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October 1, 1997

Finding Safety in Small Numbers

When a Baltimore high school created small schools—or academies—within its big building, it found that a more personalized atmosphere is the antidote for many of the ills afflicting inner-city schools.
A recent report on high school reform, Breaking Ranks, cites anonymity and apathy as the leading causes of problems in the typical large high school. Students feel anonymous when they have no adult to turn to who knows them well and cares about their welfare. Students become apathetic when they must take required courses that have nothing to do with their goals and interests.
Patterson High School, a non-selective school of 2,000 students in Baltimore, Maryland, has shown how personalizing relationships and focusing the curriculum can turn a school around—even one that is unsafe and chaotic—and create a serious climate that is conducive to learning. Patterson has done this without resorting to two common solutions: expelling offending students and investing heavily in security measures.
The reforms Patterson has adopted, called the Talent Development Model, involve reorganizing the school into smaller, self-contained units. One large building now houses a Ninth Grade Success Academy, where teachers and students work in small teams, and five upper-level Career Academies that blend a college-prep curriculum with career interests.
In addition, instead of suspending or transferring students with bad attendance or discipline problems, Patterson established the Twilight School, an after-hours alternative setting in the building. Here, teachers give students short-term assignments (up to five weeks) to help them work on their problems in small classes and with counselors and other support personnel.

Toughing It Out

Before Patterson High School adopted the Talent Development Model two years ago, its halls and stairways were regularly filled with scores of students who should have been in class. Periodic efforts to control the situation merely chased the problems from one part of the building to another. Student vandalism went well beyond graffiti: Smashed windows and fires set in trophy cases left the impression of a war zone. Cafeteria periods were regularly punctuated by fights and flying food debris—some from students who were illegally attending more than one lunch period each day.
Faculty efforts to enforce discipline rules—dress codes forbidding hats and coats in class, behavioral codes outlawing radio earphones and dice or card games, and so on—were regularly met with profanity and general verbal abuse. Some students were so bold as to physically bump and otherwise hassle adults in the crowded corridors and stairways.
Patterson's teachers tried to make the best of an unruly situation. They papered over the windows on their classroom doors and concentrated on the students who wanted to learn. Each week, teachers would send dozens of class troublemakers to the vice principal's office, where discipline ranged from chastisement to short- or long-term suspensions. A bizarre game of musical chairs was set in motion as hundreds of expelled students transferred among the district's various high schools.
Not surprisingly, student and faculty attendance plummeted as conditions grew worse. A daily attendance rate of 50 or 60 percent of the enrolled students was not unusual, nor was having 10 percent of the faculty out for a "mental health" sick day. Poor student attendance inevitably led to course failures, grade retentions, and high dropout rates. After the 9th grade, enrollment dropped dramatically. Almost 1,200 9th graders but fewer than 250 12th graders attended school during 1994-95.
Only handfuls of 11th and 12th graders were enrolled in advanced mathematics and science courses even though district policy mandated these courses for all students. Teachers who had trained to be effective urban educators were frustrated in their attempts to attract large numbers of students to higher-level courses.
Because of the negative trends in attendance, dropout rates, and test scores, the Maryland State Department of Education cited Patterson as one of the first two high schools eligible for outside reconstitution. The state action caused the Patterson faculty to face up to school problems. During a planning year, the staff proposed creating smaller academies.

Changes from the Inside Out

Today, even the outward appearance of Patterson High School has changed. Unlike most schools, it has six separate entrances, each with a marquee announcing the academy the door leads to. The academies are separated from one another by internal walls and doors. The student body of each academy selects its own color to be used on student IDs and on signs, lockers, and decorations.
The management structure also personalizes the school. The faculty members of each academy have the authority to deal directly with student problems. Each academy has its own principal (formerly those who held vice principal positions in the larger school), its own academy leader (often a former department head), and its own guidance counselor. The principal and academy leader share responsibilities for discipline and instructional planning. One or both of them will usually be at the entrance in the morning to greet students and offer words of advice or encouragement.
Patterson continues to be led by a schoolwide principal who meets regularly with the leaders of each academy to set general policies and discuss general concerns. For most instructional and behavioral issues, however, authority is decentralized.
The management team and faculty of each academy are authorized to deal directly with attendance, discipline, and learning problems, referring students to schoolwide officials or specialists only in extreme cases. Teachers in the Ninth Grade Success Academy serve as their own attendance monitors. They may telephone the student (not the parents) at home with caring messages and problem-solving ideas.

A Successful Start and Transition

In the Ninth Grade Success Academy, the faculty is divided into five teams with four or five teachers to a team. Each team shares the same 150-200 students, and the entire team helps individual students with their problems. Classes follow a block schedule, enabling each team of teachers to have the same daily planning period. Teachers and students also get to know each other in regular team meetings. Teachers who have worked in middle school teams with young adolescents often select this academy.
As students begin their high school experience, a transition program is designed to prepare them to choose the career academy they will attend over the next three school years. They take the Self-Directed Search Career Interest Inventory and participate in several other self-awareness activities. They get information about the five academies from brochures, faculty descriptions, and student presentations. They then rank their academy preferences. (Students almost always get their first choice and never less than their second choice.) Students also get information about college alternatives and application procedures.

School Choice in Career Academies

The upper-level Career Academies share the same core college-prep curriculum but enable students in grades 10-12 (as well as teachers) to choose among five areas of interest: Arts and Humanities, Business and Finance, Environmental Sciences and Aquatic Studies, Sports Studies and Health/Wellness, or Transportation and Engineering Technology.
Each academy enrolls between 250 and 350 students and has its own faculty of 14 to 18 teachers. Students and teachers quickly come to recognize one another and to know everyone's name.
Students stay with the same homeroom teacher for three years—a relationship that further personalizes the school. In the homeroom sessions, the first 15 minutes of the day are set aside for advice and mentoring, as well as for the usual record keeping and routine administrative matters.
The faculty introduced the common core curriculum of college-prep courses to set high expectations and encourage a climate of serious purpose. To permit more depth of instruction (and to minimize traffic changes between classes), the school instituted a four-period day. In addition to the core academic courses, students take practical applications courses that relate to their academy's career theme. For example, the Arts and Humanities Academy offers a four-course sequence in computer graphics and illustration for which students can earn community college credit. This academy also offers law-related courses and an out-of-school internship with the Baltimore City Police district office. The Transportation and Engineering Technology Academy has a five-course sequence in automotive technology that can lead to a state technology certificate, entrance to a community college program, or a college engineering major. The Sports Studies and Health/Wellness Academy offers five courses in fitness and bio-nutrition with internship opportunities at a rehabilitation institute.
Teachers' selections of specific career academies are honored as scheduling allows. They then go to work to develop the career themes and special offerings for their classes.

Looking Up

The creation of small, caring learning communities has transformed the climate at Patterson High School. The halls and stairways are now safe places, students are in class when they should be, teachers teach with their doors open, and decorations or posters in the building remain up and graffiti-free. Surveys show that before the reforms, 85 percent of the faculty agreed that "The environment at this school is not conducive to learning." Now, 10 percent agree. Before the reforms, only 13 percent agreed that "This school seems like a big family, everyone is so close and cordial." Now, 67 percent agree.
Most encouraging is the upsurge in student attendance. It has risen from an average of 70 percent to 80 percent daily, while no other high school in the district has improved more than a point or two. As attendance has gone up, so too have student promotion rates from the 9th grade. Most recently, 80 percent of students earned enough credits at the end of the year to reach 10th grade, compared to 35 percent before the reforms were instituted.
Teacher attendance is almost perfect as well, and very few Patterson teachers have requested a transfer. In fact, a long waiting list of teachers now would like to join the Patterson faculty.
Patterson's staff is now introducing reforms to take advantage of the favorable climate for learning. They have planned more flexible time limits for academic courses to address the diversity of students' prior preparation. They are introducing new learning activities to engage students in higher-order learning tasks. They also are planning new ways of evaluating student work to allow students to show what they have learned in different ways and to recognize improvement as well as achievement.
The staff is also developing technical assistance materials—including timetables and implementation standards—to help other troubled high schools implement Talent Development and Career Academy reforms.

Not Succumbing to Temptation

In a troubled high school, it is tempting to invest heavily in security devices or to expel students who cause severe discipline problems. To be sure, some schools need a great deal of specialized security. And some students are so hostile to authority that they need an alternative setting for their education. But at some point, a nonselective school must stop rejecting difficult cases and start finding ways to adapt school to the diverse needs of its students. A school must help socialize young learners to work hard and adhere to academic and behavioral goals.
Patterson's experience shows that students will exhibit better behavior and more respect for their teachers and school building when they become members of a smaller learning community—a community that is focused on a course of study that the students themselves select because it matches their interests and career goals. Similarly, teachers are more willing to spend the extra time and assume the extra duties to take control of their school when they have more personal contacts—and common career-focused interests—with their students.
In these small academies, teachers and students know one another. And through common interests, students develop respect for a serious and civil academic climate. They see the connection between what they are learning in school and what they would like to do in life.
End Notes

1 National Association of Secondary School Principals, (1996), Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution (Reston, Va.: Author). See also D. Oxley, (March 1994), "Organizing Schools into Small Units: Alternative to Homogeneous Grouping," Phi Delta Kappan 75, 7: 521-526.

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