Americans are questioning the purpose of education, the content of curricula, and the right way for schools to admit students. While social-justice advocates challenge the notion of meritocracy, arguing that such concepts as achievement and empiricism are unjust or racist, defenders of traditional merit counter that these notions, when applied effectively, constitute the fairest system of evaluation and form the basis of the public benefits flowing from educational institutions. These debates can get especially heated with respect to selective high schools, which focus on high-level science and mathematics and adhere to rigorous admissions standards.
One group of schools, the FAU Lab School District, in Boca Raton, Florida, has managed to deliver impressive results while evading controversy. The district features two innovative public schools operating on the campus of Florida Atlantic University: A. D. Henderson University School, the nation’s third-ranked elementary school, and FAU High School, which boasts locations in Boca Raton and Jupiter and partners with the Max Planck neuroscience research institute.
These schools show that two crucial goals are not incompatible: offering accelerated learning and increased opportunity for underserved kids, while also helping fill the country’s need for graduates in the STEM fields. In fact, FAU High School is the only early-college model in America that offers students the ability simultaneously to earn their high school diploma and a cost-free bachelor’s degree, graduating college without debt. Both schools are built on the premise of access and affordability, aiming to break the cycle of poverty through extraordinary outcomes. They remind us that admission and education are interdependent—and that what a school does with its students, once it has them, is just as important as how it admits them.
In 1968, A. D. Henderson University School opened its doors as a developmental research school in partnership with the education program at the then-relatively new Florida Atlantic University. Though publicly funded, the school was built with generous philanthropic support from Lucy Henderson, widow of a businessman and philanthropic and political leader in Broward County.
Today, these two public schools inhabit a special lab-school district established by the Florida education department. (Other public universities in the Sunshine State also have lab schools on campus, each in their own special districts and with their own unique approaches.) Teachers are unionized, but represented by the professors’ union, not those associated with public school districts. The schools receive advisory support from FAU and a board composed of businessmen, university staff, parents, teachers, and students. The state legislature sets the schools’ annual funding in accordance with the state’s per-pupil requirements. The schools have no geographic zoning for admissions, and do not supply transportation; parents and students are willing to travel far to get there.
The schools have managed to sidestep political debates by implementing commonsense steps. They have adopted a parental bill of rights that, among other things, grants parents the right to review state assessment results, know the nature and purpose of clubs and activities at the school, inspect instructional materials, exempt their children from immunization, and opt their children out of instruction involving sexuality.
The FAU schools employ two vastly different admissions programs. Entrance to kindergarten is carried out by a lottery of applicants, though the schools must admit students from a mix of genders, races, family income, and student ability, as determined by state law. Entrance to ninth grade, meantime, is highly competitive, designed to attract students who demonstrate “outstanding academic ability, a high degree of motivation and maturity, concern for others, and have the goal of acceleration to the university academic environment while in high school.” High school admissions decisions are based on a review of students’ middle school grades, courses, and standardized test scores; a special admissions test; and an interview. Graduation from the A. D. Henderson school does not qualify a student for admission to FAU High School; administrators report that about 20 percent of graduates from Henderson continue at FAU.
Despite this selectivity, the two schools boast vibrant and diverse student bodies. On average, over the last few years, 30 percent of the students at Henderson and FAU High School met the federal definition of “economically disadvantaged” (any student from a family with income below the poverty level). In the most recent year, 1,325 students were enrolled in grades K-12 at A. D. Henderson school.
The quality of education is high. The FAU lab schools outperform Florida state averages across the board. On the 2022 state exams in math, science, and English, the proficiency rates for economically disadvantaged students were more than twice that for similar students statewide. In social science, FAU lab schools’ students were 96 percent proficient, compared with 59 percent for similar students statewide. Non-economically disadvantaged students outperform their peers statewide by 30 or more points in math, science, and English. In social studies, the lab school’s non-economically disadvantaged students are 100 percent proficient, compared with 76 percent statewide. Ninety students at FAU High School have earned bachelor’s degrees from FAU in the same semester that they earned their high school diploma: per school officials, the average FAU High School student graduates high school with around 100 undergraduate credits toward their degree. Twenty percent of the students will decide to finish their degree elsewhere, while 80 percent stay at FAU and graduate with a free college degree.
This exceptional record of achievement hasn’t required exceptional public exertion. State funding to the FAU lab schools, as provided by statute, is based on the spending by the county school district where the schools are located, though the schools are not part of that district. The state contributes the share provided by the local district as well as the money that flows through the state-aid funding formula. For the 2022–23 school year, the schools received $8,775 per student, only slightly above the statewide average of $8,552.
Both the elementary and high schools are led by a superintendent, Joel Herbst, who describes the philosophy: “Our students chase their curiosity here . . . solving problems that ordinary students would never even attempt, such as creating a new pathology slide series so doctors can better identify cancer cells from healthy cells.” His comments capture two critical aspects of the schools. First, they engage students in their own learning and support them as they do so—as opposed to drilling students on test prep or testing mastery of textbooks. Second, the schools employ accelerated learning to the maximum possible degree, going beyond textbook content into contemporary real-world applications in complex areas, from medical research to robotics engineering. To solve these challenges, students need to master the skills found in many traditional textbooks and high school classes. But they do so generally through their own inquiry, not through abstract homework assignments and multiple-choice exams.
I have seen this inquiry-based methodology succeed in some of New York’s best alternative high schools, but these schools focus on the humanities. My visit to FAU’s lab schools was the first time that I have observed a STEM school take this path. Yet it all made sense: scientific learning is based on the disciplined system of conceptualization, experimentation, and analysis, not on a rush to the right and only answer.
The school also exposes students to the real-world practice of science and technology. Aside from problem-solving through hands-on experiences, students learn organizational and business skills: writing grant proposals for research projects, developing business models for the real-world use of their inventions, and seeking patents (which several have obtained). The idea is to blend the academic and vocational aspects of its subjects. Students learn to code as early as kindergarten; in grades K through eight, coding is blended throughout the curriculum.
I saw the school in action. First, I entered the Imaging Lab, where I met a graduate student and her high school assistant, who described the various technologies that students could use in the research—including a CT scanner, a scanning electron microscope, a microtome and embedding station, an inverted compound microscope, and a stereoscope. Part of a university research hub whose resources are available to high school students, the lab, as the school describes it, “provides students access to cutting-edge equipment to work on high-level research projects” that will “foster collaborations between our students and university mentors.”
The robotics lab was just as impressive. Across three rooms, underwater robots, drones, and advanced alternative-fuel vehicles were all under construction, on their way to national and international competitions. Middle and high school students have proved quite successful with their efforts, with four middle school teams from Henderson sweeping first through fourth place at the “Drones in School” national competition in Denver earlier this year. The school also placed first at International Seaperch Underwater Robotics in 2022 and has won numerous first-in-the-nation awards in middle and high school Engineering Olympiads. The schools’ Cane Institute (K-12 STEM) took fourth place in a worldwide underwater robotics competition.
The school’s emphasis on practical learning begins with the youngest students. I was astounded by my visit to the K-5 STEAM Lab, which included 18 kindergarten students and one teacher. There were no desks. Most students sat on the floor amid a huge pile of Lego blocks, assembling various objects for a class project. Others sat at computers, manipulating icons on the screen. I was told that, in the background, the computer was writing code for the things that the five-year-old students were creating visually. What struck me, I noted to Herbst, was that many young students were surrounded by things that could be distracting—Lego blocks, art materials, scissors—and that only one adult was present to supervise, yet everyone stayed on task. Engagement in the work at hand is something that the school inculcates in students from a young age.
That the Henderson School and FAU High School provide their students with such rich opportunities at a public institution and at low cost makes their record of achievement even more impressive. Their approach bears on some prominent aspects of education policy today.
First, the school is preparing a young and diverse group of students for a very rigorous high school program. Second, it admits students to its demanding high school program using a fair-but-difficult application process, implementing multiple measures to identify students most capable of meeting its demands. Third, it imagines accelerated, or gifted, education as much more than simply a deep dive into traditional subjects—instead, it allows students to be full partners in their own learning and to go as far as their talents can take them. Fourth, it provides a high-quality and free college education to qualifying students. In fact, FAU has now created cost-free pipelines to medical school for these high school students as well, helping its graduates become doctors without incurring debt.
Such a rigorous but nontraditional pedagogy is a national outlier. The students are not expected to study the traditional high school curriculum in accelerated classes, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate coursework. Rather, they are fully immersed in their undergraduate, dual-enrollment coursework beginning in tenth grade, only taking college-level classes on the university campus with the rest of the 30,000 FAU undergraduate population. Their technology, engineering, science, and math projects are not bound by textbooks but are experiential and derived through the scientific method. In fact, acceleration is encouraged in every grade, from kindergarten on. Should middle school students show the ability to take college courses, those opportunities are provided.
Can such a model scale nationwide? Superintendent Herbst describes the school’s project as no less than a “rescue mission to reengineer education in America” and to “save our country by reversing the downward spiral in our educational world rankings and increasing the production of talent to fill the jobs that we continually outsource to other nations.” While the lab schools have always organically provided support to other educational institutions, they also intend to expand the FAU Lab School Institute. The idea is to provide blueprints for their K-8 and early college high school models, as well as their specialized institutions and research programs. The Institute will provide consulting, support, and training for all aspects of new school design or improving existing K-12 schools. Most importantly, it will train aspiring school leaders and provide succession and sustainability plans for the school network that they plan to develop.
In other words, FAU’s lab schools have entered the preliminary stages of a deliberate process aimed at redesigning education. State-level universal school choice programs may assist the spread of this approach, which, along with its other virtues, might just rescue American education from the culture wars.
Top Photo: Alex Dolce, Florida Atlantic University