For the 14,000 students attending Baltimore's neighborhood high schools, getting a diploma means dodging gang fights and overcoming big odds to stay in classrooms with students who may be unable to read their textbooks.
With the state proposing to add one more hurdle -- a tough state graduation test -- school administrators say they must change the way the city's nine neighborhood high schools operate.
In the next year, the school system seems likely to adopt major reforms. The measures, being written and reviewed by the school staff, are far from radical. Schools won't be turned over to a private company, and the city's magnet schools will continue to draw the brightest students. But the changes are intended to be substantive.
Administrators hope to use ideas that have been around for years but haven't been tried in a sustained way in Baltimore.
No one has disputed the need for fundamental change. Not parents who rushed to Southwestern about two weeks ago to pick up their children after a student shooting; not high school teachers who have half their students show up each day; and not principals who struggle with too few teachers, too little money and too many disruptive students.
"You can't just be cleaning up the edges," said James McPartland, director of the high school program at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk. "You have to make fundamental reforms so these schools look and feel different."
The school board, appointed in 1997, tackled reform of elementary schools last year. Now, the board will turn its attention to fixing the high schools. The reform proposals are expected to be formally presented to the city school board next month, after Chief Executive Officer Robert Booker has reviewed and approved them.
If the school board accepts the most recent proposals, the reforms will be spread over several years, beginning with two major efforts next fall, said Sandra Wighton, director of secondary education and head of the school system's high school task force.
Two fall efforts
The first effort would be to focus on improving instruction and the curriculum for students entering ninth grade. As many as half of those students drop out by 10th grade or repeat ninth grade. Ninth-graders at some schools would be separated in one area of the building and divided into groups of about 300 students. After ninth grade, students would choose a curriculum for their careers for the remainder of high school.
Task force members believe students are so far behind their peers statewide in reading and math that ninth-graders need intensive basic reading and math courses to prepare them for high school-level algebra and English.
The second effort would be to give high school teachers support and training to improve instruction.
Instead of training teachers in daylong workshops or a week in the summer, the task force might recommend that "master" teachers or coaches be hired to work in the schools and advise classroom teachers. Teachers also would be given more time to plan for discussions about the progress of students and course work.
"High school reform is not going to happen until we change high school instruction," Wighton said.
State tests possible
In the next two years, the stakes for creating successful high schools might be raised. Students entering ninth grade in 2001 might be required to pass a series of tests to get their high school diplomas. The tests would be more difficult than tests now required.
Determining the best reform approach is considered the first step to improving the schools.
Not every high school needs help. Nine of the city's 18 high schools are magnet schools where students apply and must be selected to attend. Some of those magnets, such as City College, educate the city's brightest, and other schools attract students committed to a strong vocational program, such as Carver Vocational Technical or Paul Laurence Dunbar.
'Processed like a number'
The remainder of the high schools are the neighborhood schools that draw students based on geographic divisions of the city. Those sprawling complexes with up to 2,400 students, such as Northern, Southern, Northwestern and Lake Clifton/Eastern, are the ones with the most problems.
"The kids feel they are being processed like a number rather than educated like a young human being," McPartland said.
The majority of the students at those schools don't make it to their senior year, and those that do sometimes don't get diplomas because they can't pass the state's functional tests, the same tests the average suburban child passes in middle school.
Nationwide, said Wighton, no one has found the answer to improving high schools. If it were simple, everyone would have adopted a model, she and others argue.
In the past, Baltimore has tried at least three models for high school reform at selected schools. Each has worked to some degree, but none has been sustained. The models or parts of them might be used during the reform, but the reform proposals draw heavily from a model developed at Hopkins by McPartland, a member of the task force.
In the mid-1980s, Walbrook High School used the Coalition of Essential Schools program, which was developed at Brown University. A group of teachers collaborated to teach a group of students throughout their career at Walbrook using a focused curriculum, said Theodore Sizer, who developed the model for the Coalition of Essential Schools.
Most of the students graduated from high school and went to college, he said, but the school system didn't keep the program, and it dissolved when the top administrators changed and the principal retired.
Another model, recently developed at Hopkins' Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk and chosen by four Philadelphia schools and 10 others nationwide, was introduced at Patterson High School in 1995 and later adopted to some degree at Southwestern. Three other schools -- Northwestern, Forest Park and Douglass -- have adopted parts of it.
The program recommends breaking large high schools into academies with four-period days. Ninth-graders are separated and divided into groups of 350 students taught by a team. In a recent research paper, McPartland and two colleagues at Hopkins say that early evidence suggests an improvement in school climate, student attendance and school promotion rates at Patterson.
The annual dropout rate at Patterson fell from 19.6 percent in 1996 to 9.5 percent in 1997 but rose again last year. Patterson students' rate of passing the functional tests has not improved overall, though it improved one year in a subject.
McPartland acknowledged that the school has not been able to maintain the reform and that staff problems developed with the ninth-grade program.
A third model, called High Schools That Work, is used in 500 high schools nationwide and has been used in five city high schools, including three magnet schools. It aims to set higher expectations for students by requiring students to take college preparatory English, science and math classes. It emphasizes improving teaching.
"We think this is a superb opportunity for our schools. It is proven that it gets results," said Katharine Oliver, assistant superintendent in Maryland for career technology and adult learning who is the state coordinator of High Schools That Work.
She acknowledged that test scores at city schools are not improving as quickly as expected.
The issue might not be what model or approach is chosen but how well the school system carries out the approach, said Jennifer Economos, program officer at the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit association.
McPartland and Sizer said that their models were not supported by the school system and that the substantial changes were soon abandoned.
The national reform programs have common themes: All suggest that the big urban high school be broken into small groups of students, often into academies. Each of those academies should be well supported with their own teaching staffs, budgets and the power to determine their schedules.
Economos said urban school reformers agree that one of the reasons high schools don't work is that students feel anonymous and have no adult who knows them well. Breaking the high schools into academies of 200 to 350 students helps solve that problem.
Students are also generally apathetic about their course work. "There is a disconnect urban students have from what they are learning," Economos said.
Many reform models emphasize training for teachers and a basic curriculum that motivates students by relating what they learn to the real world.
McPartland said many of the structural changes have come about in the city's neighborhood high schools.
For instance, all of the schools have been broken up into career academies. But Patterson and other high schools have not made major changes in curriculum, McPartland said.
His group is writing a math and reading curriculum for ninth-graders that is being tested at two Baltimore high schools. Wighton said that if the results look promising at the end of the school year, the school system might adopt McPartland's curriculum.
Pub Date: 1/24/99