rewards and Recognition

Teachers, like everyone else, enjoy being recognized for a job well done. When something in the classroom goes wrong - if a student is disruptive or scores poorly on a math test - teachers say they are held responsible. However, when things go well - if test scores rise or the school wins an award - they complain about being ignored. Good schools constantly recognize their teachers, both formally and informally.

4. Good Student-Teacher Relationships

Students and adults in successful schools get along with each other. Consequently, students in exemplary schools are motivated to work harder than those in less successful ones. Good student-teacher relationships are essential in helping both students and teachers conquer the monotony of daily school schedules and sustain their drive for excellence.

5. High Expectations

All students can learn; it just takes more to motivate some than others. Excellent schools foster a "can do" attitude; principals and teachers expect a lot of all students and make it their responsibility to motivate kids. They're also willing to give a pat on the back when it's deserved. Many schools hailed today for academic achievement were once mediocre. They expected little of their students and made excuses for their lack of achievement. Now, these schools push all students to their highest potential.

6. Solving Problems

Good schools don't exist in a charmed bubble. They face the same problems other schools do: declining enrollments, lower budgets, and shaky facilities. But the good schools don't sit back and wait for answers to appear. They view problems as opportunities and aggressively search for solutions.

7. Parent and Community Involvement

Educators often remark that it is hard to get parents involved, particularly in junior high and high schools. But in good schools, quite the opposite is true because the educators don't wait for the community to come to them - they go to the community. And model schools don't just "take" from the community; they give in return. Students visit local nursing homes or help raise money for charities through bike-a-thons, raffles, bake sales, car washes, and other fund raising activities. These activities may not differ from those in other secondary schools. What is different is that they occur more often, involve more people, and are valued more by school leaders.


Providing a strong curriculum then is only the beginning. So much more becomes involved if we are to provide our kids with a "good" school. We need to address the capabilities of our instructors, somehow weeding out the ones who are on the "retirement gravy train." We need a commitment for total involvement by the entire community - learning only begins in the classroom.

We can provide the basic curriculum. Where we need to improve the most is elsewhere: in really taking an interest in our students' progress; in taking the time to ask what's troubling someone; in partaking in the extra-curricular activities and not worrying about how much we're getting paid (or IF we're getting paid); in actively continuing our education to improve our school/classroom performance; in getting totally immersed in the entire school environment; and maybe most importantly, by genuinely caring that we're doing the best job that we possibly can.



Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits



Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified August 18, 2006