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.

FTF Curriculum

The FTF curriculum will exist in a 10-period day schedule. As shown above, the regular SUSA curriculum exists in a 5-period day schedule. The start-to-finish school day is the same in both cases.

The FTF program will use a small learning group model that will provide regular one-on-one student/teacher interaction for all students. With the exception of the science and physical education classes, all FTF classes will be taught in the same classroom.

Period: Duration: Learning Activity

01.... 40 minutes: Reading: use Read Right program or hybrid
02.... 40 minutes: Story: film-based teaching of literary analysis

>> 5-minute break

03.... 40 minutes: Writing: grammar, sentence structure, composition
04.... 40 minutes: History: film-based teaching of historical analysis

>> 5-minute break

05.... 40 minutes: Mathematics: basic skills as needed

>> Lunch: 30 minutes

06.... 40 minutes: Science: the scientific method of investigation / lab skills

>> 5-minute break

07.... 40 minutes: Physical Education: coordination exercises / play games

>> 5-minute break

08.... 40 minutes: Reading: use Read Right program or hybrid
09.... 40 minutes: Writing: grammar, sentence structure, composition
10.... 40 minutes: Mathematics: basic skills as needed

Again, no homework will ever be required of FTF students. Also, the curriculum will not include projects of any sort. The sole purpose of the curriculum is to as quickly as possible give its students the necessary reading, writing, and mathematics skills to pass the PST while at the same time developing basic critical thinking skills in literary, historical, and scientific analysis.

FTF "No Required Homework" Policy

WHY THERE IS NO REQUIRED FTF HOMEWORK: If a student entering the 9th grade does not possess the basic skills that are necessary to pass the SUSA PST, then the harsh plain truth is either 1) that student is incapable of learning due to true physical defects that manifest in insurmountable learning disabilities or 2) that student is the victim of a home and school environment that has not been conducive to academic learning according to that student’s needs.

In the case of 1), all one-on-one teaching strategies must be accomplished in utter failure before any student can be dismissed as incapable of learning. The author of this statement has witnessed firsthand through the experience of being a Read Right tutor that many (perhaps most) near functionally illiterate high school students can in a matter of months learn to read at their enrolled grade level. The ability to read literately requires the ability to think critically, and achieving basic reading skills does not immediately translate to any mastery of critical thinking skills at all. However, going from near functional illiteracy to a competent enrolled grade level reading ability is a life-changing accomplishment that is achievable by more students than some would think. SUSA is willing to make the commitment to find out, and so welcomes all prospective students to its school.

In the case of 2), mastery of the basic skills that are necessary to pass the SUSA PST must be accomplished in a tightly-controlled learning environment that will not fail to fully support a student’s best efforts. FTF students are students who are familiar with academic failure and its attendant ridicules. They are extremely vulnerable to the consequences of further academic failures, and desperately need to achieve confidence and healthy self-worth as a necessary first step toward entering the regular SUSA curriculum—hence, First Things First.

And so the question of whether FTF students should have required homework is answered simply by stating: Required homework is not necessary. What is necessary is that FTF students learn, that they learn to “learn,” and that they learn to enjoy learning— and that they do so with growing confidence and self-worth that does not ever get nipped in the bud. In a real sense, FTF students cannot yet risk the downside of required homework—at least, not until their confidence is known by teachers to be intact and strong enough to weather the self-criticism that comes as a consequence of teacher-graded efforts.

Of course, a student’s interest in learning will never be discouraged or slowed down by the FTF program. Always, students—both as a whole and individually—will know what positive encouragement feels like. FTF students will be encouraged to continue their learning at home, but they will not be required to do so—and there is a big difference between those two realities.

FTF Film-Based Teaching

FILM-BASED TEACHING: The need to establish and develop critical thinking skills among all SUSA students is so important that it must not be delayed in the FTF program due to poor reading skills. There is simply no reason at all that critical thinking skills must be accomplished through reading. One need only consider that William Shakespeare’s plays were written in a time when the audiences for the productions of those plays were largely comprised of illiterate people. Nevertheless, Shakespeare succeeded as a playwright. The lesson in this should ring loud and clear: achieving literacy of the written word is not a prerequisite for achieving literacy of a clear thought that is well-stated in an understood medium. Written words do not define a story any better than well-spoken words; indeed, experiencing a professional production of a Shakespeare play will better communicate the thoughtful contents of that play than any slavish read-through in a high school class can ever hope to accomplish. It is plain lunacy and the worst kind of destructive elitism to insist on reading-based learning of critical thinking skills in our present technological age. Readily available DVDs of great plays and great films along with PBS programs of all sorts from Masterpiece Theater to Nova, and also Discovery Channel programs, History Channel programs, and the whole range of independently-produced documentaries make ‘film-based teaching’ an excellent strategy for any school that truly cares about teaching all of its students, including those students whose reading skills are lacking. SUSA cares about teaching all of its students.

FTF Correcting Past Mistakes

CORRECTING PAST MISTAKES: As a society, Americans have established a public education system that endeavors to give all of its young citizens a fair shake at becoming successful as adults. Unfortunately, in many sad and regrettable ways, America’s public schools have grown tired of themselves. Plainly, in some cases, they have simply given up. Lack of money and lack of will have combined to create enormous cracks that too many students easily fall through. Consequently, the hope for productive lives is replaced with the reality of wasted and burdensome lives, and the joy of America becomes its despair.

The question must be asked: Why are students who have not achieved grade-level skills passed when they should be rightly failed? This is a moral question, not a practical consideration. Why are we not behaving ‘rightly’ with the lives of children when it is our solemn duty to do so? The only possible answer is that we simply do not care enough to do the right thing, especially when the wrong thing is such an easy alternative. And so how do we then live with our mistakes? What happens when a near functionally illiterate 9th grader finally learns skills in several months that should have been rightly mastered over the preceding eight years of classroom instruction? How then are the past mistakes of the public education system corrected?

The SUSA FTF program is a beginning solution, and it is wholly a practical solution. The moral component necessary to correct past mistakes is something else entirely, but SUSA is courageous enough to address the moral issue, too. Doing ‘the right thing’ to fulfill its promise to meet and serve the needs of its students is no small thing, yet SUSA goes there anyway and calls upon Eugene School District 4J (E-4J) to share the commitment.

Doing ‘the right thing’ is this: SUSA will commit to allowing a student to be enrolled in its FTF program for fully two school years if E-4J commits to allowing both a fully one year or more FTF student and a fully two year FTF student the option to continue his/her free public high school education for one additional school year beyond the normal allotment, meaning graduation from SUSA would be accomplished after five school years for those students. It is not asking too much if this is done; indeed, it is meeting the moral imperative with a resounding, “Yes, we will do the right thing!” The justification is simple: any student who receives an option to continue SUSA enrollment for a fifth year is a student who should have been rightly failed and made to repeat at least one year of schooling prior to entering high school, but was not.

Though many students will remain in the FTF program for exactly one school year or exactly two school years, it is not the SUSA intent to be so neat and tidy as that. Whatever the case turns out to be, any student entering the regular SUSA curriculum will enter the 9th grade Required Courses (5-period day) schedule described above.

SUSA Chemistry and Economics

CHEMISTRY AND ECONOMICS: AN EXPLANATION: SUSA holds that chemistry is the foundational science on which all laboratory life sciences are built. Therefore, a student is better able to learn and understand biology if the student first learns and understands chemistry—and the same holds for physics to the extent that physics is a life science.

Additionally, SUSA recognizes that there is surpassing value in establishing baseline equity among all of its students by beginning the school’s science instruction with a discipline that is not taught in E-4J middle schools. No student will be advantaged in the least with a working knowledge of the subject matter gained through prior formal instruction. Learning chemistry is the equivalent of learning a foreign language. Furthermore, in terms of ‘Science’, it is basic in all respects. Therefore, SUSA holds not only that chemistry can be learned by all of its students, but also that a working knowledge of chemistry serves as the ABCs for further science instruction.

Economics. At its simplest, Life is about three things: God, Sex, and Money. It is shocking to observe that public education in the United States teaches nothing about God, nearly nothing about Sex, and nothing about Money to the average student at anytime—and by “nothing” I mean NOTHING, and by “anytime” I mean throughout a normal high school education. It is very possible to become highly educated in America today with a graduate degree in a professional discipline and still not have a clue how Money works. In a nation whose very identity is tied to a free enterprise economy, a working knowledge of Money should be an entitlement that is granted to everyone. That it is not is more than an utter failure of the public education system, it is downright criminal.

Nothing maintains the status quo between the rich and the poor in our society as much as the total ignorance of Money among the poor does. How to make and keep a fortune should not be solely a game played among the already wealthy with rules that are secretly passed on from generation to generation within families. President George W. Bush wants Americans to manage their own Social Security money. From the perspective of his growing up in his family and among his family’s friends, that is a reasonable alternative because all of the people in that social strata know how Money works. However, take one small step out of the upper class into the realm of the middle class and you will encounter profound ignorance regarding Money. It should not be this way.

SUSA focuses on economics because it must do so to make The American Dream truly possible for all of its students. The focus will not be limited to classic academic economics, but will also strive to include practical knowledge about individual investing and the basics of starting and managing a business. Certainly, the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What The Rich Teach Their Kids About Money—That The Poor And Middle Class Do Not!” by Robert T. Kiyosaki with Sharon L. Lecher C.P.A. and other books like it will be part of the curriculum. SUSA will succeed in its purposes if its graduates know the first steps to becoming entrepreneurs—and that is the measure of things.

Final Thoughts Addendum

One of NEHS’s best students from recent years who now is enrolled in the Honors College at the University of Oregon suggested including the following additional Advanced Placement courses in the SUSA curriculum as options: Statistics, Calculus, Physics, Psychology, European History, and assorted foreign languages.

Of course, whatever is possible should be done, but the focus of the school should not be lost in an attempt to please all comers.

June 8, 2005, letter

June 8, 2005

To Whom It May Concern,

Why bother? The deed is already done. My proposal for a small school at North Eugene High School (NEHS) was dismissed because some wrongly imagined that I had ulterior motives. Unfortunately, my detractors won their foray, or so it seems. According to the newspaper, the game is over; the irrevocable has been decided upon. So ‘good riddance’ should be my happy ending, but it is not. Though NEHS will surely ignore my work, perhaps others one day will find it helpful.

Regarding the irrevocable, I call, “Foul!” The Big Picture School with enrollment capped at 100 is nothing more than a naked grab at Eugene’s home-schooling population. If it is truly something more than that, then it is irresponsible in the extreme.

If home schooling is done well under the supervision of very committed and intelligent parents, it can be an effective means of educating a child. However, if the parental supervision and commitment is not there and/or the parents lack the intelligence and knowledge base to competently teach a subject, home schooling can be a disaster. I have seen it firsthand both ways as a close outside observer. The successes were wonderful. The failures were nothing but sad.

My understanding of the ground rules for the design of NEHS’s small schools was that each school was required to have a true cross section of the student body present in its enrollment, including problem students and those designated as ‘special education’ students. I cannot believe that the Big Picture School will include the full range of students as required. How then has it passed muster? It is nothing more than a ‘special case’ school for ‘special case’ students: i.e. those who successfully home school.

I will state in its defense that the Big Picture School is a clever way to gain more tax dollars for NEHS in a way that will likely prove successful in upping the overall performance of NEHS by standard measures, especially if I am correct that the narrow intent of the school is to serve the existing home-schooling community without actively adding to their numbers. But I question whether cleverness alone is enough to make the Big Picture School something more than disingenuous as a Gates Foundation small school. Perhaps I am seeing darkness where there is nothing but light. I hope so.

Regarding the irrevocable, I am outraged by one simple word used deliberately (?) by Register-Guard reporter Anne Williams in her June 2, 2005, article “North Eugene small schools taking shape” in which she describes the School of the Arts at North Eugene (SANE) curriculum thusly: “Will focus on visual arts, writing, performing arts, humanities, math or science, and internships and projects.” Or!! Did I correctly read: math OR science? Of course, it SHOULD read AND, i.e. math and science. But I wonder if what should be the case is in truth not the case—that “or” is in fact the correct and intended word.

I am no fool born yesterday regarding the fine arts. All of the true career ambitions I have ever had in my life were related to the arts. First, I wanted to be an architect. Then, my interests changed to theater and film as an actor, director, and set designer. After that, I wanted to be a studio artist, meaning painter and sculptor. And finally, even now, I want to be a writer. I married a truly great visual artist who has had drawings and cartoons published in national magazines and who has been exhibited in one-person shows, group shows, and traveling shows by museums and galleries. Both of my children have the artist in them, one as a writer and one as a visual artist. I sing in one of the finest choirs in the Northwest. I was a child actor with lead roles in operettas, and I spent one summer of my life in a summer stock theater company that included university undergraduates and graduates, and assorted theater professionals in the casts and crews. After the summer stock experience, I was actively involved in independent theater productions for a while. And, for a brief while, I once had an art gallery. And, finally, I own a blues/rock/folk/jazz/classical record album collection that numbers in the thousands!

The Arts are the best! There is nothing grander than the Theater! To sing is to experience the Sublime! As Bob Dylan wrote, “Beauty walks a razor’s edge—someday I’ll make it mine.” God help the artists, for there is no greater blessing and no greater curse than to be an artist. It is more than a way of thinking and more than a way of feeling; being an artist is a way of life, a way of being. It is a totality that is inescapable, and it is at once both glorious and ruinous. Do not wish it on people, and do not make it easy. The true artists will find their way to it because it is who they are; they cannot be otherwise. Everyone else should learn appreciation for the Arts and perhaps become skilled in a craft or two, but do not lead people on to any pretensions. Even some of the greatest artists in world history could not pay their bills through sales of their artwork.

It is wrong to deny an average high school student a proper education so he/she can overly focus on visual arts, creative writing, and/or performing arts. I use the word “average” deliberately. The occasional (read: rare) genius simply must go and meet his/her destiny, but those people are not “average.” Mere mortals must live mundane lives working mundane jobs to get by—and a whole lot of artists must do the same, too. In the proposed SANE school, please be sane about this. Simply tell the truth, and start by informing all SANE students that a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Oregon is a five-year program totaling 220 credits, including satisfaction of general university requirements for the Bachelor of Arts or the Bachelor of Science degree—and that means academic achievement is required, not just studio achievement.

The very scary thing about SANE for me is that I probably would have enrolled my daughter Liesel in that school, and to do so would have been a huge mistake. E-4J middle schools do not clearly uncover a student’s potentials and interests, and I am an attentive parent stating this. My wife and I knew that Liesel was extraordinarily gifted as a visual artist, but we were absolutely clueless about her keen interest and best-in-class abilities in the sciences. Liesel did not even know this interest and ability in the sciences about herself until she enrolled in Chemistry as a high school freshman. It was a love-at-first-sight experience, and it has not diminished. In fact, if anything, the experience has made Liesel seriously question who she is because her being is very much the artist and very much the scientist—and how those two will become one in her life is not at all clear to her at this time. Liesel excels in both the visual arts (she is one of three Register-Guard 20-Below staff artists) and the sciences (she finished the AP Chemistry school year with the highest grade in the class, and she is only a sophomore). So which of NEHS’s four small schools would we enroll Liesel in now? Certainly not SANE.

I created School U.S.A. (SUSA) for students like Liesel and my older daughter Eva, and their contemporaries Katie Walro, Javier Hernandez, and Monica Joseph. These five students (and others like them) are very smart, and none of the four small schools NEHS has chosen truly meet the needs and abilities these students possess. The Walros did not choose International High School for Katie even when doing so would have been immensely more convenient. Likewise, we did not choose International High School for our daughters. Instead, the Walros and we specifically chose NEHS because of its emphasis on Advanced Placement classes for its best students. I cannot speak for the Walros, but I know we have never regretted our decision to enroll our daughters at NEHS even though South Eugene High School is within easy walking distance of our home.

The following seven-page description of SUSA is entirely my own. Eva read it and suggested that more Advanced Placement classes should be offered as options, but otherwise the ideas and descriptions are mine. I have tried to create an inclusive school, and I think I have succeeded in that effort. Of course, extraordinarily smart students should never be dumbed down or even slowed down, so the challenge is to somehow open the ground floor doors to let others in. SUSA accomplishes this feat in what I consider to be a reasonable fashion. If a student—any student—wants in, that student is welcomed. What is more, that student is sincerely helped as needed to get up to speed so academic success in the SUSA program is not a wishful thought but an attainable goal.

SUSA clearly fulfills the requirements set forth by the Gates Foundation. If NEHS does not institute SUSA, some other high school somewhere else will. My prediction is that SUSA would draw heavily from all over the Eugene-Springfield community if any local high school gave it a home. Not everyone is enamored with International High School, and even some who have chosen it have chosen it because they do not see a better alternative available. I think many would clearly recognize SUSA as the superior choice for our community’s best students, and that parents would drive across the city if necessary to allow their children to attend the school.

Smart children are children at risk. SUSA cares for smart children. E-4J should, too.

Finally, SUSA is not project-based, not at all. SUSA is a school that will attempt to find and unlock the genius in its students. It will strive to birth intellectual creativity in its students’ minds, and to do so in a way that gives courage to individual self-expression. SUSA recognizes that high school is a preparation for higher education, and that the knowledge base to be mastered in high school to aid success at the next level is significant enough that straightforward classic general classes are more appropriate and beneficial than anything else could be.

SUSA is not for everyone. But for those who would choose SUSA, no other school would even come close as a second choice.


Steven A. Sylwester

Regarding F.W.J. Sylwester

My grandfather, F.W.J. Sylwester, founded what is now known as Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, in 1905. FWJ was born in 1881 as his father’s eighth child and his mother’s fourth. He was a Minnesota farm boy who eventually had fourteen siblings. Only FWJ and his brother August were able to attend and graduate from college, because the family could not afford that privilege for any of the others.

In 1852, FWJ’s then 14-year-old father immigrated to the United States from northern Germany with FWJ’s grandfather, a then 50-year-old peasant farmer. FWJ’s grandmother had died in Germany. FWJ’s father and grandfather settled in Wisconsin to live and farm with husband-and-wife acquaintances from Germany. When the “husband” died five years later, FWJ’s grandfather married the “wife.”

On February 3, 1864, FWJ’s father married his stepsister. The two then traveled by covered wagon a year later to homestead some farmland in Minnesota, where their first home was an old building that had an inside ladder to a loft, and one small window downstairs and another one upstairs for light. That homestead became the Sylwester farm, and remained in the family for 91 years until October 4, 1956.

On August 11, 1872, FWJ’s father’s first wife died, leaving him with four children. Six months later, FWJ’s father married FWJ’s mother, who was his stepmother’s younger sister.

FWJ’s father had little formal schooling, but he wanted his children to become educated. He read his weekly German newspaper and his German Bible. Though FWJ originally had other career aspirations, his father would agree to fund his education only if FWJ would agree to enroll in a Lutheran seminary to study for the ministry. So FWJ attended Concordia College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Concordia College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before attending Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

Instead of becoming a pastor, FWJ became an academic. After teaching at Concordia College in St. Paul, Minnesota, from 1903 to 1904, The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (now known as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) asked him to go west and establish a Christian college. In 1905, FWJ founded Concordia College in Portland, Oregon. Until 1911, he was the college’s only teacher. The first class of 17 boys was taught in a borrowed classroom in the basement of Trinity Lutheran Church. Concordia’s first building was erected in 1907.

In 1906, FWJ married his first wife, who was a neighbor of his relatives in Wisconsin. She died on December 24, 1918, of influenza while her four surviving children gathered to sing Christmas carols for her. Eighteen months later on July 1, 1920, FWJ married his second wife (my grandmother). She was from Gaylord, Minnesota, the nearest town to the Sylwester farm where FWJ was born and raised. Together, FWJ and his second wife had seven children, six of whom survived childhood. So FWJ fathered ten children who survived childhood, nine boys and one girl, including my father.

Regarding Tia Holliday

One cannot rightly design a school without first imagining who might teach there. Always, my imagination builds on a foundation of great teachers, because one must hope for what is possible.

By my own measure, I know there are great teachers in our world. I know this because my own life was blessed by Tia Holliday, who was a great teacher for my two daughters during their time in high school.

In 2007, I nominated Tia Holliday for a national teaching award. The following is my letter of nomination.

Steven A. Sylwester

* * *

March 23, 2007

Cheryl Kleckner
PAEMST Science Coordinator
State Dept. of Education
255 Capitol St. N.E.
Salem, OR 97310

Dear Cheryl Kleckner,

King Solomon wrote in his proverbs: “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act.” (Proverbs 3:27 NIV) That ancient wisdom still applies today, and I write this letter from its wellspring.

It is with great pleasure that I hereby nominate Tia Holliday, the chemistry teacher extraordinaire at North Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon, to be a candidate for the 2007 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

I have known Tia Holliday since September 2000 when my oldest daughter Eva first became a student in one of her chemistry classes. In the final tally, Holliday was Eva’s chemistry teacher for two years, and then was my youngest daughter Liesel’s chemistry teacher for three years. From the beginning and throughout her entire tutelage of my two daughters, Tia Holliday exemplified the very best qualities of the teaching profession, and it is a wonderful privilege for me now to publicly honor her and to speak well of her devotion to her students.

I come from a family of classroom teachers going back two generations. My paternal grandfather was a Minnesota farm boy who became a teacher and founded a school in Portland, Oregon, in 1905 that grew and grew into what is now Concordia University. My father is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon who started his career as an elementary school teacher. Throughout my growing up, it was instilled in me that good teachers are people who deserve the highest esteem, and rightly so.

To be a “good teacher” requires something special—something truly extraordinary. That “something” is not the stuff of a job, but is the substance of a calling. “Good teachers” are “called” to the profession, and so give a measure of devotion to their students and to their craft that is uncommon in the working world—and that devotion alone is deserving of praise and the utmost respect.

Unfortunately, not all teachers are good teachers. Some are incompetent. Some are merely competent and able, but are lacking the devotion that defines good teachers. Good teachers are a treasure.

Someone once said of my paternal grandfather that he gave without measure. That is perhaps the highest compliment a teacher can be given because it makes known the teacher’s genuine love both for the students and for the subject matter being taught. Tia Holliday is a teacher who gives without measure.

But Tia Holliday has another quality that excels all “good teacher” distinctions—and words really do fail to give an adequate description. At some level, even the “good teachers” are people who have a personal life, too. Tia Holliday has a family; she has her own children—children who call her Mom, not Teacher. Even demanding parents like I have been at times during my daughters’ schooling must acknowledge a point where compromise is not only reasonable, it is to be expected. I have “compromised” my expectations of teachers many times over the years, and I have even given up in despair on rare occasions. But, in the case of Tia Holliday, I have never “compromised” myself at all because I have never had to; she has always surpassed my expectations!

Tia Holliday is more than a “good teacher.” Tia Holliday is a great teacher!

North Eugene High School is a school with more than its fair share of average students, but it does have high-achieving students, too. Both of my daughters are brilliant students. Eva will graduate with honors from the University of Oregon’s Clark Honors College this spring at age 20, having completed a double major in Psychology and Religious Studies. Eva is a University of Oregon Presidential Scholar and a Robert Byrd Honors Scholar. Liesel is a 2007 National Merit Finalist who will graduate from North Eugene High School this spring with an accumulated GPA greater than 4.00.

Many teachers are seriously challenged by the presence of brilliant students in their classrooms. Too often, they unmercifully drag the brilliant students down to the common level where they burden them with boredom in the classroom and the added insult of unnecessary busywork that they masquerade as homework. I have witnessed firsthand the tears and anger and rage that sometimes results when brilliant students encounter the stupefying unfairness of an uninspired (and therefore uninspiring) teacher.

Neither one of my daughters ever complained about Tia Holliday as a person or as a teacher. Furthermore, neither one of my daughters ever complained about the chemistry curriculum taught by Tia Holliday or any of her homework assignments. Additionally, Tia Holliday’s tests were always deemed fair. If these points were all there was, they alone would be uncommon enough to be remarkably significant and noteworthy. Both of my daughters cared about their high school education, and both were vocally critical about the shortcomings. When things were not good, I certainly knew about it.

Regarding Tia Holliday, I only ever heard words of praise and various descriptions of joy. Both Eva and Liesel thoroughly enjoyed all of their time in Tia Holliday’s classroom—and not because it was easy, but because they actually learned something in a challenging and enriching environment from a teacher who pushed them hard and yet somehow made chemistry fun. And not just fun, but sometimes exhilaratingly fun! Without question, Tia Holliday inspired both of my daughters and gave them an understanding of science that was defining and essential in changing each of their lives in different ways.

Eva has become an excellent science writer. She was the Science, Technology & Business beat writer for the Oregon Daily Emerald newspaper for one year; was a summer intern science writer for UPI in Washington, DC; and was a summer intern science writer at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. (Examples of Eva’s writing can be found by Googling “Eva Sylwester” and “Eva A. Sylwester”)

Liesel’s story is still unfolding, and is worth telling:

My wife and I have always known that Liesel is an incredibly gifted visual artist. Growing up, her curiosity always seemed to manifest in art projects of one sort or another, so we never made the science connection in her case, even though she watched a lot of Discovery Channel TV from early childhood on. If the opportunity had been there, we most definitely would have placed Liesel in an arts academy high school—and it would have been the mistake of our lives if we had done so.

Liesel came home from her very first days of high school complaining bitterly about her Biology class; it was boring, and she hated it! I immediately contacted Tia Holliday to find out if Liesel would be accepted into a Chemistry class as a new freshman. Tia Holliday had previously taught Eva for two years, and so confidently welcomed Liesel into a Chemistry class, even though Liesel was the only freshman in the class. Quite literally, it was love at first sight; Liesel’s life changed the day she first walked into a Chemistry classroom.

Simply, Liesel quickly became the best student in the Chemistry class. Because North Eugene High School has a five-period day, an entire year of instruction (except in the case of Advanced Placement classes) is completed in half a school year. During the second half of Liesel’s freshman year, she took Physics, and was again the best student in the class. (For reference: Eva took Chemistry as a high school sophomore and A.P. Chemistry as a high school senior, and never took Physics in high school.)

As a sophomore, Liesel took A.P. Chemistry, and was the best student in the class. There was one other sophomore student in the class, and the rest were juniors and seniors. Liesel scored a “5” on the national Advanced Placement Chemistry test at the end of her sophomore year, which is the highest score possible. At that point, Tia Holliday could have said that her work with Liesel was finished because there were no more Chemistry course offerings available at the high school. But at that point Tia Holliday instead did something heroic and remarkable, she created an Organic Chemistry class.

As a junior, Liesel took Organic Chemistry during the first half of the school year, and was again the best student of the very few students in the class. As Winter Term at the University of Oregon approached, I contacted Professor Greg Williams to find out if he would accept Liesel into the Advanced General Chemistry Lab class he taught there. The class is a Fall/Winter/Spring 3-term sequence class, so Professor Williams was extremely reluctant to allow Liesel—a high school junior—to enter the sequence at Winter Term. When Eva found out what I was doing, she went berserk! Eva had dropped out of the Advanced General Chemistry Lab sequence after taking Fall Term a couple of years earlier, and stated emphatically that the course was notoriously difficult, even for the very best chemistry students at the university. Well, I persisted and Professor Williams was finally persuaded to talk with Tia Holliday regarding Liesel—and Professor Williams then let Liesel enter the Advanced General Chemistry Lab sequence at Winter Term. And Liesel excelled. She received an “A-“ grade Winter Term and an “A” grade Spring Term, and Professor Williams described that Liesel was one of the top two or three students in the class by the end of Spring Term. Amazing!

Also as a junior, Liesel took A.P. Biology, and was the best student in the class. At the end of her junior year, she scored a “5” on the national Advanced Placement Biology test.

As a senior, Liesel is taking College Now Physics, which is a college 200-level Physics class. Also, she is taking A.P. Calculus. And she is at the top of the class in both classes.

In my opinion, we owe Liesel’s success in science and math to Tia Holliday. Without Tia Holliday’s inspiration and her willingness to do everything possible and then some, Liesel would not be where she is now. It is as simple as that.

Liesel’s life has changed. Her plans now are to earn both a Bachelor of Science with honors degree in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting, a combined undergraduate course of study that will take her five years to complete. And she is determined to find a career path that will use both her science skills and her art skills.

It is important to note that Liesel has regularly taken art classes at both Lane Community College and the University of Oregon since the summer after her freshman year in high school. During the summer between her sophomore and junior years in high school, her art professor at the University of Oregon recommended to her that she get out of high school as soon as possible to allow her to gain early admission to one of the best art schools in the United States. The art professor recommended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and was fully confident that Liesel would be admitted. A gallery of Liesel’s artwork can be seen at

During Spring Term last year, Professor Greg Williams advised me that Liesel should attend Harvard or Stanford as a chemistry student, and described that Liesel was in the top one percent of all the students he had ever taught in more than 20 years as a university chemistry professor, including the years he taught at Princeton while earning his doctorate. Remarkably, neither my wife nor I have ever taken a chemistry class, so our contribution to Liesel’s success in chemistry is zero on an academic level. We encouraged her, but we could not offer her any help whatsoever beyond encouragement.

Quite likely, Liesel’s abilities in the sciences and the visual arts indicate a special genius. However, it is a mistaken judgment to think that “genius” is her own teacher, and that somehow “genius” survives and thrives no matter what. “Genius” is no doubt a “born-with” quality fueled by destiny, but that particular quality can only ever be seen after the fact in long retrospect. And, sadly, that quality can only be seen among the survivors. What is certain is this: much—way too much—“genius” simply withers and dies without ever producing anything at all. The “genius” was there, but nobody saw it. Worse, nobody—not even the teachers—sparked the inspiration that gives “genius” life, and so nobody—not even the teachers— nurtured the “genius” and developed it, and thereby gave it confidence and self-knowledge and, most of all, self-worth.

“Genius” is not easy. In fact, it is scary and lonely at the top, and very socially isolating.

Liesel’s mother is an artist, and has cared for and nurtured the artist in Liesel since even before giving her birth. But no one could do the same for the scientist in Liesel. That is until Liesel first walked into Tia Holliday’s chemistry classroom as a new freshman.

God bless Tia Holliday! Really, I do not know if Tia Holliday is a religious person, but I do know that her contribution to Liesel’s life has been divine. It is not enough to say, “thank you.” My gratitude is so deep and so heartfelt that I must say this: Tia Holliday has been a blessing in Liesel’s life—an evidence of God’s presence!

I am reminded of the Bible story in which Jesus healed ten lepers and only one came back to thank him (Luke 17:11-19). In a real sense, teachers are healers; they heal ignorance and prejudice and stupidity by teaching their students how to observe and analyze the world with keen critical thinking and communication skills. And teachers do their work with little thanks at all. Out of the hundreds of students Tia Holliday has taught throughout her career, I wonder how many have come back to thank her. As in the Bible story, many of Holliday’s students could not know how important she was in their lives until sometime later.

As Liesel’s father, I know now what a great teacher Tia Holliday is, and how foundationally important she has been in Liesel’s life. Liesel may not fully appreciate Tia Holliday until years from now when she might be shepherding her own children through high school, so I will speak for her and all others who have been blessed by Tia Holliday along the way. Tia Holliday fully deserves to receive a 2007 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. There might be other teachers who are as deserving as Tia Holliday, but there are certainly no other teachers who are more deserving.

This nomination letter is long, but it is neither an overstatement nor an extended brag by a proud father. Rather, it is a full recognition that teaching is ultimately the challenge of one teacher successfully responding to the needs of one student. Education is not about environments and curriculum and textbooks and technology aids and class size, though all of those concerns are important. What education is about is this: one teacher being able to and willing to teach one student while at the same time teaching every student, including the student with special needs—even the most brilliant student in the class.

Quite possibly, Tia Holliday has never before had a student like Liesel, and never will have another one like her again. And she had no forewarning at all. In fact, if anything, Tia Holliday discovered Liesel, and then stepped up to the challenge of teaching her. Holliday’s confidence, competence, and enthusiasm kept Liesel enthralled and learning through three years, and then her commitment to Liesel continued as genuine interest and support after Professor Greg Williams took over as teacher. And that is the point—and that is the measure of a great teacher!

Two other items are also especially noteworthy.

Firstly, Tia Holliday actively creates interest in chemistry at the middle school level by having her best high school chemistry students give chemistry experiment demonstrations at the middle schools that feed into North Eugene High School. She does this at the end of every school year, and I am sure it serves as a successful method for recruiting new students for her Chemistry classes. Liesel very much enjoyed her opportunities to give chemistry experiment demonstrations, so I would say the program benefits the participating high school students, too.

Secondly, Tia Holliday possesses the wisdom that knows and understands the value of the total educational experience created by a successful high school. She knows and understands that what she does cannot be done well in a vacuum, and that her success depends in part on the success of the whole school. Consequently, Tia Holliday gets involved. She has been an active member of the North Eugene High School Site Council for many years, and is currently serving as president of the council. Liesel served as a student representative on the council for two years because Tia Holliday asked her to, and the experience proved to be valuable and worthwhile. High school politics are difficult and sometimes frustrating, and God bless those who are willing to endure the fight that comes with instituting needed change. Again, God bless Tia Holliday!

A final thought is this: If past winners of Presidential Awards of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching are given the opportunity to occasionally meet to develop recommendations for our Nation’s teachers, I can assure you that Tia Holliday would be someone who would get involved and make meaningful contributions of time and energy. And, certainly, she would contribute good ideas, too! Tia Holliday is a rare gem. She has been a blessing in my life and in the lives of my two daughters. I know this. I also know that Tia Holliday is absolutely deserving of a 2007 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.


Steven A. Sylwester

Regarding my daughters and others


Regarding Superintendent Golden


NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences (NAPS)

First, read:

A further explanation of "NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences" (NAPS) is most easily accomplished by sharing the following two letters I wrote: the first to President Obama, and the second to Carol Greider & Teresa Szymanik.

In the second letter, I mention an online forum I had participated in regarding NAPS that had 21,978 views on December 21, 2010. On June 13, 2011, that forum now has 49,081 views, according to the analytics page:
The entire online forum about NAPS can be read beginning at:

NAPS is a magnificent idea! It should be done. More than that: it needs to be done, both for the good of America and for the good of those young people who would be directly blessed as NASA Scholars.

Steven A. Sylwester
June 13, 2011

* * *


from: Steven Sylwester (e-mail address deleted)
date: Tue, Nov 23, 2010 at 6:17 PM
subject: STEM solution: National public high school for gifted students: NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences


President Barack Obama,

On 11/19/2010, I wrote the following response to an article by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) that you can read at this link:

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) better mean "each and every child" when he writes: "The international achievement gap will also close as we employ all the tools in our toolbox to ensure that each and every child is successful."

Civil Rights are not just for poor people, or for people who are functionally illiterate or who are flunking out of school. Civil Rights are also for the most brilliant young people in America — The Top One Percent — the geniuses.

I have proposed a national public high school for the most brilliant young people in America who have career interests in mathematics and the sciences. I call my proposed school "NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences" (NAPS), and my proposal can be read at:

NAPS was designed with the national security interests of the U.S. in mind. Please read:

I participate in an online forum regarding NAPS at:

The guiding light for NAPS should be found in a U.S. commitment to meaningful National Education Standards. In my thinking, the basic National Education Standards should be: Every Child 21st-Century-Literate at No Less Than Grade Level While Being Actively Challenged and Fully Facilitated to Achieve Personal Potentials in All Core Academics. At the top end where NAPS exists, the National Education Standards should be simply this: Students Must Be Advanced to the Academic Level at Which They Can Succeed While Being Challenged.

NAPS is doable. Please read my proposal.

Steven A. Sylwester

* * *

President Obama, please contact me at your convenience if you have any questions:
(e-mail address, street address, and phone number deleted)

P.S. Other of my writings regarding NAPS:
Comment #1 and #3 at:
Comment #1 at:
Comment #2 at:
Response #1 at:
Comment #6 at:

* * *


December 21, 2010

Carol Greider & Teresa Szymanik,

I read the Op-Ed commentary that you recently wrote for McClatchy-Tribune News Service that starts: "The Dec. 10 awards ceremony in Stockholm celebrated the 2010 Nobel Prize-winners and the ability of curiosity-driven men and women to open doors on previously undiscovered areas of knowledge." First, congratulations to Carol Greider on winning the Nobel Prize. And second, thank you for standing tall in calling the United States to task regarding the present state of things in science and engineering education, and the need for our nation to make immediate changes for the future.

Below I am forwarding a message to you that I e-mailed to President Obama on November 23, 2010. Please read it, and then share it with any of your colleagues who might have the clout to push things forward.

I am doing my utmost to champion my own idea ( ), and I need endorsements from people like you. Since my e-mail to President Obama, I have made the following online comments:

Simply, I have proposed a national public high school for students who are especially brilliant in mathematics and the physical sciences. My proposal is simple, straightforward, and doable.

As I write this, the forum I participated in regarding my proposed school — NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences (NAPS) — has 21,978 views, and has been adding approximately 250 new views per day according to the available analytics, even though the forum has been closed to new comments since 11/29/2010. See:

Plainly, many people know about my proposal, but almost all of those many people seem content to watch until someone else pushes the proposal forward. Carol Greider, your public acclaim is big right now. If you can, please help make NAPS happen. Thank you.

Steven A. Sylwester

Letter to Bill & Melinda Gates

The following includes a letter that I wrote to Bill & Melinda Gates (which includes the forward of a letter that I had written to an elite group of American scientists) and the response that I received back from a representative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In my letter, I refer to the "Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences" (L.PAPS), which was the original incarnation of what I renamed "NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences" (NAPS). L.PAPS and NAPS are identical, except in name.

I have deleted below the various contact information (e-mail addresses, street addresses, and phone numbers) that is present in the original e-mails. Otherwise, everything below is an exact copy of the correspondence.

Steven A. Sylwester
June 13, 2007

* * *


Dear Mr. Sylwester,

Thank you for contacting the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Your letter to Mr. and Mrs. Gates has been forwarded to me for reply.

We appreciate your interest in the U.S. education system, and thank you for sharing with us your proposal to reestablish leadership in mathematics and science instruction in high schools nationwide.

The foundation's Education initiative seeks to improve high school graduation and college readiness rates so that all students graduate prepared for success in college, career, and life. In pursuit of this goal, the foundation supports schools and policies that set high expectations for all students and provide the support they need to meet them. Our Education initiative also works to provide children with opportunities for quality early learning in Washington state and funds scholarship programs that reduce financial and other barriers to higher education for low-income and minority students. Please note that the Education initiative does not accept unsolicited proposals.

For more information about the foundation's Education initiative, please visit

We wish you all the best.


Stephanie Jones
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

-----Original Message-----
From: Steven Sylwester [mailto:]
Sent: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 09:10 AM
To: Info; Steven Sylwester
Subject: To: Bill & Melinda Gates at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: An Obama Initiative: Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences (L.PAPS) >> A proposal to reestablish U.S. leadership in math and science at the high school level

May 13, 2009

Dear Bill & Melinda Gates,

My name is Steven Sylwester, and I live in Eugene, Oregon. I am a committee of one championing my own proposal to reestablish United States leadership in mathematics and science instruction at the high school level among nations worldwide.

I have created a simple solution that can be used as a universal model for similar sites across the nation. My personal challenge was to neatly fit into the established university-level prerequisite stream for mathematics, computer science, chemistry, and physics instruction by creating a straightforward, scaled-down, efficient curriculum that directly uses the teaching resources of U.S. public research universities to educate high school students who are gifted in mathematics and the physical sciences. I have succeeded to the best of my ability. Now it remains whether others can improve on my solution.

My solution neither favors nor disfavors economically advantaged students, but it does favor students who are gifted in mathematics and the physical sciences by creating three-year public high schools with academic merit-based admission standards. Though it might be more common that children of affluence are academically gifted, it is certainly not the case that all academically gifted students are the children of affluence - not at all. Additionally, given the rigors and the sacrifices that are unmistakable and unavoidable in what I propose, many poor children will strive and rise to the challenge while many affluent children will shirk away.

It is completely wrong-headed to imagine that my proposal creates a special advantage for those who are already advantaged. In truth, our public school system is sometimes punishing to those who are academically gifted in mathematics and the physical sciences. Sadly, where advantage might have grown and flourished in some gifted students through their being challenged by skill level-appropriate instruction, what sometimes results instead is the lasting disadvantage that can be born out of the discouragement caused by the forced under-achievement of potential during the long years of high school.

You will find my proposal attached to this email. I have included the below forwarded email to demonstrate that I am aggressively going public with my proposal. I have also emailed my proposal to select U.S. senators, select U.S. representatives, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (for many years, an outspoken advocate for the need to improve math and science instruction in U.S. public high schools), select public school district superintendents and public high school principals in Oregon, the presidents of Oregon's three public research universities with undergraduate programs, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and The Walton Family Foundation.

I send my proposal to The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with this encouragement: Please consider implementing a working model of my proposal at two public research universities in the Northwest, either in Washington and/or in Oregon. Originally, I developed my proposal as a local solution for a local problem. Then I pushed my thinking to the Oregon statewide level. And then, after listening to President Obama's inaugural address, I finally concluded that my proposal could (and should) be done nationwide.

Dreaming big dreams is grand, but proving that the solution is good and workable in real life is something else entirely. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has both the resources and the good intent to make my proposal happen on a working model basis, and so I ask you to consider that possibility.

If you have any questions regarding my proposal, please either call me or email me at your convenience.


Steven Sylwester
(address deleted)
Eugene, OR

P.S. My youngest daughter was a 2007 graduate of North Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon, which is a Small Schools site funded by your foundation. Fortunately, she graduated the year before the Small Schools initiative went fully into effect. She is a 2007 National Merit Finalist who entered her freshman year at the University of Oregon with 100 credits already on her university transcript, which means she entered her freshman year with junior status by credit count. My daughter had traveled across town to attend NEHS, because such an academic achievement as that was possible there - before the Small Schools initiative happened.

For many years, NEHS was the best-kept secret in Eugene. Improbably, the smallest, economically poorest, and most blue-collar of Eugene's four public high schools awarded more Advanced Placement credits per student per year than any other Eugene high school - and it did so by quietly maintaining a phantom "small school" within the framework of the whole school. Though the "small school" did not actually exist in any formal sense, it naturally manifested because NEHS had steadfastly maintained a four-period school day while also refusing to let International High School (IHS) through the front door. The consequence was that the best students had no place to go but together, and so most of them quickly migrated to the available A.P. classes.

It was a magnificent stage for excellence! Because of the long class periods, an entire year of instruction was accomplished in half of a school year. As a freshman, my daughter took a year of chemistry during the first half of the school year, and a year of physics during the second half. During four years of high school, my youngest daughter took math through A.P. Calculus, three years of chemistry (including A.P. Chemistry and high school Organic Chemistry at NEHS, and Advanced General Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Oregon), two years of physics (including A.P.-equivalent College Now Physics), and A.P. Biology.

Well, the Small Schools initiative funded by The Gates Foundation killed the best "small school" Eugene ever had. The principal at the time your foundation got involved was new to NEHS, and he was determined to change things. He opened the door to IHS and so added the extra class periods the IHS program required - and the goose laying the golden eggs got weakened until the Small Schools initiative just killed it. Fortunately, my two daughters got through before the end came.

My proposal (Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences) is contrary to what I understand your thinking to be. However, I will strenuously argue with anyone that my idea is better.

I volunteered at NEHS everyday for half of the school day for 3/4 of a school year as a Read Right reading tutor, and some of the high school sophomores and juniors whom I tutored were reading at a beginning first grade level when I began working with them - they were functionally illiterate! By comparison, my oldest daughter had her reading ability tested by the local public school district during her first month of first grade when she was six years old, and was judged at that young age to be reading at an adult level BEYOND high school level!

When my youngest daughter was a junior at NEHS at the beginning of the transition to Small Schools, the decision was made to have all NEHS juniors take A.P. English, because some misguided teachers thought everyone was capable of high academic achievement. The decision was made to purposely separate the best students from each other by distributing them equally among the different class sections while also doing the same equal distribution with the worst students. The whole bad idea was an utter failure that no one would own up to in the end, and was a complete waste of time for my daughter and her honest A.P. peers.

Know this: The students who were functionally illiterate when I started tutoring them were reading well six months later. Some who began at a second or third grade level were actually reading at a ninth grade level or better just six months later. That is what is possible. That is what I witnessed with my own eyes and ears.

But what impressed me the most was the kindness, gentleness, and patience that these poor-performing students had for each other when they were in the non-threatening environment we had created for them in the tutoring classroom, and how honestly encouraging they were to each other as they struggled to learn how to read. It was at once both heartbreaking and wonderful. More than that, it was a very rewarding experience that revealed much about the difficult divide that confounds effective education reform. Why? Because the classrooms I had grown up in and that my daughters excelled in were places of intense intellectual competition where something so simple as kindness was not always present. It is no wonder to me now that the poor-performing students fall behind, and that they eventually give up - they don't stand a chance.

But there is a solution, and it is to be found in the simplest and most amazing of simple observations, and I can tell you with certainty that it is absolutely true. If you want to solve the problem of educating the slow learners who become the poor students who become the drop outs, you MUST start with this scientific fact: Every brain has a discernible brain speed at which it functions while learning; brain speeds vary from person to person; brain speed functioning is negatively impacted by stress; and slow normal brain speed can slowly be sped up to the point of classroom speed with no loss of skill, proficiency, and comprehension if both personal competency and personal confidence can be demonstrated by the brain to the brain (meaning: the slow learner drops the "slow" from his/her identity and simply becomes a learner who approaches learning with calm self-confidence).

How do I know this? My father is Dr. Robert Sylwester, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. He is a world-renowned expert on current developments in brain research, and the implications of those developments for education. He has had a relationship with Scientific Learning for many years, and writes a column for their website ( The Scientific Learning story and its many discoveries are told here ( But, in layman's terms, it is essentially what I have described above referring to "brain speed."

The problem going forward is the problem of capitalism, which is the profit motive that controls intellectual property rights. In the case of Scientific Learning, the copyrights and patents have to do with computer hardware and software. In the case of Read Right, the copyrights have to do with materials describing the tutoring procedures, defining the reading libraries, and providing the progress tally forms. But everything my father told me about the scientific discoveries made by Scientific Learning using elaborate computer set-ups is true, and is plainly observable with the naked eye in a four-person tutoring group if you know what you are looking for. In fact, it is all as plainly visible as a snow line is on pavement as you drive from rain at low elevation to snow at high elevation - it is that undeniable: starkly plain and sharply defined. And what you are witnessing when it manifests so clearly is the brain speed of the learner.

It is a truly remarkable phenomenon to behold, and it borders on miraculous what can occur in learning how to read if the "brain speed" reality is made the guiding light. Students fight it at first as you insist that they slow down, sometimes way down - sometimes slower than they have ever talked before. But then suddenly it happens: you find their natural brain speed >> and they can read! It is startling for a high school kid who has been stuck in Special Ed for ten years with a dunce cap on his/her head to suddenly be able to read. I preached confidence when I tutored (as in: "I know you can do this"), but my spiel was not according to the copyrighted abracadabra terminology I was supposed to use. Against the plan, the kids needed confidence, and so I gave it to them in heaps - and in straight talk. Thinking back now, it was these three things: calm down, slow down, and you can do it. And they could.

Read Right had this simple belief: If a person can engage in meaningful conversation, that person can also read with comprehension. By what I have witnessed, I absolutely agree with that conclusion.

But there is another obstacle in the way of successful education reform - and it is horrific! Sadly, it too is about "the profit motive," and again the slow learner is the one who is potentially harmed. Remarkably, it is not a capitalist corporation doing harm by legally withholding effective learning tools and processes if its products are not purchased, it is the school system itself doing harm by holding students in an official Special Ed classification who no longer belong there. It is a fox guarding the hen house situation: slow learners have become a huge revenue source in the education finance equation because the site school and the site school district are paid significantly more by the government for educating students who are classified Special Ed than they are paid for educating normal students - so significantly more that deciding to do the wrong thing can be judged the right thing to do!

I witnessed this twice firsthand.

In one case, a girl I tutored was as close to being a zombie as anyone I have ever encountered; she was emotionally unreachable - she was a walking dead person who was unreliable to follow even the simplest procedure. I was completely stymied by her, so I begged my supervising teachers for any privileged information they could possibly give me to help me understand the girl. I found out the girl was adopted, and that her adoptive parents were an older couple with no other children. Also, I found out that the girl's biological mother was alcoholic. The girl was long-term Special Ed. All of that did not help me one bit. What finally helped was the gentle kindness of a boy who was also in her group of four. Every morning, the boy greeted her, even though she never responded back. And every morning, before we started the tutoring session, the boy told a funny story of what he had done the previous day, and eventually - finally - the girl smiled one day. And then one morning out of the blue, the girl wanted to tell her own story of something she had done the previous night. And the boy was all ears, and was genuinely interested in hearing the girl's story. And thereafter the girl actually started participating, ever so slowly at first. When that girl began her tutoring, she literally responded to books like a kindergarten student if she responded at all - it was weird. But once she actually started reading, her progress was faster than anything I ever witnessed as a tutor. Before five months was over, that girl was reading Jack London books out loud near flawlessly at first read (maybe one word error per page), including dramatic readings of odd dialect story conversations with unique phonetic word spellings. It was a stunning thing to behold (the Jack London books were at the twelfth grade level, and have very sophisticated complex sentences with challenging vocabulary throughout). We actually contemplated how to possibly make that girl a tutor's aide to legitimize keeping her around, because she had surpassed any need at all to remain in the program. Yet that girl was kept in Special Ed afterwards, and away from the standard curriculum. Imagine that. How do you explain something like that without contemplating evil?

The other case had a different twist. The girl was Special Ed since the beginning of her schooling, but was full of life and very talkative. She started at maybe a second grade level, and was very labored in her reading, though she was willing to try when it was her turn. Through the girl's story telling, it became obvious that she ran with a gang of troublesome losers, and that she submitted herself to the rule of the boys in the gang. As it happened, she was originally assigned to a tutoring group that included one of the boys she was subservient to. When that became apparent, we separated the two into different groups, and I kept the girl. Even so, the girl plainly felt the need to subordinate herself to boys by never excelling a boy who was in her company. One day I had had enough, so I excused myself and the girl from our group, and I took that girl out of the room into the hallway where I very seriously scolded her, and told her in no uncertain terms that she was better than any of the boys she was hanging around with, and that she needed to immediately and forever stop giving herself and her potential away. Wow! That girl changed thereafter. All she ever needed was permission to be all that she could be. She became determined. She wanted it to be her turn more frequently and longer - and she wanted to excel! Through dogged effort, that girl got fully to her own grade level with reliable competence and joyful, proud self-confidence. Her turnaround was so complete that one day I finally sprang the ultimate question to her without first talking with my supervising teacher. Even though a new term had already started and even though that girl had always been in Special Ed, I asked her if she would be willing to enter the standard curriculum classes at NEHS if I could open the door for her. Her response was an enthusiastic and very confident "Yes," and she was willing to start immediately, even knowing that she would be behind when she started. I made her ask her parents for their permission, and she eagerly ran home and ran back with permission in hand. Well, the NEHS teachers who should have then opened their classroom doors to that girl would not do so, and the administrators would not intervene - and I was done. In my mind, it was criminal that that girl was held back in Special Ed, and I could no longer in good conscience teach someone to read who would then not be allowed to learn to his/her fullest potential.

One other tutoring story is revealing. A big sophomore boy was one of my students. He was a mess, and he was just plain dumb - a functional illiterate. He was always late, always eating something, and always confused. Slowly, I got that boy to focus, but it was two steps forward and only one step back if I was lucky. Finally, it kicked in: calm down, slow down, and you can do it. Suddenly, the boy could read a four-word sentence made up of one-syllable words - and for him that was an accomplishment! The boy was African-American (which is rare in Eugene) and likable, and he wanted to learn, but he was defeated academically - just broken. He needed hope. When that boy finally got just a glimmer of hope, he became like a bull in a china shop. The Read Right program has a multitude of procedures that I more-or-less ignored, both because they were silly and because they worked in spite of themselves due to their luck-on to the "brain speed" phenomenon. In the case of this boy, I quietly abandoned Read Right altogether. More than anything, that boy simply needed to read to the bottom of the page, and then feel the supreme accomplishment of turning the page - and I was not going to deny him that accomplishment, no matter how many errors he made getting there. It was wild. He wanted to advance faster than he deserved to advance, and I let him to a point. When I quit volunteering as a tutor and had to come clean with how I had made him a special case, I argued with the supervising teacher that she should maintain my strategy with the boy. She refused, and placed him back where he belonged in the program. It saddened me greatly, because I feared the boy's spirit would be broken. After I left and the supervising teacher came to appreciate what I had done with the boy and why I did it, she eventually followed my lead and set the established procedures aside like I had advised. At the end of his senior year, that boy graduated from NEHS and received an academic award for being the most improved student during his four years in high school. More than that, that boy is now happily employed in a child daycare facility as a caregiver.

Back to the point: It is wrong to ever put students like my daughters in the same class in the same high school classroom as students like the three examples I have just described from my experience as a high school reading tutor. It is unconscionably wrong at both ends of the spectrum - absolutely so - unquestionably so! To think otherwise is to be ignorant of all applicable facts, and to have never known either a truly brilliant child or a child in desperate need of a reading tutor. Furthermore, children at both ends of the intellectual spectrum are children at risk, and I sincerely mean that in every literal sense. The easiest and best way to raise the low end into the general population is to get the high end out - not by ignoring them and/or dumbing them down, but by advancing them to educational opportunities that will fully challenge their potential.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Steven Sylwester Date: Thu, Apr 30, 2009 at 2:17 PM
Subject: An Obama Initiative: Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences (L.PAPS) >> A proposal for the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences

April 30, 2009

This letter and attachment is simultaneously being sent to thirteen officers and councilors of the Council of the National Academy of Engineering, the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academy of Sciences, and all seventeen members of the Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

I am an American citizen with an idea that was inspired by President Obama's inaugural speech, and by the experiences I had while parenting my youngest daughter through high school. When my daughter was a freshman in high school, my wife and I discovered to our surprise and great challenge that she was incredibly gifted in the sciences, especially in chemistry. Hers was not just a gift in deep understanding and ability; my daughter found she also truly loved both chemistry and physics, especially the laboratory work. As a high school junior, she took Advanced General Chemistry Laboratory (CH 237, 238, 239) at the University of Oregon, a notoriously difficult three-term sequence course that almost exclusively enrolls UO honors college students. My daughter entered the sequence at winter term without the benefit of ever having taken fall term, and she earned an "A-" grade winter term and an "A" grade spring term. The course professor told me during that spring term that my daughter was easily in The Top One Percent of all the university chemistry students he had ever taught during his 25-year career to that point, including the students he taught while earning his Ph.D. at Princeton - and my daughter was then a high school junior. He noted that a former student of his is now a NASA astronaut, and that my daughter was farther along and more skilled at the same age than the now astronaut was. My daughter is a 2007 National Merit Finalist, meaning she was academically in the top one half of one percent of all high school graduates in the U.S. in 2007.

Though my daughter's high school chemistry, physics, and calculus teachers were all truly superb, especially the chemistry teacher, I came away from it all knowing I had been blessed, but also knowing I was exhausted - and that my daughter would not have had the opportunities she deserved and thrived from if I had not strenuously advocated for her throughout those four years. When I nominated my daughter's high school chemistry teacher for a national award, the teacher told me that I had convincingly demonstrated her own need to advocate for her own children during their time in the public schools - and that teacher is a first-rate career public high school chemistry teacher!

I was especially inspired to write my proposal because my daughter's childhood best friend - a girl who was smarter than my daughter according to the PSAT test they both took as high school sophomores - ended up dropping out of high school and earning a GED at a local community college because her parents and various school officials let her fall through the cracks. In my opinion, our public school system does not serve the needs of its best students unless strong unrelenting advocacy from those students' parents literally forces the issue. This should not be the case.

My proposal puts some shared responsibility onto the public school system itself to identify the best mathematics and science students during the middle school years, and to then offer an extraordinary and deserved opportunity to those students during the high school years. My solution is a nationwide solution that would eventually certainly benefit all of us by creating a Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences at 150 different public research universities across the country.

You will find my proposal in the attachment. If you printed it out, you would find my proposal to be nineteen pages long. The first two pages are a preface introduction, and the following two pages are an overview with stated premises. Then there are seven pages that describe The First Model: The Linus Pauling Academy of the Physical Sciences at The University of Oregon. Following that are two pages of class schedule charts, and an appendix that is six pages long. It would be helpful to print out the class schedule charts and have them as a quick reference while you are reading The First Model.

I certainly hope some of you will find the time to read my proposal. Something like what I propose needs to be done, and an endorsement from your groups would certainly get things started. My proposal is written as if it were being described in an oral presentation. It does go full circle, and it does answer all necessary questions before it concludes. With the strictest discipline, I forced myself to simplify everything that could be simplified, and to strive for the most efficient elegant solution possible that could be most easily replicated as a universal model at various sites across the country. Ultimately, a careful read of the prerequisite streams in math and science education as found in the University of Oregon Course Catalog were defining of what could and should be done in my opinion.

I am happy to answer any questions, and to receive any suggestions for improvements. Please feel free to share my proposal with anyone.


Steven Sylwester

Edison High School, Eugene, Oregon

On January 19, 2011, I posted "Edison High School, Eugene, Oregon" at:

It is a very long posting, but it is worth reading, both for its own merits and for its in-depth examination of issues surrounding "special education," which are issues that pertain to the "First Things First" (FTF) aspect of "School U.S.A." (SUSA).

SUSA is the first school I designed, and Edison High School is the last school I designed. One can easily see that my original FTF thinking for SUSA is the groundwork for the S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy @ NEHS portion of the Edison High School proposal.

Steven A. Sylwester