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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

How One High School Improved School Climate

From block scheduling to an adopt-a-kid program, staff at a California school tried a variety of ways to connect with their students on a personal basis. The results were remarkable.

“Personalization is the single most important factor that keeps kids in school,” according to Ted Sizer, founder and director of the Coalition for Essential Schools.
Huntington Beach High School is not a Coalition School. While class sizes throughout the state of California lead the country in the too-many-kids-per-teacher category, the situation in Huntington Beach is particularly dismal. After more than a decade of declining enrollment, the district contract now allots 180 students per teacher per day—far beyond Sizer's recommended limit of 80 students per teacher day!
Nevertheless, three years ago the staff at Huntington set out to test Sizer's theory. Since 1991, the school has gone from being generally regarded as a “nonperforming” school to being selected as a California Distinguished School. A number of programs contributed to Huntington's dramatic turnaround.

Know Your Students

A personalized education, according to Sizer, is one where students are known by adult professionals in the school. Huntington Beach enrolls approximately 2,000 students—9th through 12th grades—with 37–40 students per class. It is roughly 34 percent minority, and like many high schools in the country, has seen an increase in violence and suspendable behaviors over the years. Previous administration had taken the usual steps to curb unacceptable behaviors, such as discontinuing evening activities like dances and instituting a stricter dress code.
In 1991, the new administration looked the situation over and, as one might predict, found that the small percentage of the student population that was engaging in unacceptable behaviors was also generally the same population that was less than successful in their classes as reflected in their report cards. This revelation led to the development of our first program.
The vice principal of supervision, school psychologist, nurse, and community outreach liaison all created “hot lists,” if you will, of students viewed as not on track to graduate due to some type of behavior problem. In addition, all teachers jotted down the names of their top 10 students who appeared to need extra attention. The district office provided a list of all students with three or more Fs on their last report card. Using the various lists, we then cross-referenced the names and made efforts to get to know these kids by name.
First, we initiated an adopt-a-kid program by matching up adult volunteers on campus with one or two students of their choosing from the list. The goal? Lend a listening ear for the student. Give information where needed and support or advice when asked. As every student has a distinct learning style, every adult has a unique personality style, and we attempted to match these. The adults met with the students before school, after school, at lunch, or during class, when appropriate. To ensure frequent contact, several of the teachers made the student their class aide. Although some adults met with their students less frequently, at least one adult on campus was able to greet the student by name.
At the same time, we formed a weekly group to discuss the progress of students on the list. Members of our group included the vice principal, assistant principal, psychologist, nurse, community outreach liaison, and other staff. Our group functioned much like a student study team, but our focus was not limited to special education students. As a result, all of the student services personnel kept in close communication and were able to compare notes, ensuring that the left hand knew what the right hand was doing.

Honor Thy Students

Each quarter the principal presented a Most-Improved Student Award, based on teachers' suggestions. The principal called these students out of class to personally present the awards: a key chain with their name on it (provided by our parent/teacher association), a certificate, and a letter for their parents. In addition, the principal read the personal comments the teacher had written about the student. Many of the students on the adopt-a-kid list went on to became most-improved students.
At the same time, school administrators continued the Student of the Month program, which honored outstanding students by placing their names on the school marquee and mentioning them in the principal's newsletter. We also initiated an Athlete of the Month program.
At student forums, which met twice a month at lunch in the principal's conference room, any student could discuss school policy and activities or voice any complaints. By having the vice principal chair the forum, the school showed students that their ideas were valued and worthy of administrative time.

Take a Stand Against Violence

A yearlong green-ribbon campaign, initiated by the principal, promoted awareness of and expressed a no-tolerance position toward school violence. This program was structured after the red-ribbon campaign, which designated a weeklong anti-drug awareness program. Every Tuesday, staff and students wore green ribbons to show their anti-violence stance. Ribbons were not passed out en masse, however; students had to request them from the front office. The response to the voluntary program was phenomenal. Within a month, students were donning the green ribbons—everywhere from their hair to their shoelaces.
In another effort, the principal convened a panel to discuss the increase in violence in the community. The panel included a juvenile court judge, a probation officer, a local detective, local police officers, and a mother whose son had been killed by gang gunfire. The principal organized a period-by-period school assembly (to ensure a smaller audience for the question-and-answer period). As a result of this candid discussion, students were empowered with firsthand knowledge about how illegal and violent acts are dealt with in the justice and penal systems. They were also touched by a personal account of the pain of senseless violence.

Try Block Scheduling

Perhaps the most significant change that emerged from all of these efforts occurred during the 1993–94 school year. The staff at Huntington voted to try block scheduling. Accepting that they had no control over the 180 students each teacher was responsible for, they recognized that they could change the context in which they saw those students. With block scheduling, teachers see only two or three classes each day but for longer periods of time, thereby reducing the daily load to closer to 80. The longer periods of time, in addition, promote a more personalized environment.
The staff also instituted a tutorial period at the beginning of the block days, 30 minutes during which any student with a question could go to any teacher for one-on-one help. This systemic change was a dramatic departure from the traditional schedule—the only one most of these veteran teachers had known.

Realize the Benefits

  • The school had the lowest expulsion rate (only one) and suspension rate in the entire district for 1992 and 1993.
  • Of the students on the “hot list,” 51 percent improved their grade point averages in both of the following years.
  • During 1993–94, the entire list was reduced by 50 percent from the very start! (This was probably a result of the tutorial and block scheduling.)
At the same time, on the annual senior survey, 12th graders gave Huntington a higher rating than that of any senior class in the district (The district includes six comprehensive high schools and one continuation school). This was a first for Huntington! Test scores also rose, probably a reflection of the greatly improved climate around campus.
At the spring dance, held on a boat last year, the ship personnel commented that of all of their school groups that year, Huntington students had been the best behaved.
It is now common to see all school administrators out and about campus between classes, talking to students and calling them by name. Students and staff are generally smiling and greet one another with a “Hi, so-and-so.” One staff member commented that 1994 was the best year he could remember in 18 years at the school. Another said this is the first time in 14 years that she's felt safe in a school assembly with the entire student population present.
Huntington accomplished all of these programs with no grants, no extra funding, and no additional manpower. These simple efforts to personalize the school experience led to dramatic improvements. The problems we faced, however, are not unique. Other schools willing to invest the time can accomplish the same results.

Rebecca Shore has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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