By Katie Berger
Frisco, Texas has certainly come a long way from its humble beginnings in the early twentieth century. Frisco used to be a “one high school” town, the original Frisco High School opening its doors in 1902. It was primarily a railroad town, with only fields and homes stretching in each direction as far as the eye could see.
Now, as of 2016, the Frisco Independent School District has 9 high schools, with 4 more on the way. Countless aspects of the city have changed; several corporate headquarters have made their homes in Frisco, the Dallas North Tollway runs straight through it, and the Dallas Cowboys practice facility has attracted people from far and wide.
However, one thing has remained constant- Frisco ISD’s unwavering ability to help students reach their full potential and feel personally known and heard by adults in their school, even in the midst of recent unprecedented growth. What is Frisco ISD doing differently, and how have the choices made over the last 25 years helped maintain the benefits of its small town origins?
Some would call having 9 high schools excessive, but according to long time FISD school board member Buddy Minett, it was the people of Frisco’s choice. When asked what the thought process was behind keeping Frisco schools small, Mr. Minett said that “A number of years ago – in the early 90’s a survey was conducted by the school district asking parents if they preferred a model similar to Plano where the high schools were larger, but fewer in number, or if they preferred to go the more expensive route of smaller high school campuses that allowed for greater extracurricular participation and a more personal relationship with the principals and AP’s. The overwhelming response was smaller campuses.” He reiterated how small student class sizes “again foster personal relationships between students and staff. The trade-off is the higher cost of duplicating administration (principals, AP’s, counselors etc.)”
Former FISD superintendent, teacher, coach, and principal Dr. Rick Reedy has been involved with the district since 1976 and has played a key role in overseeing the entire process of Frisco’s exponential growth. He says of the purpose of the small school idea and its goals; “We put together a blue ribbon committee in the 1990’s and said ‘Okay, how do we want to grow? How do we want our district to look?’ It was strategic planning at the highest level. We worked with the city… ex-mayor Warren was on that committee, and city council members were on that committee. We were doing research, and all of the research at that time said the smaller your high school is, the more likely it is for students to be engaged in a productive way, in activities… If we could build smaller, we should build smaller… We had a noble purpose, and that was to make it better for kids. That’s the whole guiding thing. You need an adult on every campus that knows every student by name and need, and you can’t do that when you have 3,000 and 4,000 students.”
Frisco ISD has continued to set itself apart by choosing the road less traveled when it comes to final exams; Frisco does not take finals. Opinion is split fairly evenly among Frisco High School students on this subject. Some, like 11th grade Devan Delal, vouch for “selective finals, meaning teachers could choose to have finals,” while others, like 11th grade Brianna Royer, say “I am fine with it because it allows me to spend more time focusing on the other aspects of my life. Besides, AP tests are like finals that don’t harm your GPA.” Seniors, such as Kailey Rice, tend to feel stronger towards the lack of finals, as they are nearing college with every coming day; “I think it is one of the worst decisions that Frisco ISD has made. Although I would not enjoy finals, they would help prepare me for college.”
The reasoning behind this unconventional policy is focused on maximizing valuable learning time. Dr. Reedy explains that in the early 21st century, “We, as an administrative group, not just in Frisco but statewide, had been complaining for a long time about the overabundance and over reliance on standardized testing. We were spending all our time testing kids when we should be teaching kids. We said, if you’re going to make us do all of this standardized testing, then we will cut down on the testing that we do (i.e., finals). We did a study on it one time to look at the number of days that we were testing students, and it was an enormous number… There was too much testing and not enough teaching.”
Furthermore, the saving grace of hundreds of high school students throughout Frisco ISD has been the retake policy, under which a student can retake a major grade test for up to 85 points. This policy, relatively recently instated, has helped countless students save their GPA’s from a fatal blow and truly understand the material they are being tested over.
However, there is that ubiquitous idea constantly looming over students’ heads; college. There are no, and have never been, retakes in college, as any graduate can attest to. How is students’ ability use the retake as a crutch every time a major grade rolls around preparing them for higher education?
Isabella Alexander, 11th, is aware of this, saying “I rarely retake, as I study for the first test and almost always score well the first time. It is nice to have a retake policy in place for the times when I do not have time to properly prepare. However, this is not how it will be in college, which is worrisome for people who retake often.”
Maddie Gray, 11th, in contrast, says of the retake policy, “It’s a nice redo and I appreciate being allowed to make mistakes when I’m young.”
Why was the retake policy established, knowing that this second chance will not be available in neither higher education nor the working world?
“The whole purpose is mastery,” says Dr. Reedy. “There are a lot of ways to get the mastery, and just because you fail something the first time doesn’t mean that you can’t master it. If you master 85% of the essential elements of whatever the coursework is, why should we really care that it takes some students a little longer than others to get there? Students learn at different rates, and they have different abilities, and if you master the material, why should we care if you have to retake it?”
What do students think of FISD’s success in creating and maintaining a successful learning environment? When asked how Frisco ISD could improve students’ overall education experience, Mackenzie Ulam, 11th, summed up the responses fairly well, saying that she “feel[s] that outside of school assignments need to be beneficial, rather than a chore that most students feel they just need to get done before school the next day.”
The majority of Frisco High students surveyed made a comment about the weighty homework load placed upon students’ shoulders every night, even on breaks. Peyton Burnett, 9th, thinks that “students should get more time to complete their homework. This is because the teachers assign a massive amount of homework and students spend 2 days staying up until 1:30- 2:00AM, causing them to then sleep in class.”
Likewise, Kaela Ware, 10th, says “FISD as a whole could look into only giving us work that is beneficial and eliminate busy work all together to give us an advantage later in life and to be effective on our education.”
The vast majority of responses collected from students stated that their least favorite part of school is the stress and anxiety that accompanies it. As put by Ms. Ulam, “Anxiety rates sky rocket when school starts. The fact that school is affecting the mental health of some students is so unfortunate.”
“I’m not aware of any specific program to minimize stress and anxiety,” says Buddy Minett when asked if the district is doing anything to help ease this problem. “The smaller school concept should help in creating relationships where struggling students would feel comfortable discussion their concerns with teachers and administrators. Frequently, high achievers choose AP and other high rigor classes. They need to understand that stress comes with that additional rigor. I believe some level of stress and anxiety is a good thing. If we aren’t challenged, we won’t grow and learn to adapt to challenging situations. Once students move on to careers, they will be constantly put in situations with stress and anxiety. Having some experience and confidence should help as you grow in your chosen career.”
Dr. Reedy offers this advice from his 4 decades of involvement in Frisco ISD to students dealing with stress; “School has never been as rigorous as it is right now. But as far as alleviating that stress and anxiety- bring some balance into your life. Have an activity that you truly love and want to be a part of. You will not look back on the experience [of high school] as favorable if you didn’t have something other than just pounding the books night in and night out. Exercise, eat right, make sure that you’ve taken care of all of your mental, emotional, and psychological needs in some way or another, and don’t put it all into making sure you are valedictorian.”
Frisco ISD has provided its students with many opportunities to maximize the benefits of their education experience, whether it be through its elective/extracurricular programs focused on real world preparation, such as Independent Study and Mentorship and the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Center, or keeping its graduating classes small to guarantee that every student is known by name and need. Perhaps it is Frisco’s consistent “students first” mindset, and willingness to veer off the well-paved road to maintain it, that distinguishes it from the masses.