Baltimore high schools face big changes in '96 Career, academic institutes planned

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's neighborhood high schools will be divided into smaller academic and career institutes next year in a sweeping reorganization intended to slow the tide of dropouts and boost student achievement.

The changes will first affect the nine "zoned" high schools -- vast and sometimes impersonal schools with general rather than college-prep or magnet-school studies, according to a school reform council report adopted unanimously yesterday by the Baltimore school board.

The nine schools are Northern, Northwestern, Southern, Southwestern, Forest Park, Walbrook, Patterson, Douglass and Lake Clifton-Eastern.

Other high schools across the city soon will feel the impact, too, as the planners aim to retool secondary education from top to bottom. The council is calling on schools to eliminate lecture-style classes, adopt a four-period day (schools vary from four to eight), use new teaching methods, assign mentors to students and eliminate academic dullness and irrelevance.

Student passivity is out; team teaching and hands-on activities are in, according to the reform blueprint, developed during a year of planning.

"We consider this to be our top priority to move forward this year," school board President Phillip H. Farfel said. He asked the reform council to begin considering the cost of its plan. There is no cost estimate yet.

"There will be dramatic changes in our comprehensive high schools -- changes in teaching, learning and classroom environment, changes in how students take responsibility for their own learning," said Dr. Mary T. Nichol sonne earlier this week. She is associate superintendent for instruction and oversees the work of the reform planning council.

Its 20 members include principals, students, teachers and representatives from area universities and businesses.

Some schools will launch their new programs in September 1996, others soon after, Dr. Nicholsonne said.

The zoned high schools will continue to serve the students who have graduated from neighborhood middle schools, but they will not convert to magnet schools serving broader populations, she said. Much will be borrowed, however, from the magnet-school concept.

Within each high school, mini-schools containing about 300 students will operate semiautonomously.

The changes anticipate Maryland's planned revision of its high school graduation requirements. These will include a series of tests checking students' knowledge in many subject areas, said Jerry Baum, president of the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit organization that supports staff-training projects. Mr. Baum is a member of the reform council.

Ahead of new standards

Baltimore's school system is trying to get ahead, rather than wait for the new, higher standards to be issued in a year or two -- too late for the neediest high schools to easily catch up.

"We need to find ways to reduce significantly the high proportion student failure," Mr. Baum said during a recent briefing.

The report calls on the school system to increase its investment in professional development for secondary-level teachers and administrators. In addition, the report demands greater attention paid to school safety and to the needs of eighth-graders as they make the difficult transition to high school, Mr. Baum said.

The report provides an outline for change, but does not mandate the shape or type of programs each high school will take, he told school board members.

Each high school is to reshape itself from within, with input from students and teachers, and school neighbors and business partners. The reform blueprint calls for community and student forums early next year to begin choosing academy themes, developing related instructional programs and recruiting area businesses to provide internships and resources.

School board member Kathy Shapiro yesterday urged the council to get parents involved in the planning: "We know that's what's missing in a lot of high schools."

Other members yesterday called on the council to ensure that high school students graduate completely computer literate.

Students advised the reform council that their zoned schools bear the stigma of second-class reputation -- while attention and resources flow to the college-preparatory and "citywide" schools that cull the highest achievers each year from the pool of available ninth-graders.

Unequal problems

Compared with the college-preparatory schools, such as Western High and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and the vocational high schools, the neighborhood high schools struggle maintain attendance and foster achievement, Dr. Nicholsonne said.

There are 62 percent fewer students in grade 12 than in grade nine -- because of the high dropout rate, she said. The average attendance rates at the zoned high schools from 1991 through 1994 ranged from 69.8 percent to 83.6 percent, she said. At the citywide schools, it ranged from 91.4 percent to 92.8 percent.

Baltimore's dropout rate last year was 14.2 percent; Maryland's was 4.95 percent.

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