School officials' remedy is shrinking the size

Samuel Queen, 17, found the 2,300-student Lake Clifton-Eastern High School crowded and boring. Now, with 307 students, it's more pleasant.
Samuel Queen, 17, found the 2,300-student Lake Clifton-Eastern High School crowded and boring. Now, with 307 students, it's more pleasant. (Sun photo by Kim Hairston)
Forget equipping principals with cell phones and walkie-talkies, improving school lighting and repairing broken door locks. They're just bandages for this fall's increase in violence and disruptions.

The long-term solution to the fights and fires of Baltimore's schools, officials and experts say, is simply a matter of size.

The city's hulking, impersonal middle and high schools -- built in the 1970s, when Baltimore embraced the notion that large schools were more efficient -- are rapidly being transformed into smaller schools with higher academic standards and more support for troubled students.

Over the past two years, school system officials have divided three of their biggest high schools into 10 smaller schools, while opening four other small magnet high schools.

Although violent incidents across the system are up 40 percent in the first two months of this school year compared with the same period in 2003, other statistics show early signs that the smaller schools tend to be calmer places.

And a study last year shows that students report feeling safer in small schools.

City schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland says she is pleased with the initial results but frustrated that scarce dollars limit the system's ability to break up more of the big schools quickly. She also laments the perception of violence created by new federal rules, which have identified 15 of her schools as a year away from being labeled "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"We just don't have the financial and human resources capacity to do everything at once," Copeland said. "But we think, overall, it is the way to go and will, we think, have a tremendously positive impact on the violence we see primarily in larger schools."

Samuel Queen, 17, can attest to the difference. When he entered the ninth grade at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School in Northeast Baltimore -- which had 2,300 students at the time -- he found it violent, crowded and boring. He skipped classes and hung out with friends until his last-period English class with a teacher he loved.

"You couldn't feel safe," Queen said of his first months. "There was a whole lot of confrontation ... a lot of bumping."

All that has changed, he said, because the school has been reduced to 307 students, most of them seniors, as others are channeled into the new schools.

"It is like a small community. You know the people around you, and you feel safer," Queen said.

Although school officials believe that creating smaller high schools will help fix the discipline and academic problems that have troubled the city's neighborhood schools for the past decade, they caution that a small student body is only one ingredient in the formula.

Copeland warns that small schools also need improved teaching and leadership, greater academic rigor and a system of support for struggling students. Experts suggest that newly formed schools won't do well without a sufficient adult presence and an alternative to the current practice of passing trouble-making students from one school to the next.

Financial factor

All of that takes money -- a never-ending struggle for a system still trying to reduce a $58 million deficit.

Violence and disruption -- as well as poor academic achievement -- have been common in the city's large neighborhood high schools for years. In 2002, school leaders turned to a national education movement that calls for splitting large schools into more manageable ones of a few hundred students, each with its own principal and staff.

In what they described as their most serious effort to tackle academic and discipline problems, officials launched a major high school reform initiative, boosted by more than $20 million in national and local foundation grants.

So far, the city has divided Northern, Lake Clifton-Eastern and Southwestern high schools. Southern has been transformed into the state-of-the-art Digital Harbor High, and four new innovation high schools have opened, including two this year. Next year, officials plan to tackle Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy.

A recently released survey by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, done on behalf of the foundations supporting Baltimore's reform movement, suggests that students feel safer in the smaller city schools.

"Overwhelmingly, what we are finding is that small schools do work," said Milli Pierce, president and executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, one of the foundations. "We are two years into this. We have another three years. ... What I would say is that we are moving in the right direction."

Researchers asked students such questions as how serious a problem they consider fights and weapons to be at their school, whether they feel safe, and whether they believe their principal knows them.

Students at the city's two newest high schools -- New Era Academy and Baltimore Freedom Academy -- gave their schools the highest ratings last year. Students felt the least safe at two large neighborhood schools, Northwestern and Southwestern High.

Although smaller schools tended to receive better scores from students, the survey's results were not always an accurate indicator of safety.

For example, students gave high marks last year to Thurgood Marshall High, a 294-student school in East Baltimore. This fall, the high school had four fires and a shooting that wounded two teens just after dismissal of classes.

Even as officials pursue the long-term plan of breaking up larger schools, this fall's increased violence has forced them to adopt more immediate remedies.

Last month, the school board voted to spend an additional $1.5 million to secure troubled school buildings by repairing broken doors and lights and adding more nonteaching staff.

Many Baltimore parents say they're pleased that city and school leaders finally seem to be paying attention to the violence.

But they remain confused by a school-safety rating system begun recently as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal law -- intended to provide a guide for parents -- requires the state to label schools as "persistently dangerous" if they meet certain criteria.

In Baltimore, 15 schools were placed on probation by the state this year for having two years of unacceptably high rates of suspensions and expulsions because of violent incidents. If their rates hold for a third year in a row, the schools will be labeled dangerous, giving students the right to transfer out.

Critics say the "persistently dangerous" label creates an incentive for schools not to report incidents. Some teachers and principals in Baltimore say they have seen this side effect of the law, as schools feel pressured to curb the number of suspensions they impose on violent students.

Meaningless label

So the "persistently dangerous" label means little to Anthoinette Wood.

Wood considered pulling her son out of Thurgood Marshall High after last month's shooting. The school was not on the probation list, which named 14 middle schools and one high school, Forest Park. Several schools that have been beset this fall by brawls or student-set fires had not been on the state's radar.

"It amazes me that there are only 15 schools on that list," Wood said. "We have more than 15 troubled schools in the city."

Phillip A. Brown Jr., president of Thurgood Marshall High's PTA, said labeling schools as dangerous could exacerbate student misbehavior.

"If I'm a child, and I see my school [labeled as unsafe] in the newspaper, I think, 'I might as well go to school and be bad, because no matter what I do my school already's been labeled a troublesome school,'" Brown said.

With the rise in violence this fall, community members, school officials and students have begun a debate over what should be done to make schools safer. Ideas include more alternative schools for misbehaving students, better communication with students and changes to academic programs.

For example, with more options for troubled youths, administrators could end the common practice of transferring such students from school to school, passing the problems around the city, says Pierce, of the Fund for Educational Excellence.

During a recent town hall meeting at Baltimore City College, students said they and their parents must demand a better education and an end to the violence.

"You have to get mad about things and tell teachers and the school board this is not acceptable," said Renata Allen, a senior at Polytechnic Institute. "We need the parents to give us support."

As for the movement toward small schools, youth violence expert Philip J. Leaf says it's an idea with great promise -- as long as resources are available to support students and improve teaching.

"If the classroom size is still large, then the teachers may know their students better but they may not have the time to work with the student who needs help," said Leaf, director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

For Pierce and Leaf, the bottom line is that students who feel academically successful will be less likely to assault others or set fires.

They stress the need for the school system to provide more remedial help to struggling students, especially those who are held back more than once. Students in this kind of downward spiral are more likely to get into trouble, the experts said.

Said Pierce: "You will never have enough security guards; what we need is to get [students] recommitted to their schools."