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Jefferson County Schools could go for a bit more grit


“Tyler” is an honor student who is in three Advanced Placement classes, scored in the 95th percentile on his SAT, and is on track to attend a highly regarded college. Tyler goes home after school and spends hours reviewing the minutiae of quantum physics and economic policy, and comes to class highly prepared every day.

“Lucy” is also an honor student, who is in two Advanced Placement classes, scored in the 90th percentile on her SAT, and is on track to attend a very good state university. Lucy has also been on the swim team for three years, winning the 100-yard freestyle at the district meet, and has been on the staff of the school newspaper for three years, serving as the sports editor.

So which one of these two students do you think is going to win a prestigious fellowship when they are 25?

According to Warren Willingham of the Personal Qualities Project of the Educational Testing Service (the people who bring to you the Advanced Placement tests), the answer is undoubtedly Lucy.

Willingham and his team tracked thousands of students, kept records on more than 100 personal characteristics, and came to the conclusion that sustained involvement and success in extra- and co-curricular activities is the number one predictor of success.

Extracurriculars, in fact, are so important that they are the only involvement Dr. Angela Duckworth uses to assign a predictive score to students’ achievements. Dr. Duckworth uses what she calls a “Grit Grid,” and it is very simple: a student gets one point for participating in an activity for two or more years, another point for achieving some level of success or leadership, and a third point for some high achievement—All-State or the like. In Dr. Duckworth’s world, a student who scores a “6”—high achievement in two activities—is almost a sure bet to achieve something remarkable early in life.

A student who tries four different sports over four years receives zero points; a student who plays piano, then guitar, then trumpet, each for a year, receives zero points. It is the ability and the willingness to stick with something that points to the sort of personal commitment that predicts a bright future.

It pains me to say this, but, as I look around at the schools I teach at, and the schools my family is involved with, Tyler is a student tailor-made for Jefferson County Schools, circa 2017; Lucy would do better to seek her education elsewhere.

With the re-election of the School Board now in the rear view mirror, you can expect several things to happen. For one thing, the transition of the sixth grade to the middle schools will go forward. For another thing, it is a safe bet that next fall, we’ll be voting on a mill and bond package to raise money for the schools. Early speculation puts the number somewhere north of $1 billion. There is also some talk of the district creating a “School for the Arts,” similar to the Denver model.

Obviously, some of that money is to build buildings, and some of it is to support the sixth grade transition. But, I have to ask: Is any of it to rebuild or enhance programs that encourage student activities? Are we getting new or better sports fields, music equipment, or theater technology? Are we going to restart middle school athletics, or support expanded days that allow middle school students to take more and diverse electives?

Or are we just doing more of the same, trying to play catch up?

Because, I have to say, if we’re doing all this, and sixth graders end up at middle schools that give them fewer opportunities than their elementary schools did, then I really don’t see the point. Our students deserve ambitious programs that build character, in their schools, not the embarrassing reality that we are more like Denver Schools than we are our neighbors to the north and south.


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