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The first time I met Chris Lawrence, I had just wrapped up moderating a panel on the dropout rate. Lawrence complained the panel was full of “vacuous nonsense,” as he later put it. His frankness impressed me. So I do what I do when I meet someone interesting: I asked him to get coffee with me.

Lawrence, who teaches physics at Mira Mesa High School, is a good person to get coffee with. He’s a big thinker who once flew planes for the Navy and decided to go into education after the release of the landmark report A Nation at Risk.

In San Diego Unified, he started a new program that trains students in renewable energy and once fought an overhaul of its physics programs. But he’s worried we’re still at risk. And he has ideas for an overhaul of his own.

In fact, when I asked him what was wrong with our high schools and how we could fix it, he rattled off so many answers that I decided to break them down into sections:

Changing High School

Finland is one of the places everyone touts. When you’re 15 years old there, you have to start applying to high schools. They have more technical oriented, job oriented programs and then more university bound ones. You can still apply to the university from the technical level. But because they have two programs, 90 percent of the students or so actually graduate from what they call secondary. You can do that here. You’d have to Americanize it and allow multiple bites of the apple if someone wanted to try to go to university. But it could be done.

Grading

You’d set some clear grading and assessment criteria so that grades aren’t all over the map. You could easily coordinate and align it with our UC, CSU and community college system. Universities wouldn’t have to have remedial classes.

Rethinking Math

People aren’t properly learning arithmetic. So let’s base arithmetic on constructive and tangible things that people can actually do. Look at the serious problems that confront our youth today — they’re broke, they don’t understand money, they don’t know how to feed themselves. Arithmetic to them is an abstract mathematics.

So you need to incorporate agriculture, construction, cooking and finance in mathematics. You start learning how to cook, you save money. You understand nutrition. And you understand the world. Those riots in Egypt are because of food. And that’s going to take place all throughout the world. Americans need to understand that. We waste half the food that we produce; students should be growing food.

Obesity is a greater threat in this country than smoking. Look at the cost of trillions of dollars over a lifetime because we teach our students how to poison themselves with fast food. So you teach nutrition and then, “Oh by the way, we’re going to learn arithmetic,” through fractions and proportions.

You teach them about money — oh, by the way, there’s arithmetic again. Then there’s building. Through that you teach algebra, basic geometry and trigonometry. If you can learn that, all of the sciences open up to you. Now you’re building a society that can actually do things.

Involving Parents

There should be ongoing online programs to get the parents involved. If you’re an educated parent, you help your kids. But if you don’t have that background, you can’t do that. So if you reach out to parents and say, “We’re going to teach your kids arithmetic. We’ll give you a parent edition of this class so you can tutor your kids. Do you want to come on the journey?” The cost of remediation would drop.

How do you translate that into a change for Mira Mesa High?

That’s easy. We’ve got a garden. We have a chef. I’m hoping to put 4H and Future Farmers in the San Diego Unified School District. Why don’t we start teaching people how to grow food locally?

All you need is some simple spreadsheets for finance, to show, “If you purchased a jacket on a credit card, how much would you actually pay? And then how much would you pay if you waited?”

You show people that and then they start learning. We say, “Everyone’s going to go to the UC,” when what we should be saying is, “Why don’t we teach you about some basic money, what you’re really going to encounter in the world?”

We have to get away from this fetish with physics, chemistry and biology. People don’t learn science that way. They learn science through the Discovery Channel and the world around them. If all you do is talk about some abstraction, people think, “What do I have to do to get out of here?”

I had one young lady who wanted to become a nurse, but she wasn’t allowed to take physiology. She was forced to take my physics course. But if she gets into physiology, she’ll study really hard. And maybe when she gets older, she’ll think, “Maybe I should take physics too.”

That’s how most people work. Something inspires them. And then one thing leads to another. Very rarely is it the other way around — let me put you through this boot camp and when you get out of it we’ll let you take fun, interesting courses. Put the interesting courses up front.

There’s nothing wrong with physics, chemistry and biology. It’s just that biotechnology for a fuel cell is far more fascinating than general theoretical biology. Or it certainly is to your average student.

Tell me more about the projects you’re trying to put together.

I want to start a water conservation program where we’re physically doing it — recycling our water. All of that could take place from an early age so that when they’re 18, we have people who want to retrofit the sewer system, who want to be hydrologists. Our buildings are just bleeding energy. Students can retrofit them.

I’m also trying to start technical training, but not with the district. Right now you’ve got to get in your car and drive over to a university. It’s completely unnecessary. A coffee shop could be a classroom. Screens could be on the walls. You’d have a phone app. There’d be restrooms and food. It could go 24/7.

Instead of all of this nonsense where we’ve got a bunch of people teaching Geology 101, you just have one or a few you could select from. You have an assistant to help you. You don’t need all these buildings. If 60,000 people apply to San Diego State and only 6,000 can get in, that means there are 54,000 unlucky customers. So put the bloody thing online.

You tell somebody who’s 18 years old, “Look, I’m going to go sit you in some lecture hall,” right away you see the pain in their face. That’s not how they learn. You still need a trail guide. But the trail guide should be right next to the cappuccinos. I don’t really care what they say — that’s the future.

A lot of people complain about the bureaucracy of San Diego Unified and say you can’t make big changes. Do you feel that way?

Oh, absolutely.

So why have you kept working with it?

A physician goes where people are sick. (I start laughing.) They need healing!

Interview conducted and edited by Emily Alpert. Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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