SARATOGA -- The last time Mark Lyford had been in a high school classroom was in 1989, when he was a student at Kelly Walsh High School.
Perched atop a stool in an earth science class at Saratoga High School, Lyford listened as teacher Laura Sanches introduced the lab activity for the day. Sanches explained a sundial experiment, pausing several times to answer questions and deal with interruptions.
Half of her 11-student class had special needs and were on individualized education plans.
Lyford, a professor and director of the life sciences program at the University of Wyoming, could not imagine teaching a lecture where half the students required extra help. While college faculty usually know which students have special needs, they don't adapt their teaching the way high school teachers have to, said Lyford.
"The cultures we work in are so different," Lyford said. "We have a lot of the same goals and challenges, but we really live in different worlds."
Lyford and staff members from the Wyoming School-University Partnership at UW visited Carbon County School District 2 to learn more about student success in high school and college. Professors observed science classes and talked with older students and teachers.
The Partnership aims to build relationships between middle schools, high schools, community colleges and the university, said director Audrey Kleinsasser.
"It seems like such a no-brainer to talk to each other," said Kleinsasser. "American education has done such a good job separating us. It shouldn't be as hard as it is, but it takes effort."
In February, ten teachers and administrators from Carbon 2 visited UW. They met with professors and students and attended LIFE 1010 -- the big introductory life science class. The class was downsized from several hundred students to 200 -- about how many high school students enrolled in the district this year.
Dim numbers regarding freshman retention got the attention of the Partnership. About 25 percent of freshmen are placed on academic probation by the end of the first semester. About 30 percent of Hathaway Scholarship recipients lost their scholarship during the first year.
"Students have to be ready for university work, but the university needs to be ready for them," Kleinsasser said.
Small town to big university
Imagine your first class in college is the size of your entire high school.
That's the case for students in Saratoga, Encampment and many towns in Wyoming. Nearly every junior and senior at Saratoga said they planned to go to college, but they wondered if they would be ready to jump from small school to large university.
"It's cool to be friends with everybody but it doesn't prepare me to leave Saratoga," said senior Shay Neville.
If a student isn't in his seat when the bell rings, the teacher goes looking for him, said students. That won't happen in college.
"It's going to be a lot less personal," Neville said. "If you need help here, a teacher is always there for whatever you need."
Lyford acknowledged a difference between high school teachers and professors.
"It's not that faculty don't care," Lyford said. "It's a shift from faculty watching over you."
Students also said they wouldn't benefit from a curriculum that forced them to take harder, more academic courses in their senior year. They want to take courses they like.
How high to set the bar is a challenge for Wyoming teachers. If only 10 to 20 percent of Jim Colman's students will go to college, should he teach college readiness?
"There's got to be a way to get all kids ready for college," Colman said. "Somehow, we've set expectations so high we've forgotten part of our population."
Teachers said they struggle to motivate students. Sometimes technology works as a hook, but teachers questioned whether material is actually learned or just copied.
"Kids gotta think," superintendent Bob Gates said. "Whether they go to college or get a job, they gotta think."
High school teachers have such breadth and diversity in student motivation, said professor Greg Brown, head of the botany department at UW. At the college level, students are motivated by a profession.
It's not just UW -- every university is facing the same problem, said Brown.
"Students have to have the ability to learn new skills, pick up new things," Brown said.
At the end of an anatomy class, teacher Josh Sandlian showed Lyford examples of lessons he recently taught.
Vocabulary crosswords created with computer software. Coloring exercises to learn organs. A genetics test that becomes part of the student's "body of evidence," or collection of work required for graduation.
The test used a story problem -- students had to solve a mystery by examining genetic traits. One problem stumped many students even though Sandlian went over the concept multiple times
"It's not that they haven't been exposed to it," Sandlian said. "They get it, but it takes time to conceptualize these things."
Lyford nodded. The same thing happens in college -- students have seen a concept many times but don't understand it. Lyford hopes to repeat the site swap in another district next year and more in the future.
"If we can't do it in Wyoming, it can't be done anywhere else," Lyford said.
Sandlian had one more thing to show Lyford -- a binder from his first life science class from when he went UW almost 10 years ago. Drawings, notes, old tests -- Sandlian helps his students with the materials that helped him.
But he didn't hesitate to admit that things have changed.
Reach education reporter Jackie Borchardt at (307) 266-0593 or at email@example.com. Read her education blog at tribtown.trib.com/reportcard