The Changing High School Experience

Originally published September 15, 2009.

Youth workers love high schools. Mostly because they are full of teenagers and we love teenagers.  However today’s high school experience is very different from what you experienced.  Today’s high school life is definitely not what you see in High School Musical.  It certainly isn’t like anything you saw in Saved by the Bell or Beverly Hills 90210 or even the recreation of 90210.  And certainly not Glee.  Even the “realistic” The Secret Life of the American Teenager doesn’t truly portray what today’s high school life is really like.

 Because high school life is important to youth ministries, it is important to understand this changing experience so your youth ministry plans are in sync with your teens’ real life–not the supposed life you remember from high school.


After a billion years of public schools producing the same product; new technologies, the push for school-choice, and several innovative education ideas are all being incorporated to better educate high school students.  We’ve compiled a lot of these ideas here (hence the length) and have included some questions for you and your leadership to ponder what these changes may mean to your youth ministry as well as a possible revolution in youth ministry as Mark Senter addressed in his book The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry.


The No Child Left Behind reform (which the NEA is fighting so it can keep public education as it was) has brought about many changes including free transfers out of neighborhood schools for students who want to attend schools with better test scores. The NCLB reform has also greatly increased testing of the students and accountability for the teacher.  Testing stress is a very real part of a teen’s life.

YM Question:  How can your youth ministry address the testing stress?

As for the teachers, the required paperwork has greatly increased. If you have volunteer staff who are also teachers, be sensitive to their added time constraints. For all of the other teachers you know, find a way to bless them through this mass of paper.  This is their one big complaint.

Remember the grading system of A, B, C, D or F?  Now there is an H for at least one school system.  An H stands for half failing.  Students who get an “H” will be able to re-take the class or the part of it they failed the next semester through Saturday school, after school or online.  If a student fails to take advantage of those opportunities or doesn’t succeed at them, the result will be a regular failing grade. A student’s final transcript would not reflect the “H” grade.  (, December 3, 2008)

Today there are one million students who are not going to a school building for their education. Nor are they homeschooled.  They are getting their public education online.  My school system has its own online high school which is open to all students who are enrolled in a regular high school, rising ninth-graders, and home-schooled students.  In 2007, enrollment in online learning programs nationwide reached 1 million students.  Michael Horn, executive director of education at Innosight Institute, says, “Our projections show that 50 percent of high school courses will be taught online by 2019. It’s about one percent right now.”  (, July 7, 2008)

On top of all that, a new study has found out that online education is more effective than classroom education so expect more of education to move to the “learning by doing” that online education lends itself to.  (New York Times, August 19, 2009)

YM Question:  How will not having students in school buildings during school hours affect your youth ministry plans?

Online learning is not just for the school year.  Many courses are offered through the summer months and many students are signing up for them (U.S. News & World Report, June 27, 2005).  The Changing High School Experience is also affecting the summer youth ministry plans.  Year-round school is an issue in many school districts (read Washington Post, June 7, 2009,  for a good argument for year-round school).  However some students are taking year-round school by their own choice.  An issue that also affects how you make youth ministry plans.

Another benefit to online learning is that teachers can work from home.

In 2005 a high school in Vail, Arizona, became the first high school to be all wireless and textbook-free.  Each student was given a school-issued laptop.  Teaching plans consist of electronic and online articles (AP News, July 11, 2005).  Since then, other schools have followed including Governor Schwarzenegger of California ordering that all schools move to electronic and online materials in the near future (, June 9, 2009).   Note, this is not only happening in affluent communities as you may presuppose.  As a principal in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a tough Boston district of crime and poor schools said, “Why would we ever buy a book when we can buy a computer? Textbooks are often obsolete before they are even printed,” Debra Socia.   (, July 7, 2008)  The book bag is being replaced by a computer bag.  And lined paper and No. 2 pencils are no longer on the back-to-school shopping list for some families.

While not in school–yet–“multi-touch” surface desks or smart desks are being developed for the classroom (Durham University News, September 18, 2008).  Smart boards are increasingly becoming a part of the regular classroom.  Do you know what a Smart board is, by the way?

Math videogames are being introduced to middle school students in classroom settings to see if such games can help with their algebra skills.  The hopes are the students will also play these games at home.  West Virginia schools have included Dance Dance Revolution as part of the PE curriculum (New York Times, October 8, 2008).

All this technology also has a downside.  There are big issues to decide on about cell phones. Cell phones give comfort to helicopter parents but are also used to cheat on exams, set up fights, and set up drug deals.   Another not-as-much-mentioned problem is students videoing teachers with their cell phones and then using these film shorts on YouTube or Facebook to most often mock teachers.  The teachers union in Connecticut is pushing for legislation to further restrict cell phones for these reasons.  (U.S. News & World Report, March 23, 2009)  At the same time some teachers are trying to bring back cell phones because the technology can be used to help the education process.  For example, when assignments are due can be entered into the phone.

State regulations in Texas actually allow for schools to confiscate students’ cell phones and charge $15 for them to be returned.  One school district has collected $100,948 from their students (, July 14, 2009).

YM Question:  Do you know what each school’s policy is on cell phones for your teens?  How does each school’s policy reflect your youth group policy toward cell phones?

In Florida a student declares a major and minor in 9th grade, just like you would in college, to shape your high school education (USA Today, June 5, 2006).  In my school system, as a 5th and 8th grader you can choose to go to your neighborhood school or you can choose to attend a different high school that offers a specialty program you want to study.  So for my students, most of them do not go to their feeder high school.  Middle school friendships almost certainly break up due to being in different schools.  Most have longer bus rides and their specialized programs have larger requirements for homework.  Even sisters and brothers attend different high schools.   As for high school sports rivalries, they are becoming a thing of memories.

Instead of just choosing a major in high school, some students can actually go to college in high school.  A five-year secondary school in Brooklyn graduates students with both a high school degree and an associate degree.  (New York Times, March 18, 2009)

For the last twenty years high schools have been built to be bigger and bigger. This trend is changing as some school districts are now building smaller. While the mega‑complex high schools can offer more programs, studies are finding that students actually excel better in smaller schools. I truly hope the mega‑complex high schools will become a trend of the past like open classrooms were the “thing” in the 1970s which is now widely recognized as a failed experiment. Students don’t like to go to a school nor do they learn well when they feel like cattle in a warehouse. Have you ever walked down the halls of these schools?  If you do, then you will understand this.

Some school districts are sending their 9th graders to their own school. They have elementary schools, middle schools, 9th grade schools, and then high schools.  (Associated Press, August 23, 2008)  This may be a building‑use decision or it may be the brilliant decision to not stick influential 14‑year olds with 17‑year olds. Either way, this idea has got to help that influential 14‑year old age. Every negative behavior stat we have has a spike at the age of 14.

Some school districts are creating K-8 schools.  Yes, that is kindergarten through 8th grade.  Many studies are showing the failure of the 6-8 schools or middle school system (I agree).  Early reports on K-8 schools are positive so far as they are finding those fragile early adolescent years to have more meaning when they find themselves in more of a role model role for the younger grades (Time, August 8, 2005).

In some localities students have a choice to go to charter schools with their public education money; and education at a charter school often looks nothing like the education in public schools.  For example, there is a charter school here in Washington DC where the students actually board at the school. It is a boarding school in an inner‑city setting that is public education. The premise is that students need a safe, stable place so they can concentrate on learning. How would your youth ministry change if your public school students went to a boarding school?

In some localities you can do your class work online. Florida has online PE classes for its high schoolers. Students exercise at home three or four times a week and report their progress on an internet site. The approved activities are biking, in‑line skating, swimming, aerobics, wall climbing and martial arts. For grading, parents are required to sign their children’s workout logs. The thinking behind this is so many youth are doing this stuff anyway so why not give them high school credit for it.  (USA Today, August 11, 2003)  The bonus is this is a real workout compared to the PE classes during school hours where for many the most effort they put in is in the changing into and out of their gym clothes. I know as I regularly sub PE classes. This makes the possibility that one of your lead youth can’t make the planning meeting not because he/she has homework to do but because he/she has actual class work to do at home.

Creative teachers are implementing blogs, podcasts, iPods, and VoIP to their lesson plans and finding great results.  A school system outside of the Washington DC area has created a homeland security high school education option that creatively mixes jihad and homeland militias with algebra, English, social studies, and science (Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2009).

Do you remember your own Senior Slump or Senioritis? Those were the best of times, right? For you maybe, but not for the school. Due to early acceptance letters to college, the relief after the momentous work of college applications being completed and mailed, and/or turning 18, Senioritis creeps in earlier and earlier‑‑sometimes in the beginning of the senior year. Sometimes even earlier. This has led to some education experts to declare the senior year as nothing more than childcare. The Colorado legislature actually considered eliminating the 12th grade year and rolling the $271 million saved into a universal pre-kindergarten program.  (U.S. News & World Report, December 8, 2004) I will testify to this. I hate subbing seniors.

To counteract the Senior Slump, some colleges are insisting on seeing a student’s final grades in their senior year before acceptance is complete. Some high schools are experimenting with February graduation, internships and independent research projects to be completed in the spring. Other high schools are redesigning their curriculum to link with the first year of college.  Some community colleges are offering classes at their campus for students to take that give them high school credit and college credit. In some locales, these classes are free as public education dollars are used for the college tuition. My nephew did this.  For the start of his freshmen year of college, he had already earned over 40 college credits.

Another innovation for seniors is referred to as “the hurry‑up‑and‑graduate” option. Schools are offering 18‑credit diplomas allowing students to graduate after their junior year. Those who do this get a head start on their college education or other post‑high school aspirations.

YM Question:  Have you considered new ways of programming for the seniors in your group?

The fluidity of the school campus has changed much in these post‑Columbine days. Along with the fire drills which are legally required, there are also lockdown drills or other types of security drills but actual lockdowns happen a whole lot more than fires.  At least once a year at my school we have an actual lockdown due to a daylight drug‑related shooting happening in the neighborhood of the school. Those are not drills. One week last year while we had a real lockdown, another elementary school located in a “nicer” neighborhood had a lockdown due to a drunken boyfriend roaming the halls looking for his girlfriend’s daughter. The high school near that elementary school (also in that nice neighborhood) had a lockdown because a student brought a gun to school. This is real life and it is happening in whatever type of neighborhood you live in.

Another security change is the locking of outside doors.  All of them, but one.  They are locked to parents, teachers, and students. At my school we used to have trailers for classrooms. When a student would go outside to go to class in a trailer, the door locked behind him/her. To get back into the school he/she had to knock on the door and hope someone would be walking by at that time to let him/her in. And this student still could not be marked tardy.

IDs are required for everyone in most school districts now.  My school has a license-scanning machine that picks up if the visitor is on the sexual offender’s list.  If the person is, the machine automatically notifies the principal and the police.  Other school districts have implemented iris scan systems for those who have the responsibilities to pick up children.  (USA Today, April 22, 2003)  The site of security officers and police officers at school is quite common.  School busses now come equipped with GPS systems.

Also common are security cameras and metal detectors.  These really aren’t all that new.  But growing technology now has webcams in the classroom.  The obvious reasons are for security and for parents to check on their children throughout the day (eerily Big-Brother-esque but then so is iris-scans).  However, teachers are finding other creative uses for the webcams to help with assignments such as focusing them on science projects so students can log in over the weekend and check the status of their projects (USA Today, August 11, 2003).

YM Question:  Have you watched a school classroom through a webcam yet?

One school has taken the use of technology a lot farther.  At one particularly troubling hallway spot, a “mosquito” has been installed.  This machine emits a high-pitched noise that teens can hear but most adults over 25 can’t.  It is being used to keep students flowing rather than block the stairs and elevator.  As cruel as this approach sounds, it is working and the students are liking it.  The congregating and thus ensuing trouble has stopped and other students are able to make it through that hallway and then to class on time.  (Chicago Tribune, March 9, 2009)

The high price of gas hurts education more than just parents having limited money to spend on back-to-school supplies.  The high cost has sent the budget for busses through the roof.  Some schools are solving that shortfall by changing the school week to four days a week.  To save the bus expenses, students are missing a day of school a week.  (Time, August 15, 2008)  How would having every Monday off of school change your youth ministry schedule?

Like I said earlier, suddenly the dinosaur of public education is changing. This is important to note because for any of you who have read the great book by Mark Senter, The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry, you will remember that one of the elements for every youth movement was a change in the education system.  From one who works on the inside of our public education system as well as in the church, high school education is changing. Some sort of new youth movement is being birthed.

How will your youth ministry change? It may not necessarily be in the form of the new youth movement but it may be that you need to change some of your presumptions of high school life as you make your youth ministry plans. Maybe you need to adjust your ministry to the changes. Maybe you need to change your ministry’s approach to seniors. Most youth groups seem to lose seniors these days. The schools are too. What can you do that is different?

This is a heads up to you all. The high school experience is changing.