Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I did not write the following as an article to be published in The Atlantic Monthly. I wrote it as a proposal for a Gates Foundation funded small school to be established at North Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon.

Unfortunately, my proposal was considered a Jonathan Swift inspired joke by a key teacher and a key administrator whose combined influence effectively ruined any possibility of due consideration. What I did not know at the time was that my proposal had been dismissed from consideration before it was even available for consideration. Consequently, my committee of one worked hard to develop an idea that has literally had no audience until now.

Watching and wondering in awe and horror, I have come to the conclusion that America’s high schools have fallen victim to good intentions, the sort that are known to pave the road to hell. It is a sad observation to make, because the enemy in the battle to reinvent our schools is no less than those who truly want to be our best friends in the process: our public schools’ teachers and administrators.

How can this be? A pondered thought reveals the obvious: revolutions are not the work and accomplishment of happy people. Indeed, anger and hostility of an abiding sort are the seed stock of upside-down change. No one becomes a high school teacher or administrator except those who at least found their own experience as a student at that level to be tolerable.

It is not a stretch to state confidently that most high school teachers and administrators actually loved their years as high school students, and that their career choice was born out of a desire to keep the love alive by sharing it with successive generations of students. The accomplishment fostered by this reality is a deeply entrenched status quo; nothing changes in an environment in which happiness for the past defines the present.

I hated high school.

Steven A. Sylwester
June 8, 2005

* * *

It is now six years later as I write this. In ten days, I will celebrate my 57th birthday, and yet I choose to use the above as my Prologue for what follows below. Many will think that wisdom has not been the blessing of my life, because they will wrongly judge that my Prologue tease should be describing niceties, not wrath. But wrath is what belongs here. American public schools are in a terrible mess right now, and certainly nothing about that has improved in the last six years; if anything, the mess has worsened.

I do not consider myself to be a savior, but I am a voice that deserves to be heard. Why? Because I speak the contrary truth — the inconvenient truth. I care out of personal pain and suffering, not out of happy satisfaction. Consequently, many would think me to be the very last person to ever design a school.

My first attempt at designing a school was School U.S.A. (SUSA) in 2005. In the six years since completing that first design, I have designed two other schools: NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences (NAPS) and Edison High School, Eugene, Oregon. Each of the three schools is different, but they all focus on serving the needs of the exceptionally bright student in a public school setting. Though NAPS is specifically a national public high school, it is limited to locations where it can be hosted by a public research university. SUSA is different in that its model could be implemented at any and every public high school in America.

Please read my entire School U.S.A. proposal blog, and then share it with others. Mine is not the last word, but some of what I have written might serve to be the first word in provoking some much needed changes in U.S. public education at the high school level.

Steven A. Sylwester
June 2, 2011

Dedication to Those Who Have Inspired Me


School U.S.A. (SUSA): Introduction

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
-- excerpt from The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

School U.S.A. (SUSA) is a small school with a big purpose: to foster and nurture The American Dream. The school recognizes “that all [people] are created equal … with certain unalienable Rights,” including the right to an education that will best prepare a determined and hard-working student to become a fulfilled and successful citizen who actively and effectively participates in our nation’s political and economic opportunities. All prospective students are welcome to enroll in SUSA, and every effort will be made to encourage and sustain their success.

SUSA is about equal opportunity. The school recognizes that some will enter the curriculum with lesser skills, but the school will only recognize these hardships as temporary inconveniences for all concerned. If there is a will, there will be a way.

SUSA believes that the great equalizers are personal initiative and the ability of the human brain to become educated. The United States of America is a land of opportunity for all—and so too is SUSA.

SUSA Basics & Curriculum

SUSA will redefine rigor. Its simplicity is breathtaking. So too are its expectations.

GOAL: All SUSA students will enter college or university with at least sophomore status by successfully passing at least five Advanced Placement (AP) tests during high school.

ENTRY TEST: All prospective students who choose to enroll in SUSA will be required to take the school’s Proficiency Standards Test (PST) prior to enrollment. The test will be offered during the last two months of the incoming students’ 8th grade year. Basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics will be tested, and a passing grade is required to enter the regular SUSA curriculum at the beginning of the 9th grade year. If a student’s basic skills are not sufficient enough to pass the PST, that student will be enrolled in SUSA’s First Things First (FTF) program at the beginning of the 9th grade year.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: In an effort to give every student an equal opportunity to meet the school’s expectations, SUSA requires an intensive basic skills education for all students who need it. Every nine weeks, all students in the FTF program will be given the opportunity to take the school’s PST to determine their progress in achieving the necessary basic skills. When a student finally passes the test, that student will immediately enter the regular SUSA curriculum.

Required Courses (5-period day):
1st Quarter......2nd Quarter......3rd Quarter......4th Quarter

9th grade:
Economics.......Economics..........Civics..........Political Systems
Basic Skills......Basic Skills.........English...........English
Health......Physical Education....Music.............Art

10th grade:
* * * * * * Advanced Placement Chemistry * * * * * *
Geography...History: Empires....English..........English
Foreign Language (UO or LCC summer school if possible)

11th grade:
* * * * * * * Advanced Placement Biology * * * * * * *
* * * * Advanced Placement English Language * * * *
* * * * * * Advanced Placement U.S. History * * * * * *

12th grade:
* * * * * * Advanced Placement Economics * * * * * *

SUSA’s expectations for its 12th graders are these: if possible, the required course designated “Math” will be AP Calculus; and at least one other AP course (either AP Physics or AP English Literature) will be taken. That means at least two (but preferably three) AP courses will be taken during the 12th grade year.

Any language-immersion school students enrolling in SUSA will be encouraged to continue their foreign language instruction by finishing at least the 2nd year level of college/university language courses at either the University of Oregon or Lane Community College.

SUSA Philosophy

Two elements are defining of the United States of America: political dissent and free enterprise. Democracy and entrepreneurial innovation are absolutely dependent on the continued vigor of these elements in our society. Consequently, the essential purposes of SUSA are being accomplished when the critical thinking that leads to political dissent and free enterprise is being allowed and taught.

POLITICAL DISSENT: No matter how rigorous its curriculum, SUSA cannot possibly fulfill its purposes if it limits itself to formal classroom instruction, for its true goals encompass preparing and empowering the potential of each individual student in addition to guiding and aiding academic achievement. The American Dream is not so much about getting an “A” grade in calculus as it is in finding:
- the courage of one’s own convictions,
- the perseverance to endure prejudice and hardship,
- the resolve to engage in intelligent risk-taking,
- the value of personal reputation,
- and the ability to both give and receive blessings with gratitude and grace.
In general and in total, these great lessons are learned in living life, and not through classroom lectures. Therefore, SUSA will endeavor to let life be lived under its watchful and encouraging eye, so that its graduates will not only become strong academically, but will also become strong both personally and ethically.

FREE ENTERPRISE: How the stock market works and simple investment strategies will be taught as part of the 9th grade economics class. Small 10-person teams will be formed during that class to engage in an ongoing mock stock market investing competition that will continue throughout the four years of high school as a highly prized SUSA activity.

SUSA Special Requirements

Formal tests and their resulting grades and official transcripts are sometimes antithetical to true learning because they measure what someone else wanted the student to learn rather than the student’s own mastery of his/her own thoughts, feelings, and passions. To be successful in its purposes, SUSA must give permission to its students to stand up and be counted not just in the comfort of the status quo and its majorities, but also when strength of character is required in the solitary effort of contrary self-expression.

TUESDAY LUNCH FORUMS: SUSA students—on a rotating basis—will be expected to organize and lead a forum discussion during lunch every Tuesday on the general theme, “American Ideals versus Harsh Realities: A Solution.” Being an active participant in at least one forum will be required for graduation. No grade will be given.

PUBLIC PERFORMANCE: SUSA will require each of its students to participate in a public performance at least once before graduating from high school. This requirement can be fulfilled by having a letter to the editor published in any public periodical, by being published as a writer or artist in any public periodical, by giving a public solo music recital, by being a singer or musician in a group that gives a public concert, by having artwork displayed in a public exhibit, by giving a poetry reading at an open mike in a public space, by participating in a speech contest, by being a member of the cast or crew of a publicly performed play or stage production of any kind, by having a science experiment displayed publicly as an entry in a science competition, and/or by being a member of an interscholastic competing team of any sort. No grade will be given.

THE SUSA PUBLIC FORUM: The SUSA faculty will organize and host a public forum once every term on the theme, “Religion, Tolerance, & The Constitution.” The forum will invite community leaders of all sorts as participants. SUSA students will be encouraged to attend all four of these forums every year, but will be required to attend only one every year for graduation. No grade will be given.

GAMES PLAYING: All SUSA students will be required to regularly participate in organized games playing opportunities to learn intelligent risk-taking skills. The games will be simulations, board games, and card games of all sorts, and will occasionally include betting, though no real money will ever be used. No grade will be given.

First Things First (FTF)

FIRST THINGS FIRST (FTF): The SUSA FTF program will be intensive and demanding in the extreme, but it will be so in the context of a friendly and supportive environment that will exist with a bare minimum of school site distractions and with literally no homework obligations.

In a very real way, FTF can be compared to a 7.5 hours per day job that includes a half hour lunch break. Throughout the seven hours of instruction time each day, FTF students will be segregated by gender in different classrooms. Also, they will be required to dress according to a simple dress code, and will submit to a no-nonsense behavior standard that will optimize the learning opportunity for all students. Classroom disruptions will not be tolerated, and expulsion from SUSA will be used as a quick remedy if necessary.

Students must remember that SUSA enrollment is a privilege that comes with certain obligations. The school will serve its students individually and collectively at all times, but that commitment can be made and kept only if SUSA students are likewise committed to the learning process.