Sunday, August 26, 2001

Breaking down schools to build them up

CPS high schools to become smaller, subject-focused

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When 6,000 Cincinnati teen-agers go back to school Monday, they'll become part of one of the most ambitious efforts in the nation to remake failing public high schools.

        Over the next three years, big city schools that average 1,200 students each will be broken down into smaller schools-within-schools of 600 kids. Students will choose specialty areas for concentrated learning. Teachers will know every student by name. An emphasis on English, math, social studies and science is supposed to ensure that every teen is ready for college or career by graduation.

[photo] At Taft High School, teacher Pat Priore installs software to prepare for classes.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        These are big goals for Cincinnati Public Schools, where standardized test scores rank among the lowest in Ohio and where nearly half of students who enter as freshmen drop out before completing their senior year.

        “This is a huge deal,” says Dr. Michael Klonsky, a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the nationally recognized Small Schools Workshop there. “While the world has gone through incredible changes — from the Berlin Wall collapsing to space exploration — high schools are the same as they have been for the last century.”

        He says Cincinnati is “on the cutting edge for change.”

        “People all around the country are going to be watching,” Dr. Klonsky says.

        Much is at stake as the city overhauls its five neighborhood high schools — Aiken, Taft, Western Hills, Withrow and Woodward — in the biggest high school reform here since the first of the schools was built in 1919.

        Fail, and the high schools risk continued alienation of students who suffer from poor attendance and even poorer achievement, experts say.

        Succeed, experts say, and students could thrive like those at Cincinnati's smaller specialty schools, including Clark Montessori and the School for Creative and Performing Arts.

    Start-up costs for Cincinnati's high school overhaul are being financed by philanthropic organizations and the federal government.
    The government established a $42.3 million competitive grant program for districts to create smaller student learning groups. Cincinnati received $1.5 million.
    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also gave the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota $8 million to help three school districts implement small learning groups. Cincinnati and West Clermont are among them.
    Both districts also will share $250,000 from KnowledgeWorks, a Cincinnati-based education philanthropy, to spur community involvement in the high school redesign.
        “We have a tale of two cities, or different worlds, here,” says Dr. Steven Adamowski, superintendent of Cincinnati schools. “We have not been organized to impact the lowest-income students who need the most assistance.”

        The high school restructuring may be the district's best chance to change that, he says.

        Business leaders, too, are behind the overhaul, citing the long-term effect of quality schools on a region's economic well-being.

        “If you want a healthy work force,” says John Pepper, chairman of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., “you have to have kids who grow up to be educated.”

Change is now

        Change already is under way at Taft High School. The low-performing West End school is now wired with state-of-the-art computer equipment for a smaller school that will focus on information technology.

        The brick high school built in 1955 may be outdated — ventilation is inadequate, few rooms are air-conditioned and the building doesn't meet federal guidelines for the physically impaired. But students this fall will be able to learn the latest in Web page design and graphics and animation production on 100 new computers in new labs and 80 laptop computers on mobile units.

        Taft is the first high school to be subdivided into smaller, more specialized “senior institutes” for juniors and seniors. The Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School is designed to prepare kids for high-paying computer careers.

        “These are not window-dressing changes,” says Don Ellis, who has taught at Taft for 17 years. “These are serious changes based on high expectations. The majority of the staff believes we can do it. Now we have to convince the students they can do this.”

        The senior institutes are just part of the plan.

        Over the next two to three years, Taft and the four other urban high schools will be broken into eight to 10 smaller schools within the existing five buildings. One or more “core high schools” at Aiken, Taft, Withrow and Western Hills will have about 600 students each and operate with a separate focus, staff and budget. Woodward's structure is still being designed.

        Each core high school will have a preparatory academy stressing strong academics. Here, all freshmen and sophomores will be further divided into teams of about 100 students with five teachers.

        When students reach the 11th and 12th grades, they will flow into the senior institutes, where they'll pursue specific interests as well as upper-level academic courses. Besides information technology at Taft, other senior institutes will include an international language and business school at Withrow.

        Several schools will have senior institutes with a university focus, where students will take traditional college prep courses. Each of these institutes will be affiliated with an Ohio college or university, and some courses may count toward college credit.

        Students eventually will be able to apply to any high school in the district.

        School officials say they approved the restructuring not on faith alone, but armed with research that says smaller is better and having a focus is best.

        Gone will be the days, they say, when a young person can be lost among 1,750 classmates or a teacher must remember 250 new names every semester.

        Dr. Adamowski says he was greatly dismayed when a survey in 1999 showed that 30 percent of Cincinnati high school kids said their teachers would not miss them if they didn't come to school for a week.

        “On a personal level, that toughened my resolve that we would have high schools in which if a student was out, they would be missed and someone would call,” he says.

Guiding Christopher

        Christopher Ruff, a 15-year-old freshman, can't wait to go to Taft on Monday.

[photo] Angelia Brewer (center) and her daughter Crishia talk with Michael Terner, senior institute manager, in the computer room of Taft High School.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        “I like school,” he says, relaxing at home with his legs draped over an armchair. “It gives me something to do.”

        Christopher says he gets mostly As and Bs now, but was held back in third grade. Both his younger sisters failed third grade, too.

        “The system doesn't work for everyone,” says his mother, Angelia Brewer.

        She wants more for her children than she had. She wants to see them earn college degrees.

        Mrs. Brewer and her three children, ages 12 to 15, live in a small, sparse apartment in a rough part of Avondale where drug dealers regularly work the corner. She struggles to pay her $400 rent, plus utilities, food and expenses.

        But the single mother, who works two jobs, is taking steps to make sure her kids succeed. She enrolled Christopher and his sister, Chrishia, 14, in Cincinnati schools' Bloom Back-on-Track Accelerated Middle School two years ago. The school helps students who have failed make up two grades in one year.

        Now, Mrs. Brewer hopes they'll find their niche at Taft.

        “This gives kids a trade before going out into the world,” Christopher says. “Whatever I choose to do, I'm sure computers will be involved.”

        When Chrishia and Mrs. Brewer walked through the school last week for a tour, they saw that the cracked and dingy off-white and turquoise colors had been replaced by a bright new coat of cream paint.

        All the doors and finishings on each floor are colored either Reds red, Bengals black and orange or Taft Senators green and gold.

        But changes go well beyond the surface.

Schools get a focus

        The West End School sits amid a dense urban population, and its classrooms are undersized by current standards. But by Monday, the school will be transformed into a 21st-century information technology institute.

        In addition to learning Web design, up to 100 students will have their homes wired with high-speed Internet access by Cincinnati Bell. Bell also will provide computers for those students to use at home.

        School officials say the new specialty programs are unlike vocational schools of the past, which taught students everything they needed to build and repair a car, but not to read proficiently.

        “The bottom quarter of students have not been challenged before,” says Jim Watts, vice president for state services of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. “We would argue that those students need to be challenged.”

        In 1987, Mr. Watts' organization started a concept called High Schools That Work — a comprehensive school reform initiative that combines challenging academic courses with modern career and technical studies to improve achievement of career-bound high school students.

        “Rather than assume some students don't get it, you must assume all students will,” he says.

        That initiative began with 28 sites. By 2000, it had grown to more than 1,100 schools in 26 states.

Nurturing Chrishia

        Christopher's sister, Chrishia, says she gets Bs, Cs and some Ds. She's the kind of student whom the “small schools concept” is designed to rescue, school officials say.

        In a room with her family, she lets Christopher take center stage making jokes and tossing candy around the room.

        “I don't like school,” she says. “It's boring. They talk about the same thing every day.”

        Quiet yet quick with an opinion, Chrishia has little interest in the computer program at Taft.

        “I'm going to be flipping burgers,” she says.

        But there's more to her than she wants to admit. That's shown by the artwork hanging in rows on her mother's wall.

        One piece stands out — a black silhouette of a woman set against a tissue paper mosaic window. It was displayed two years ago in Cincinnati's all-school exposition.

        If Chrishia weren't enrolled at Taft, she would be going to Woodward, one of the smallest city high schools with 800-plus students. But even there, a teacher might breeze past her as a kid destined to fail.

        If Cincinnati's plan succeeds, the five teachers who will supervise Chrishia's small group of students will be expected to do more than teach. They'll also be expected to know Chrishia by name, know which subjects trouble her and know that she likes to design silhouettes against colorful tissue paper mosaic windows.

        Students also will have more extracurricular opportunities because studies show that kids who are involved in activities have higher rates of completion, Dr. Adamowski says.

Leader takes challenge

        To attract enough teachers to implement the plan, the schools have conducted job fairs and are offering a home-buying program with reduced-rate loans. About 300 teachers are new to the district this year.

        At Taft, eight teachers traveled to Washington, D.C., this summer to learn new teaching techniques.

        Most teachers assembled with their new five-person teams for the first time Friday during a planning session to organize team rules and procedures.

        “People can always use more preparation,” says Michael Turner, Taft's senior institute manager. “But I feel confident it will come together nicely.”

        Leadership in each school will be key.

        For Taft, the district chose a leader who's had success with students at risk of failing.

Changes in high schools
        New Principal Anthony Smith is known by many as the tough disciplinarian behind the success at Lafayette Bloom Middle School in the West End, which had been slated to close in 1999.

        Mr. Smith and the staff petitioned the district to turn the building into an alternative school where kids who have failed a year or more can catch up to their grade levels in a year's time.

        A sign in his office sums up his philosophy: “Don't Make Excuses. Make Improvements.”

        By the end of Bloom's first year, about 80 percent of 7th graders had successfully completed the program and were “back on track,” Mr. Smith says.

        Now his challenge is to help remake Taft.

        “My goal is to be in the classroom every day,” he says. “I want to see if teachers are actually doing what they're supposed to be doing.”

Questions remain

        Still, questions remain about Cincinnati's ambitious restructuring plans.

        While the city plans to gear its core high school size to what it considers a cozy 600 students, some researchers say that's still too large.

        Some kids will continue to fall through the cracks, says Dr. Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group and chairman of the Harvard Seminar on Public Engagement at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

        “You cannot find an elite private American day school that has more than 100 students in its graduating class,” he says.

        Cincinnati's goal of 600, he says, is “better than nothing but not ideal.”

        Schools with a specialty focus also can be problematic if they pigeonhole or “track” students into specific vocations, says Mary Anne Raywid, professor emeritus of educational administration and policy studies at Hofstra University in New York.

        Meanwhile, parents and members of the community remain tentative, yet optimistic, about the radical changes.

        “I'm depending on this system,” says Angelia Brewer, mother of Christopher and Chrishia. “I'm going to give it the next two years.”


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