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Baltimore embarks on its second test of smaller schools

Nine months ago, a city school board member suggested a solution for the problems at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, a sprawling neighborhood school with poor academic performance and a deteriorating building: Tear half of it down.

But when it opened last week to start the new school year, the building that housed the former Lake Clifton on St. Lo Drive had been transformed into a home for several schools, with new leadership and far fewer students in the halls.

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Thoughts of demolition are gone.

Baltimore embarked on its second experiment in breaking up a 2,000-student high school by creating five small schools - places where administrators hope students will be safer, closer to teachers and more interested in academics. Three of the schools are in the building that formerly housed the entire student population and two new schools are in buildings elsewhere. Each has its own principal and staff.

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All the schools seemed quiet and the halls were less chaotic than in the past.

"I think it is very promising," said Bonnie S. Copeland, the interim schools chief, after she toured three of the five schools. "There was instruction taking place. They were working."

Copeland said that at some neighborhood high schools, instruction hasn't always started the first week. "So this is a refreshing change," she said.

Attendance was up, with 78 percent of all ninth-graders at the Lake Clifton complex showing up by the end of last week.

But separating students won't make a difference, administrators say, unless instructional approaches are also changed.

Getting the students interested in learning is perhaps the schools' greatest challenge. Last year, not one of the 417 Lake Clifton students who took the state's new geometry test passed. On an average day, 69 percent of its students attended classes, and only 38 percent of its seniors graduated in June.

To lead the effort, Copeland has brought in Frank DeStefano, formerly a consultant with the Fund for Educational Excellence in Baltimore who is now the area academic officer in charge of high schools. Copeland also has chosen five new principals.

Learning from the logistical mistakes made during the breakup of Northern High School last year, when schools weren't ready on time, DeStefano has focused his energy on the ninth grade. "I really believe you set the tone in the ninth grade. You build your 12th-grade graduation rate on the basis of ninth-graders," he said.

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The school system also is trying to help ninth-grade students catch up by giving them a double dose of English and math and by training teachers in new techniques.

The school system is trying to keep ninth-graders apart from upper-classmen, hoping the younger students will succeed in a smaller school where teachers can give them attention and support.

That was the rationale behind the opening of two smaller schools on the east side that will take students who would have gone to Lake Clifton. Thurgood Marshall High School and Fairmount-Harford High School will include ninth-graders from surrounding neighborhoods and will absorb some of the 10th-graders who were at Lake Clifton last year and passed.

A third new, smaller school, which is being called the new Lake Clifton, has ninth-graders and is in one wing of the old building. One grade a year will be added to that school until it has a normal ninth- through 12th-grade student population.

The fourth spinoff of the old Lake Clifton, housed in two wings of the old building, will include 10th- through 12th-graders who attended the school last year.

And a fifth school also in the old building, Harbor City East, will include students who failed ninth grade last year - 500 of 800 students in that class did not move on to 10th grade. While starting a school almost solely with students who have had academic difficulties would seem to create problems, Copeland said it could be positive for the students.

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"We think it is better than placing them back in the same place. Now they really have a fresh start," Copeland said.

Harbor City East had 57 percent attendance during its first week, but administrators say that is to be expected for the kids who are most likely to drop out. They expect 80 percent attendance by the end of the month after intensive efforts are made to get them to school.

Gary Unfrid, principal of the school for ninth-grade repeaters, was an administrator at the original Harbor City High School on the west side and is familiar with at-risk students.

Founded a decade ago, Harbor City has become the last hope for the city's high school students. The school takes those expelled from their neighborhood high schools and in danger of dropping out. Students at Harbor City receive support from social workers, and the school focuses on academic basics.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has been pushing the system to open a Harbor City on the east side, and the new school at Lake Clifton is the response, Unfrid said.

Students who succeed at Harbor City can ask to transfer to other schools, but they rarely do, Unfrid said. In fact, several students have asked to transfer into the new Harbor City East. The school is expected to grow by a grade each a year.

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Thirty years ago, the school system built sprawling high school campuses across the city that were designed to hold thousands of students. Lake Clifton was the gem - reportedly the largest high school in the nation when it was constructed in 1972, with a mile of corridors and 120 classrooms.

Today, that educational model no longer works for many of Baltimore's students, administrators have said, and the buildings are beset by violence that spills into the schools from the streets.

So the district has struggled with what to do with the huge neighborhood high schools that are filled with students who couldn't get into the selective public high schools, such as City College and Western.

Three years ago, the system decided to begin breaking down the neighborhood high schools starting with Northern High School and moving around the city.

Administrators acknowledge that the breakup of Northern last year did not go smoothly. Schools opened with contractors in the building and students unsure where to go. Worse, while the schools were divided, little changed in the classroom.

Even so, some of the Northern spinoff schools performed slightly better on the most recent Maryland State Assessments than some of the large neighborhood high schools.

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Teachers and principals are hoping to change the course of education at the new schools by shedding the culture of the old Lake Clifton.

The week before school started, ninth-graders enrolled at the new Lake Clifton and, along with their parents, were invited to an orientation. About 40 of the 115 students attended.

Teachers have also begun tracking down students who haven't arrived in any of the schools, calling their homes and telling their parents they need to be in school.

Barry Chlebnikow, principal of the new Lake Clifton school, said he is also trying to avoid suspending students for minor behavior problems because, he said, students who are sent home on a regular basis fall further behind. Instead, the school will have a time-out room where students with behavior problems can go to calm down and talk to a counselor.

"Our job is building confidence," Chlebnikow said.


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