When it was built in 1971, Lake Clifton High School was praised as the biggest and most modern high school in the nation, with a mile of corridors and 120 classrooms.
But time has taught that big high schools are not always better. City school officials, looking at the high dropout rate and low attendance, have redesigned Lake Clifton to help students feel they belong.
They've created what they call a school within a school, housing 900 of the school's 2,400 students in four academies, and placing new emphasis on improving reading and writing skills. Officials hope the new approach will become a model for reforming other city high schools.
"We want to break down the mammoth high school of 1,600 and 2,600, so the kids can be known as individuals, so the instruction can be more tailored to them, so that every kid can feel more successful," said Betty Morgan, the city schools' chief academic officer.
Trying to overcome the anonymity experienced by students in a large high school by creating academies where they focus on one subject is not a new strategy. Several city high schools, including Lake Clifton, have been broken up into academies of arts, humanities and business, with varied success.
To create the new school at Lake Clifton, officials put together three existing academies - law, finance and business - and added a fourth, information technology. Together, they form the "academy" side of the school, with its own principal and budget.
The career side, with 1,500 students, has a separate entrance and a separate mission: to give students training in a variety of careers, from cosmetology to brick-laying. Recent research suggests that the way a school is divided is only part of the reason for its failure - why, for instance, the average Lake Clifton freshman class of 1,200 shrinks to 250 by senior year.
A study of academies at several high schools across the nation, performed by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. last spring, concluded that, when designed and run well, academies reduce dropout rates and increase attendance and graduation rates.
But the study said academies have not helped boost scholastic achievement. Math and reading scores of students in academies are equivalent to the scores of their peers in the regular programs at large high schools.
In most neighborhood high schools in Baltimore, these scores are low. At Lake Clifton, entering freshmen read, on average, at a fifth-grade level, a recent study showed.
The new Lake Clifton will have a variety of students performing at different levels, including 130 students repeating ninth grade, and hundreds who will attend because Lake Clifton is their neighborhood high school.
The school's law and finance academies attract students from throughout the city. These students are chosen based on their grades and test scores in middle school.
Most of those law and finance academy students graduate and many attend college. But even those graduates might leave unprepared.
"Many students are accepted at college, but they have to do summer remediation," said Kathleen Floyd of the nonprofit National Academy Foundation.
In addition to breaking down Lake Clifton into two schools, school officials have decided to initiate a literacy program for ninth- through 12th-graders in the academy side of Lake Clifton.
"What we are doing this year is going back to basics: writing, speaking, and reading," said social studies teacher Corey Jones.
Teachers in all classes will spend a portion of each class reading to their students and will focus on writing and speaking. They will be adapting techniques used in elementary schools to teach reading and writing to high schoolers. Each student will be required to read 25 books a year.
The first week of school found new teacher Peter Issel beginning his ninth-grade literacy class with an exercise in writing.
Issel, who gave up a long career in real estate to become a teacher, asked his students to write about who they are and what they did this summer. Some students quickly filled the page with coherent and grammatical writing, while others struggled to put together three short sentences. Then teacher and students took turns reading a short story by Ray Bradbury.
"The theory is that if you give them the skills, they can master the content," said Patricia D. Hamilton, an English teacher who has been at Lake Clifton since it opened in 1971.
Hamilton has seen student skills decline over the years. "These are bright, motivated kids, but they come lacking skills they need," she said, so teachers have tried to adapt the content. "That has been one of the frustrating things, is to find a way to water down 'Beowulf.'"
She and Jones are hopeful that the new approach will raise student achievement. Most high school teachers are taught to concentrate on presenting certain information to children rather than techniques that help children raise their reading and writing skills.
With grants from several foundations, the teachers from the academy side of Lake Clifton spent five weeks this summer training to focus on literacy while teaching content as well.
The National Academy Foundation and Fund for Educational Excellence in Baltimore have worked closely with school officials to develop and support the academy programs.
Lake Clifton has two new principals this year. Veronica Brown Washington has taken over the academy side, and Irby L. Miller, former principal at Edmondson/Westside High School, has become principal of the career side, which might introduce similar programs next year if they prove successful.
The career school program is divided into three academies where students prepare for a variety of jobs, from the construction trades to child care. Students also are offered a college preparatory course.
Washington, a former English teacher and assistant principal in Baltimore County, said she expects to spend less time than most principals tending to administrative chores. "I should be in the classroom every day, not just to observe but to be another pair of eyes for the teacher. I am there to help the teacher," she said.