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School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School    by Edward Humes order for
School of Dreams
by Edward Humes
Order:  USA  Can
Harvest, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Will Shakespeare's 'It is the mind that makes the body rich' appropriately opens School of Dreams. It's an account by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes of observations during the 2001-2002 school year at Gretchen Whitney High School in Cerritos, California - 'the top-ranked public high school in California ... prep-school quality at public-school prices.'

Though these students are the highest of achievers, they are not superkids - the author shows them suffering 'senioritis', normal teen crises, and the vicarious ambitions of their parents. Some cheat, and most still need strict boundaries. For these kids 'high-octane coffee' is a staple, as they participate in an AP (Advanced Placement) 'academic arms race'. Some indulge in 'substance abuse not to get high, but to get by'. And these highly pressured kids are being conditioned against academic risk taking by standardized testing - a disturbing notion given society's ever growing need for innovators. Though the book raises concerns about impacts of specific national and state U.S. government policies on education and about the petty politics that drag down success, there are many high points too. We see kids who rise above personal tragedy and difficult home situations. And we learn how dedicated, inspired educators teach to the curriculum and beyond, with or without the use of new technologies like laptops and Smart Boards.

What made Whitney High so successful? Humes tells us that it's an 'educational echo chamber', in which the school's high expectations and family focus on learning reinforce each other. He mentions early entrance tests which tried to 'identify inquisitive, independent thinkers'; of 'interdisciplinary core classes', which were highly innovative at the time; and of cultural continuity through senior educators and teachers who are ex-students. A creative, flexible principal encourages kids' individual expression (if the work gets done and it's not disruptive), and supports teacher experimentation. And there's a strong sense of mission, in this case 'high-level academic achievement'.

Humes raises topical issues in the context of progression of the school year and of individual student experiences: a growing concern about AP cramming extinguishing subject interest; class-size reduction drives versus availability of credentialed teachers; relevance of the 1970s 'school-without-walls', a concept by which expert community members partnered with experienced teachers to instruct students; overuse of student team projects where individuals continually pick areas of strength and avoid key learning in areas of weakness; the push for new technology, which can enhance education when it doesn't distract from 'the heart of schooling', the interaction between teacher and student; and the risk to children of overdemanding, overprotective parents, of being blindsided by the non-academic side of college.

What I took from the book was the need for innovation in schooling to be driven by what has been shown to work in effective institutions rather than by bureaucrats and politicians; the urgency to reduce the pressure on this 'Generation Stressed'; and the importance of supporting educators in teaching not only for good grades, but also for 'good learning' and risk taking, which provide much longer term benefits to both student and society. School of Dreams is a must read for anyone interested in children's education.

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