When Sadie Pressman of Harpswell arrived at her new school in a French-speaking region of Switzerland, the first thing she noticed were the windows lining every wall.

“Every single classroom had a window,” said Pressman, who at the time was a student at Mount Ararat High School in Topsham. “I was coming from a high school where most classrooms didn’t even have a window.”

Sadie Pressman of Harpswell, shown here being interviewed at her home in Switzerland, is one of four students featured in a documentary slated to be released this week. Photo courtesy of  Dinky Pictures LLC

Pressman is one of four students who participated in a documentary that follows American high school students as they spend a year attending school in other countries, according to an international education study, outperform the U.S.

The film, based on Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids in the World,” examines how education systems in other countries stack up against the United States’ and how the U.S. can improve. The documentary will be released exclusively on Discovery Plus on Thursday, August 19.

Tracy Tragos, the director of the film, said she signed onto the project because it’s told through the eyes of American students who are transplanted from schools in different parts of the country, to schools in Switzerland, South Korea, Finland and the Netherlands. They alone tell the listener what’s different in other countries that, if brought to the U.S., would help American students thrive.

“It’s easy to assume high school is something to get through and later on people will figure out who they are and who they want to be,” said Tragos. “I was most struck by the people I met and their drive, ambition and curiosity and how much was wasted by diminishing who they are, who they could be and what their interests are. There’s a lot of untapped potential, and that’s not something to be taken lightly.”

Sadie Pressman, stands outside Bulle High School, a regional high school in Switzerland where she spent her junior year. Photo courtesy of Sadie Pressman

In her book, Ripley cites the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an exam administered every three years to 15-year-old students around the world that assesses their proficiency in reading, mathematics and science. The standardized test was developed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental organization made up of 37 countries.

In 2018, 79 countries administered the PISA exam to more than 600,000 students in public and private schools. That year, the U.S. ranked 13th in reading, 18th in science and 36th in math and scored above average in reading and science, but below average in math.

Switzerland, where Pressman spent a year, ranked 28th in reading, 22nd in science and 11th in mathematics in 2018. The same year, four collective regions in China and Singapore came in first and second place, respectively, in all three categories.

Pressman spent her junior year living with a host family in Albeuve, Switzerland and attending Bulle High School, a regional high school with about 1,200 students. She said two differences between her American and Swiss schools stood out to her: the school environment, and the attitude about vocational education.

“Once I got to Switzerland, I noticed there was no stigma around the vocational program,” said Pressman. “In my own high school, the vocational program was stigmatized and underfunded. There was no other option for you if you didn’t want to do the standard academic route. The system encouraged everyone to go to high school then go to college.”

Ripley commented on this difference in the film, adding, “In Switzerland, you see the power in giving kids options as they get older and want more professional training instead of staying on a university track.”

Pressman said in Switzerland, students in a vocational program can begin working in their chosen field while still in school, giving them the opportunity to earn an income and learn on the job. If students decide they don’t like the field they chose, they also have the freedom to try a new field, something Pressman said she’d like to see more of in the U.S.

“Here, it can feel like we’re stuck in high school when you can’t pick a specialization, you just have to do a general ed., then you get to college and they say, ‘You should know what you want to do,’” she said. “We’re not incapable of making a decision of what we want to do at a young age.”

Aside from the attitude around vocational school, Pressman said she found a noticeable difference in how much freedom students are granted in Switzerland. For example, she said students could leave campus for lunch, something she couldn’t do in America.

“The kids seemed much older; they were given so much more independence,” she said. “We were way more trusted in Switzerland.”

Tragos argued the simple difference in allowing students to go to the bathroom without asking or leave campus for lunch fosters an underlying sense of autonomy that can help students thrive.

“In the United States, a lot of the schools I visited felt pretty bleak,” said Tragos. “They felt like, and I don’t say this lightly, they felt like prisons. These things have nothing to do with what’s going on in the classroom, but they’re about how these schools are set up.”

After her time in Switzerland, Pressman said she elected not to return to Mount Ararat High School and instead finished high school through online classes with the University of Southern Maine. She was then accepted to Smith College, but deferred after she was given a spot in the Disney on Ice tour. She leaves in September for her second tour with the figure skating show.


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