Tough high school’s turnaround offers lessons

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It’s the holy grail of urban school reform: Fixing a chronically poor-performing high school. Everybody knows the symptoms. Student achievement is dismal, physical resources are scarce, student violence is high and parent support is low. Even teachers and principals are pessimistic about the future.

Solutions are elusive. Various models of reform have cured ailing elementary schools, but at the secondary level, results have been mixed.

Most of these models focus on modifying procedures, not personnel.

Chicago Public Schools has concentrated its efforts at improving problem high schools on teacher performance, but so far to little avail. In 1997, CPS subjected seven failing high schools to reconstitution, a get-tough measure that allowed the board to evaluate and dismiss teachers. A year later, the board rolled out re-engineering, a kinder, gentler version of reconstitution that holds teachers accountable through peer reviews. This year, CPS hit five schools with what might be called the iron fist of accountability—intervention.

If high schools were patients, intervention is shock therapy. With no warning, the board swooped into each school, hired a new principal and assigned a team of educators to realign curriculum and coach classroom teachers. Principals at intervention schools are charged with observing teachers and evaluating all staffers. Teachers who are struggling will get extra help; those who fail to improve by year’s end may be fired.

By comparison, high school reform models commonly used in other schools districts are more akin to regular exercise.

Talent Development, developed at Johns Hopkins University, is such a model. Its signature feature is a 9th-grade academy, a separate school for groups of up to 180 freshmen who are assigned to work with four core subject teachers. Freshmen get a double dose of math and reading in 90-minute, block-scheduled courses. Upperclassmen are enrolled in career academies—small, self-contained units, each with its own teachers, administrative staff and, in many cases, physical entrance. The idea is to create more intimate environments inside sprawling, impersonal high schools.

Even in turbulent school districts, Talent Development has helped some high schools improve the odds for achieving better academic performance. Philadelphia, a school district hamstrung by budget deficits and union warfare, is one.

Strawberry Mansion High School has a charming old world name, but in recent years has been saddled with contemporary urban problems. More than 90 percent of its 1,750 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Violence was common in the mid-1990s. One year, police were arresting an average of one student every school day. Fewer than half of 9th-graders graduated in four years and overall daily attendance was a dismal 65 percent.

Mansion, as it is known, is located in North Philadelphia, a high-crime, high-poverty area with a surplus of abandoned homes.

Before it adopted Talent Development in 1998, Mansion had been divided into small, career-focused schools. The school also had divided the day into 90-minute class periods. But smaller schools and block schedules had no effect on Mansion’s out-of-control students or high 9th-grade failure rate.

Terry Finley, a science teacher with 20-years experience, says teachers made little progress because students often missed class. “Kids would cut classes and find places to hide,” he says.

Second choice

In 1997—after an unsuccessful experiment with reconstitution—then-Superintendent David Hornbeck ordered the city’s schools to find and adopt research-based reform models. First, Mansion tried a model focused on high academic standards, but it failed to address other weaknesses and was a poor fit. Principal Charles Highsmith decided to ditch the model after a year and opted for Talent Development instead.

Talent Development staffers worked with Mansion’s teachers and principal for a year to prepare them to launch the model, says William Morrison, who oversees Talent Development’s Philadelphia schools.

Teacher buy-in is a critical ingredient. Talent Development requires that 80 percent of them support the model. Weeks before a vote, Morrison and researchers from Johns Hopkins visited teachers personally to make their pitch. Some teachers traveled to Baltimore to visit Patterson High, which received national attention for its success as the first Talent Development school in 1996. (Morrison was Patterson’s ninth-grade principal.)

Lydia Gonzalez, ninth-grade team leader, says the campaign gradually convinced an overwhelming majority of the staff to support the model. Ninety-one percent voted to approve.

After the vote, Mansion teachers remember the most visible sign of change the first year: The walls. About a dozen walls equipped with double doors were built throughout Mansion’s three-story building. Almost immediately, the number of hallway stragglers and student brawls declined. The walls helped teachers accept the idea that real change was afoot, says Morrison.

Once the walls were built, Highsmith began filling the newly created team leader and academy principal positions.

Gonzalez was named one of two 9th-grade team leaders. Her job is to monitor teachers and identify those who need the extra help of a Talent Development curriculum coach. Gonzalez also helps teachers get classroom supplies and plan student field trips. Team leaders report to the academy principal, whose administrative duties include student discipline and community outreach. Teachers, team leaders and academy principals pitch in to recover truant students and engage parents.

The opportunity to take on a leadership role motivates teachers to do more, says Gonzalez. “It makes teachers ask, ‘How can I make a difference when things aren’t working?'”

Putting more teachers in leadership roles also primes the pump for future principals, Morrison says. Grooming strong school leaders is essential for long term school improvement, he adds. “Reform never ends.”

Not all of Mansion’s teachers bought into the program immediately, and some never did. About 40 of Mansion’s 150 teachers left in the first two years of Talent Development, says Principal Highsmith. More have requested transfers. However, new teachers are assigned to Mansion based on seniority, Highsmith can not hire his own replacements.

“This model would be absolutely dangerous if we could hire teachers,” Highsmith says.

Such union rules also have limited how much impact Talent Development can have on teacher performance. Morrison notes that the model was designed to adapt to such circumstances. He says it’s not about getting rid of teachers because, “there’s no long line of teachers to get into these urban schools.”

Some teachers have a different view of the model’s limitations. Talent Development has done more to change 9th grade than it has upper grades, they say. Bruce Ressner points out Talent Development has not changed the way he teaches 12th-grade social studies. “The professional development we’ve received has been useless,” he says.

But many teachers credit Talent Development for imposing structure and order on Mansion where there was none. Diane Holliday, a 27-year Mansion teacher, says since team leaders and academy principals were added to the staff, the academies can work more independently. Working with her 10th graders has been easier, too, now that 9th graders are in a separate school. “We are able to put things in the hall and walls and not worry about them being torn down,” she says.

Even Ressner admits Talent Development has made the career academies more effective by boosting attendance and cultivating better teacher-student relationships. “Academic improvement comes from [regular] attendance, from teachers knowing the kids and parents knowing the teachers,” he says.

Good marks

Some researchers give Talent Development high marks for improving school climate and paving the way for academic success.

Under Talent Development, Mansion has seen its attendance jump to 77 percent and its 9th-grade pass rate increased to 67 percent. Those are the largest gains any city school has made, Morrison says.

Test scores have been tougher to move. Ninth-grade math scores inched higher in the first year, but reading scores have barely budged. Morrison expects improved second-year results once students are tested this spring.

Highsmith admits, “The rigor of our instructional program has to improve.”

One local watchdog gives Mansion credit for taking on a school reform initiative under difficult circumstances. The Philadelphia school district has no power to discipline subpar teachers and schools, says Paul Socolar, editor of the quarterly Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Reconstitution is an empty threat, he adds.

Still, Talent Development is slowly helping Mansion—once deemed a lost cause—recover its academic footing. “Thank God there is a model that gives you some stability,” says Highsmith.