‘A living curriculum’

Michael Smith
Ardmore High School Principal James Meece in 2018.

Gone are the days of typing and dictation, home economics, and wood shop in high school. Say hello instead to web design and desktop publishing, personal finance, and environmental science being taught to teenagers in Ardmore. Many lessons in math, English, and history will not change drastically over time, but practical lessons in finance, civics and technology must keep up with the times.

Advanced placement classes may give college-bound students an advantage; vocational classes can give an edge to work-bound students and electives will keep the students engaged with the learning process until they earn a high school diploma. But Ardmore High School principal James Meece knows that all means little if students just aren’t interested.

“If all you’re going to do is fight with him, then you’re going to have a battle on your hands,” he said of parents who insist their children take outdated classes.

Meece spent 16 years working as an educator in Elk City, where 120 out of 600 students took a 40-mile round trip bus ride to attend a vocational school in Burns Flat. When he first came to Ardmore as a principal in 1989, he was tasked with improving vocational school numbers. He directly asked students why so few of them attended state-of-the-art facilities less than five miles away.

“The [medical] field was big at that time, and there was just all sorts of stuff that these kids were interested in,” Meece said, but the course offerings from Southern Tech at the time were lacking and students just weren’t interested.

“What was different with the program in Burns Flat was they were modern with their curriculum. They offered silk screen before anybody else did silk screen stuff. They did medical technology before anybody else did. That’s what the kids were in to,” Meece said.

Meece was called out of retirement two years ago to again take the helm at Ardmore High School. At 70 years old, he does not shy away from an evolving education system even as he mentions a disdain for cell phone use among modern students.

“What children needed in the 90s, they don’t need now,” he said.“If you have a living curriculum, then you’re growing with your children and growing with your community.”

Along with developing classes and lessons, Ardmore High School and other public schools must follow guidelines and meet requirements set out by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Regardless, Meece balances between a structured education system and a level of freedom for classrooms to teach Ardmore teenagers.

He ruffled some feathers early on in Ardmore but knew the facilities at Southern Tech should house updated courses that high school students — and employers — found valuable. With strong backing from his board of education at the time, a strong bond was formed between the two schools.

“When you look back at what they offered then and what they offer now, [it] is ridiculous,” he said, noting that annual student surveys now help keep the curriculum modern.

Students are now asked in January and February what classes would be interesting in the following school year, either on campus or other outside opportunities. He then meets with colleagues and his staff to determine whether new classes should be added or old classes should be dropped.

This approach seems to have had an impact on vocational school enrollment numbers. When he first arrived in Ardmore in 1989, fewer than 30 students attended Southern Tech; today, 90 students attend Southern Tech and another 66 are concurrently enrolled elsewhere.

Meece admits many classes have simply been dropped over the years while others have evolved. Even though some classes like typing and dictation have been outdated for decades, others like wood shop are being replaced with more practical classes.

“They need to understand interest, they need to understand credit cards,” he said of students. Along with a personal finance class offered at Ardmore High School, Meece said a state-mandated course in life skills for freshmen helps incoming students understand exactly what is expected in high school with one-on-one guidance.

That class will be expanded to Ardmore seniors next year to include lessons for independent living, like utilities and banking.

“By the time they get to be seniors, they don’t remember or they don’t think about it,” he said, noting that a student as a freshman may not take the class as seriously as that same student three years later.

A review of the available course offerings at Ardmore High School suggests classes like food prep and nutrition, personal finance and textiles appear to have replaced the once popular home economics. While typing and dictation have been gone for a decade or more, classes about computer applications, desktop publishing and web design are an indication of what skills future graduates will take with them into adulthood.

“There are some of our early technology classes that we’ve had to do away with or revamp and start over again,” he said.

A seemingly perplexing course offering over the years has been creative writing. Interest in the subject from students and teachers has ebbed and flowed since the early 1990s.

“We went through a creative writing deal where we had creative writing, then all of a sudden nobody wants to do creative writing,” he said. “I’ve got it back now.”

One way Ardmore High School has evolved with the broader education system is the amount of advanced placement, or AP, course offerings. Upon Meece’s arrival in 1989, he said AP courses were not effective and were eventually ended in the early 1990s. After a few years the program was revamped and currently includes six AP classes and six AP prep classes.

“They don’t just make it harder, it is very specific as to what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Teachers in the AP and pre-AP classes send home letters before the school year begins to prepare the students for the rigorous course. A review of a letter for a pre-AP English class includes a summer reading list so lessons can begin on the first day of class.

“The ninth and tenth grade Pre-AP English courses are designed to prepare students for the demands of the high school eleventh and twelfth grade (college level) Advanced Placement (AP) courses,” the letter reads. “The pace is extremely fast with the expectation that students will complete reading and writing assignments every night,” it continues.

According to information from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, advanced placement is meant to give college-bound students an academic edge after high school. The state’s Advanced Placement Incentive Program includes rules for granting annual financial assistance to schools and teachers based on the number and performance of students from the previous year.

“When I was in school, I never had to do anything to get into classes except show up,” Meece admitted.

Meece said the first history class he taught at the beginning of his career was by the book, but a few years of experience led to a complete change.

“In the last history class I taught...I didn’t teach the book,” he said. “I went out and found stuff and all my stuff was personal stuff.”

Instead of passively lecturing to students only 30 years after the end of World War II, he instead asked the teenagers to talk to their parents and grandparents about their wartime experiences. As a result of his evolved teaching method, one particular student ended up learning about his grandfather’s time with the Tuskegee Airmen, the segregated Army Air Corps program that trained African American soldiers during World War II.

The lesson soon turned into an exciting chapter for the entire community. “We came back from lunch at 12:30 p.m., had 25 kids in that classroom, and every kid was in their seat at 12:15 p.m.,” Meece said. “What I could do with them in two days took me five days to do with the rest of my classes.”

Thanks to that experience, Meece said he now allows his teachers to use trial-and-error to develop teaching methods that students can appreciate. Just this year, students were given the freedom to learn a history lesson and ended up developing a natural curiosity about Native Americans.

“They realize this is real, this isn’t some textbook stuff,” Meece said.“When you get them hooked into that, that's where your curriculum grows. They will create the curriculum if you let them.”