Big steps in small schools


Nearly everyone agreed that a drastic change was needed at Northern High School, a place that recently had come to symbolize all that was wrong with the city's neighborhood high schools.

The school, which had been through four principals in five years, had gang-related violence and nearly as many dropouts as graduates. The teaching staff felt powerless.

So last summer administrators decided to do something just short of shutting the doors. They created four schools by dividing the building into two facilities and creating two additional small high schools in different locations.

Even the name was retired.

After nearly a year of reform, the new high schools, by most accounts, are better. Loitering students no longer block the hallways. Attendance is up significantly, and staff members believe violence has decreased. But the hardest work - improving teaching and learning so that students graduate with a meaningful degree - is just beginning, many educators said.

Among the smaller schools that have been created is Dr. Samuel Banks High School on east Northern Parkway, which has fewer than 300 students - about 2,000 fewer than the former Northern High.

Banks is part of the vanguard of a local and national movement to break down large high schools that typically have thousands of students and replace them with smaller schools of 700 to 800 students. Nearly every one of the city's neighborhood high schools are slated to undergo such a reorganization over the next several years with some students diverted to different locations.

"It is better," said Tiara McCullegan, a 10th-grader at Banks High School. As a ninth-grader, she attended Northern.

"There is less chaos, less noise, hardly any fights."

Tiara contrasts the recent school year with that of a year ago. "I wasn't able to concentrate," she said of Northern High. "Now I can pass my classes."

With 264 students, Banks is tiny by comparison. It is so small that Principal Jimmie Jones, a retired Army colonel, had the time to call parents each time their child didn't show up for school or was chronically late getting to classes. On occasional Saturdays, he even taught a handful of students who had not been turning in their homework regularly.

The school is one floor of an old junior high school, so small that Jones can cover all the hallways in a few minutes. And with 13 teachers, faculty members have been able to become quite familiar with each other and their principal.

Biology teacher Sharon McClain taught at Northern for 20 years and was ready for a change when Jones hired her as one of the few experienced teachers on his staff. Ten of his teachers were new to the profession.

The going has not always been smooth at Banks, McClain said. Because the school was put together so quickly last summer, she received a hodgepodge of biology materials. And that made planning science experiments difficult.

But despite some frustrations, she said, having smaller classes and a calmer environment has been a great change.

"You are able to mold the kids you have and set them on the right path," McClain said. And she was able to teach an Advanced Placement class. "That is wonderful. I love it - keeps me on my toes."

The goal of smaller, more intimate schools like Banks is to create environments where students get to know teachers and have a greater sense of community. Proponents say that smaller schools bring about higher academic standards, a more rigorous curriculum and a greater sense of purpose for students who might otherwise drop out.

The breakup of Northern was a prototype for what will take place at Lake Clifton this summer and perhaps Southwestern next year. The best chance for reforming these schools, believes departing Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo, is to begin a school by admitting only ninth-graders who are untainted by the culture of a troubled neighborhood high school.

Russo, who will leave the district at the end of the month, started a technology magnet high school at Southern High in South Baltimore last year. Incoming ninth-graders were separated from the rest of the school's 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders and given a new curriculum. Over the next three years, the school will be completely renovated and become Digital Harbor High School.

But Russo said the situation was so bad at Northern that she decided she had to move quickly. That meant putting ninth- and 10th-graders in Banks, and continuing all four grades at W.E.B. Dubois Senior High and Reginald Lewis High, the schools created at the Northern High School building. Some entering ninth-graders moved to a building at Robert Poole Middle School, where a small ninth-grade class of about 50 was added.

About 250 other children - many of them with behavior problems - were transferred to an existing alternative high school, Harbor City High School.

'Sense of urgency'

"Northern was driven by a sense of urgency that doesn't exist in other schools," Russo said.

Principals for the schools were hired over the summer and had a few weeks to plan for the school year. At two schools, the first day of school was delayed as workers frantically finished building classrooms and offices.

As a result, some schools got off to a bumpy start with students confused about which school to attend and boxes of books left unpacked in closets.

Despite the problems, there has been improvement.

"They are definitely doing a better job of getting their children to school. It is an early indicator and it is a positive one," said Jennifer Green, director of high school reform for the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit group that is involved in planning the reform of the city's schools. The fund also controls $20 million in foundation grants that will be spent on improving neighborhood high schools in the next several years.

The average daily attendance at Northern was a low 73 percent last year. Even worse, 72 percent of the student body had been absent more than 20 days during the school year.

This year, Banks, the school with only ninth- and 10th-graders, has an 85.8 percent daily attendance, the best of any neighborhood high school in the system. Attendance at the three other schools has been close to 80 percent.

Last year, there were 56 violent offenses reported at Northern High. While violence at Dubois and Lewis is more common than anyone would like to see, Banks has had nine serious violent incidents reported.

"The schools that have the luxury of starting with ninth- and 10th-graders and setting a new tone, you are seeing a greater reduction in offenses. The two schools still at the Northern site still wrestle with climate change," Green said.

Students who had attended Northern were used to the lack of discipline and when they returned to Dubois and Lewis in the fall, some continued the behavior, leaving their school and walking down the street to Banks. Jones, the principal at Banks, said the interlopers would cruise the halls and be disruptive until he realized he quickly had to put a stop to it.

Part of changing the culture, principals said, is trying to get students to believe in themselves after years of failure.

"These young people have some serious, serious problems and what we are trying to do is give them some attention that says, 'You matter,'" said Dubois Principal James Bennett. "These kids need a lot of attention, a lot of close contact. They need someone to recognize them."

The next step, nearly everyone involved in the high school reform effort said, is to focus on improving the academics, by making the courses more rigorous and setting higher standards for student achievement.

Using a portion of the $20 million in foundation grants that have been allotted to the system for high school reform, an advisory board made up of principals, teachers and community members has been formed for each school. The board has traveled to different schools across the country examining models for reform and is putting together plans for improving academic performance.

There is no data to indicate whether student academic performance is improving - the most crucial step if the school system is to claim success.

"I think the schools have focused at the logical starting place. Now I think all of these schools are at a point of needing to focus on how to provide quality instruction ... math, reading and writing," Green said.

Her view is echoed by the principals of the new schools, Russo and others involved in the process. With about 70 percent of students at the schools reading and doing math below grade level, changes in student performance must happen quickly.

Lewis Principal Sandra Turpin said she will give more focus to reading instruction next year.

"When the ninth-graders come in next year they will be required to take a reading course," Turpin said. And students will drop what they are doing to read for 15 minutes each school day, she said.

Mary Cary, assistant state superintendent for leadership development, said more attention needs to be paid to each school's leadership team and the professional development for teachers.

"I think it is very clear to the children and the teachers that we have high expectations for these children and that what we are doing is leading up to results," Russo said.

Things are better

Lisa S. Logan, the mother of Banks 10th-grader Jonathan Bullock, said last year at Northern was "pretty much disastrous." This year, she said, things are better.

"I have seen Jonathan sitting at the dining room table doing his homework. That was shocking, it was pleasing to the eye," Logan said. "There are still obstacles and there are still many challenges we all face. [But] I don't have to worry about the violence."

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