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June 6-13, 2007

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Front and center: The projects required of seniors at Anzar grant skills that can be used in college.

Exceeding Standards

Anzar High School research projects touted as smart alternative to standardized testing

By Jose San Mateo

Juniors and seniors from Anzar High School in San Juan Bautista showcased their university-style research projects last month as part of a national effort to raise awareness for alternative styles of education.

The school is relatively small with a little more than 400 students, which fits perfectly into the educational vision advocated by the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES).

CES, an organization that includes hundreds of schools across the country, pushes for smaller class sizes and more personalized instruction. The coalition chose Anzar as one of four demonstration sites for "National Exhibition Month" because students are required to participate in a rigorous evaluation process in order to graduate.

Brett Bradshaw, a spokesman for CES, said that schools like Anzar offer a practical alternative to standardized testing by requiring students to complete projects similar to university level work..

"They are just like doctoral students in terms of writing and research," Bradshaw said.

The research projects that Anzar students complete require two components. One is a lengthy research paper and the other is a presentation of their projects in front of judges at the exhibition.

Charlene McKowen, the principal of Anzar High School, said that juniors and seniors choose research projects that involve complex, issue-based topics.

"The project does not have to be controversial, but it doesn't have a list of answers either," McKowen said. "You have to successfully complete the project in order to graduate." She added that the key to these projects is that the issue is usually something that students are passionate about.

Ashlee Brumbach, a 17-year-old senior at Anzar, presented at this year's exhibition. Although most students did research projects centered on their strengths, she played to her weaknesses, choosing a project that heavily involved science and math.

"My question was whether hair dye is hazardous to your health," Brumbach said.

Brumbach said she worked closely with her teacher to develop an experiment to test her hypothesis, which involved taking hair from different girls around campus in order to test the strength of the dyed and undyed hair. The experiment took longer than expected, spanning both her junior and senior years, but it would be the presentation that proved most difficult.

"I felt nervous about talking in front of a lot of people," Brumbach said.

After the presentation at the exhibition, she ended up passing with a distinction for the math component of the project.

The research projects are one part of the CES philosophy of education, which Bradshaw said is focused more on holding a comprehensive grasp of the subject matter than recalling discrete bits of knowledge.

Bradshaw said, "CES fosters skills like critical thinking and synthesized learning."

The small student population at Anzar is also a component of a CES school. Bradshaw said that it is all about knowing students, which provides a level of personalization. "It's about student instruction that is student-centered," he said.

McKowan, an educator at Anzar for over 10 years, said that students benefit from the personalized instruction. "In a larger school, it's very simple for students to fall through the cracks," she said.

The unique environment also extends to staff members. According to McKowan, she did not start out as principal because at first the faculty made most of the decisions together.

"The staff asked me to step into that role," she said. "They still take the lead in most of the decision making, and it creates an atmosphere where teachers feel supported."

Despite the alternative nature of Anzar high school, they are still required to adhere to the strict testing guidelines outlined in the national education policy of "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) in order to receive federal funding.

Implemented in 2002 by President Bush, NCLB calls for more accountability among schools across the United States through standardized testing. NCLB policies, specifically the focus on having students answer homogenized multiple-choice questions, fall into conflict with the personalized focus of CES schools.

"The problem is that instruction is tied to high-stakes standardized testing," Bradshaw said. "On the notion about preparing students, the question is whether it is going to provoke them to address critical questions."

McKowan expressed dissatisfaction at her school being forced to comply with a flawed national education policy. "There are no waivers in the state of California. We are scrutinized by test scores," she said.

Even though the school's productive energy is at times sidetracked by the compulsory inclusion of standardized testing, students at Anzar High school are still successful. According to the California Department of Education, 78 percent of students passed the California Exit Exam in 2006.

When asked about her future plans, Brumbach said she would be attending San Francisco State University in the fall. But she won't be forgetting her unique educational experience at Anzar anytime soon.

"Anzar is the kind of school people complain is too small," she said. "But the teachers really help and get to know who you are."

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