Friday, January 02, 2009

New High-School Elective: Put Off College

Like many motivated, focused high-school students, Lillian Kivel had worked hard academically and in community service in hopes that her efforts would win her acceptance into a good college. It did. Trouble was, Ms. Kivel's focus was much less clear when she had to decide which college to attend -- the Boston-area senior had applied to 38 schools because her interests were so varied.

At the suggestion of friends, Ms. Kivel decided to take a gap year -- a year outside of academia between high-school graduation and college matriculation. It wasn't rest and relaxation that Ms. Kivel sought, but rather an opportunity to gain life experience and focus her goals. Gappers, as they're called, typically feel that taking a year off will give them a head start in college -- and life. "I [have] the opportunity to explore my interests, like medicine and China, outside the classroom," she says.

Ms. Kivel eventually decided to attend Harvard College, but deferred entrance until fall 2009. Ms. Kivel lived at home this fall and interned at the Boston branch of Partners of Health, a global health outreach nonprofit. She's also serving as a legislative aide in the Massachusetts Statehouse. And she's auditing at anthropology class at Harvard.

To fill her spring months, Ms. Kivel turned to gap-year consultant Holly Bull, president of Interim Programs, to help her sift through more than 100 different programs in China. Ms. Kivel will live with a host family in Shanghai, study Chinese language, history and culture in a classroom setting, and teach English to children. "I have gained so much by ... becoming more responsible and independent [and] exploring my interests," Ms. Kivel says.

The increased focus, maturity and motivation that gappers obtain -- along with a brief escape from the intense pressure that leaves many high-schoolers burned out -- has led more high-school guidance counselors and college admissions officers to suggest gap years to high achievers and strugglers alike. "Not every 17-year-old is ready to enter college, and a gap year... allows them to be in the real world, do service and approach college much more deliberately," says Karen Giannino, senior associate dean of admission at Colgate College.

Longtime educator Karl Haigler, co-author of "The Gap-Year Advantage," agrees. "We think that there should be more of a focus on success in college, not just on access to college," he says. That's partly what motivated Princeton University to become the first school to formalize a gap- or bridge-year program. It will be launched in the fall of 2009, starting with 20 students and growing to 100. Students will be invited to apply after they have been accepted to the school. The program will send students for a year of social service work in a foreign country. Students won't be charged tuition and will be eligible for financial aid.

Formal gap-year programs typically cost between $10,000 to $20,000, including living expenses, says Ms. Bull. Students can often apply for financial aid through Free Application for Federal Student Aid (, or look for scholarships and individual study-abroad loans through specific programs. There are also community-based programs, like Americorps, where students receive room and board in exchange for service work and a small stipend.

To get the most out of the experience, students should already be accepted into college and defer admission before the gap year begins, says Missy Sanchez, director of college counseling at Woodward Academy, a private school in Atlanta. "They can use the necessary high-school resources for their applications and have something to come back to after their year off," says Ms. Sanchez.

The year should be well-planned and researched to avoid a lot of downtime. "Most students choose to do a smorgasbord of two or three programs through out the year," says Ms. Bull. That was Sabrina Skau's strategy. She spent three months teaching English in a small Costa Rican town. She taught Spanish at her local high school in Portland, Ore., for two months. She spent three months working in a hospital and orphanage in Cordova, Argentina. And she wrapped up the year with a five-week Spanish program in Barcelona. Though Ms. Skau had deferred her admission at University of Rochester, she also reapplied to Brown University and was accepted. She began her freshman year in August. "The gap year prepared me to be much more focused and independent at college because I have already been away on my own," Ms. Skau says.

Students can research many of the 8,000 educational programs, internships and public-service jobs on their own, but many find it daunting. Several private schools across the country, such as Atlanta's Woodward Academy, have begun to hold gap fairs, where vendors come to meet prospective participants. Students from any school can attend. Another option is to hire a gap-year consultant. They typically charge about $2,000 to help research and guide students to reputable programs.

It's important to investigate the program's track record, credibility, supervision, structure and safety, says Mr. Haigler. Get references from at least two past participants and speak to them personally -- don't just settle for email. Finally, check your status for family medical coverage. Insurance policies often don't cover adult-age dependents if they are no longer full-time students, but temporary insurance policies are often available.

Ms. Kivel was able to remain on her parent's insurance policy. She will fund the $12,000 cost of her Shanghai semester from savings from a part-time job and help from her parents. "I'm just thrilled to be taking the year off," she says.


Strike threat after British PE teacher is sacked for wearing trainers to class

A PE teacher who has worn a tracksuit and trainers to school for 30 years has been sacked after the acting headteacher decided he was flouting the dress code. Adrian Swain, 56, was dismissed a week before Christmas because he refused to follow a ban on trainers. The school's local education authority has backed the sacking - claiming teachers 'should not wear clothing children are not allowed to wear themselves'. Now fellow teachers at the comprehensive where Mr Swain has taught for 17 years are threatening to strike if he is not reinstated.

Mr Swain said of his dismissal for wearing the clothes he teaches in: 'I am stunned that in this day and age you can be sacked for wearing the wrong type of shoes. 'I haven't a blot on my character and have suddenly been sacked for something I have always worn.' Mr Swain of Stratford, east London, who has 30 years teaching experience added: 'Children would much rather have a good teacher who wore trainers than a bad one who was dressed like a businessman.

The school dress code was imposed by an acting head teacher, Lorraine Page, at the state comprehensive who has since left.

Mr Swain added: 'Pupils learn best in an atmosphere where they feel comfortable and not in a corporate, office-like setting, so I really don't like the way that education is going.' Mr Swain worked with special needs children, at St Paul's Way Community School in Bow, east London. His colleagues are pressing for a ballot on industrial action in protest at his dismissal. Mr Swain said he had worn tracksuit bottoms and trainers to school throughout his 30-year teaching career without any complaints. Mr Swain, believes he has been victimised as he is a union representative for the National Union of Teachers. He said: 'I was singled out and fired while other staff have regularly worn banned items. 'It is clear that this is not about what I wear or what kind of teacher I am. This is victimisation because I have consistently worked to protect union members against bullying and intimidation. Mr Swain said he has a final appeal against his dismissal next term.

The school's website boasts of its 'excellent' PE facilities which include two gymnasia, a swimming pool, a weight training room and a table tennis hall inside, and two floodlit hard court areas for football, netball and cricket outdoors.

Professor Margaret Talbot OBE of the Association for Physical Education said that she thought the teacher should not have been sacked. She said: 'While teaching, PE teachers obviously need to wear appropriate dress. My personal view is that all teachers should be dressed in a professional manner to go to school. On the other hand I don't think it's a sackable offence.'

A 2006 Ofsted report ranked the 900 pupil comprehensive as 'satisfactory'. Around 80 per cent of the school's pupils are from Bangladeshi families. In one unusual feature of the school's uniform policy, female pupils at the school are allowed to wear the jilbab - an all in one black garment covering the head and body, but not the face.

A spokeswoman for Tower Hamlets Council confirmed that a teacher at St Paul's Way School was dismissed last week for 'continually failing to comply with a reasonable management instruction'. She said: 'Staff in Tower Hamlets schools are expected to set a good example to the students they teach. It's vital that standards are set in terms of appearance and behaviour, and staff are asked not to wear items of clothing that students are not permitted to wear themselves, eg trainers.'

'The decision followed consultation between the school, Tower Hamlets Council and trade unions and the member of staff still has the right of appeal.'Colleagues of a PE teacher sacked for wearing trainers and a tracksuit to school have threatened strike action if he is not reinstated.


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