In education these days, science, math and technology dominate headlines and attract the bulk of the money from politicians and private donors, relegating the humanities to secondary status.
McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, however, is bucking that trend as it cultivates a small school-within-a-school that emphasizes the humanities. It is showing early signs of promise.
“Humanities Amped” is a collaboration between the high school and LSU’s English Department that began last year with 27 juniors and has doubled in size.
The Amped idea springs from a central goal of the program: to amplify student learning through inquiry that’s grounded in both critical and creative thinking and activity. The plan is to move beyond English over time into social studies as well as elective courses, culminating in a “civic humanities academy.”
A unique feature of the program is students from throughout this diverse high school of 1,400 students can participate. Students are pulled from both traditional and more-advanced academic tracks. As it turns out, only a quarter of the students in Humanities Amped take Advanced Placement courses or qualify for the school’s gifted and Great Scholars programs.
The program’s first year appears to have been a success. All the juniors who started with it last year stayed on as seniors. In surveys and in interviews, students and their parents were almost uniformly positive about Humanities Amped.
And their initial English test scores were strong, comparatively. While only 56 percent of 11th-graders at McKinley High scored good or excellent on their end-of-course exams this spring, 74 percent of Humanities Amped students hit those marks.
On Monday, McKinley opened up a Humanities Amped class to outsiders to give them a taste of what it’s like.
The classroom was packed, with adults outnumbering students. There were student teachers in the Geaux Teach teacher training program who walked the few blocks over from LSU to 800 E. McKinley St.
But the room also included several VIPs. East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake and other school administrators were present, as were LSU Vice Provost Matt Lee and Stacia Haynie, dean of LSU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
They weren’t just spectators. They were “guides,” helping Humanities Amped students refine their approaches to a variety of social science research projects they will soon undertake.
“This is the most guides we’ve ever had,” said an enthusiastic Anna West, a doctoral degree candidate in English at LSU and one of the organizers of Humanities Amped. West is best known as founder of WordPlay, which for years has worked with teenagers on creative writing and organized spoken-word poetry slams in town.
West taught alongside Destiny Cooper, who is an instructional specialist at McKinley High but was for many years an English teacher at the school.
Cooper said she was never happy with her traditional classes, where she would reach only a few of the many students she taught.
“I was cursed to fall into the same old routines,” she said.
She said it was not until she began brainstorming with West and LSU associate professor of English Susan Weinstein that she saw a better way.
The result is a mix of chill and intense.
Sitting around small tables, the students start each day with a class meeting. Students reflect on the day before and offer praise to one another for things small and large. When someone says something that people like, students all start snapping fingers to indicate praise, reminiscent of a beatnik coffee bar.
The seniors who were present Monday are very serious about their work. Last year, as juniors, they conducted research drawn from their own interests and creative writings. And they don’t shy from controversy, examining such issues as educational justice, sexual harassment in high school, how white privilege is understood by students and teachers and racial profiling in commercial establishments.
After the opening meeting, students shifted to offering the lessons they learned from their research last year in hopes of avoiding similar pitfalls this year.
One student said she’s going to manage her time better, getting an earlier start. Another said she wants to be open not just to responses that fit the premise of her research but also to “look for responses that go against what I’m trying to show.”
“Have backup research methods because the first ones may not really work,” offered student Kaiya Smith.
The students drew their research methods from the world of social science, using personal interviews, observations, focus groups, surveys and questionnaires and interactive workshops, among other techniques.
The seniors have come up with a new set of hot-button topics to tackle this year, which they pitched to their visitors. Body image came up more than once. For instance, Smith is looking at plus-size clothing and how the fashion industry and society view plus-size girls.
The students also discussed examining the school-to-prison pipeline, the influence of music on daily life, abortion, and homophobia and transgender relationships, among other topics to explore.
After about 20 minutes of small-table discussion, the students talked about the feedback they got.
“They helped me keep it real,” said one student.
“I wasn’t really too sure of my topic, but in telling them, I got good feedback and a lot of support, and now I’m really kind of excited to do it,” said another student.
Saida Mizyet admitted sheepishly that she didn’t get much feedback: “I got so carried away, no one said much. I loved telling my story.”
School Board member Barbara Freiberg, who sat at Mizyet’s table, said she shouldn’t apologize. She said Mizyet had the table’s full attention with her proposal to compare lifestyles in Palestine with the United States.
“I learned that if I was a recruiter at Harvard or at LSU, I’d be recruiting this young lady here,” Freiberg said.
McKinley High Principal Herman Brister Jr. said Humanities Amped fits in well with the high school’s push to have students from all academic tracks connect with one another and increase access to advanced courses and learning.
“What you saw today was a very good snapshot of that,” Brister said.
Provost Lee said LSU has not done enough in the past to engage with the local community, adding that he was happy to see university faculty “bringing down these walls.”
“What’s really moving is the authenticity of the learning going on here,” Lee said.
Superintendent Drake complimented the students on the self-directed learning he witnessed.
“When it’s top-down instruction, you do it because you have to,” Drake explained. “You’re doing it because you want to, and there’s a huge difference there. The learning curve is exponentially greater when you love what you do.”