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'Horace's Company': Forging An 'Essential' High School

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Houston--By many commonly used benchmarks, Westbury High School, located in a comfortable residential neighborhood, ranks near the top among this city's comprehensive high schools.

Last year, the average Westbury student scored one to two years above his expected grade level on state achievement tests, while districtwide, average student scores were slightly below expected grade levels. The teaching force is experienced, and attendance rates for students and faculty are high.

Westbury's students appear extremely well behaved, hallways are empty during class periods, and teachers seem to be in firm control of their charges. The building shows signs of wear and tear after some 20 years of service, but it is clean and apparently free from the ravages of vandalism.

About two-thirds of the school's graduates go on to postsecondary education--most of them to Rice, the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin, or Texas A & M.

All in all, Westbury's would seem to be a success story--a desegregated urban high school that works, the kind of place that one would like to attend, teach at, or administer.

But after three years of soul-searching and a few less-than-successful experiments in school reform, Westbury's teachers and administrators concluded that their "very good" school isn't so good after all. Bureaucratic rules and lock-step lesson plans, they say, have frustrated the efforts of teachers and learners alike.

Last month, with the city school board's blessing and $50,000 in seed money, the school embarked on a new experiment that aims to convert Westbury into a model of excellence for the nation by 1995. Westbury hopes to become an "essential" school.

The term is borrowed from Horace's Compromise, Theodore R. Sizer's influential 1984 report on the condition of the American high school. The study was co-sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Independent Schools.

Its call for a substantial restructuring of the nation's high schools earned Mr. Sizer's treatise a reputation as the most radical of the many reform reports that have appeared in the past few years.

Mr. Sizer, now chairman of Brown University's education department, argues strenuously in the book for a decentralization of schooling that would allow each school to adapt to the needs of its particular students.

At school, students would be allowed to progress at an "appropriate'' pace, moving on to new courses and eventually graduating on the basis of "exhibitions of mastery." Age grading and daily schedules consisting of six or seven 55-minute periods would be abolished in favor of a curriculum organized around four broad areas: inquiry and expression; mathematics and science; literature and the arts; and philosophy and history.

Unlike most of the other studies of high schools, Mr. Sizer's includes an experimentation phase in which his hypotheses will be put to the test. To conduct the school-site research, he is putting together a "Coalition of Essential Schools," a loose confederation of public and private high schools across the country that agree to reshape their programs around nine general principles outlined in Horace's Compromise. (See accompanying story on this page.)

Although they are committed to the principles outlined in the book, the schools are being given no specific model to "plug in."

The translation of the admittedly vague principles into workable school programs that fit their own circumstances will be left entirely up to the schools' faculties and principals. They will receive technical assistance from the coalition's staff, which is based at Brown, and will share ideas at regularly scheduled meetings and seminars over the course of the next decade.

To date, eight high schools--including Westbury--have been chosen to become part of the coalition, which is expected to grow to about 20 schools by the end of the year. It is a select group; according to Mr. Sizer, more than 300 high schools have applied. (See accompanying story on page 17.)

Why was Westbury selected for the project? "It's a school with a very comprehensive student body; in many ways it's the prototypical6American high school," Mr. Sizer explained in a recent interview. "Furthermore, this is a school where there is true grassroots interest. There's also a recognition of the uncertainty about all of this that reinforces my respect for the faculty. These folks understand how complicated this is, that the answers aren't obvious. Their apprehension signals their wisdom."

Old Approach 'Isn't Right'

Despite some qualms about the magnitude of the task ahead of them, Westbury's teachers and administrators say they would be even more afraid of leaving affairs at the school as they are now.

"That's what I'm hearing from the teachers when I talk with them," says Thomas C. Davis, who became the school's principal three years ago. "There's fear of change, there's concern about all of these details, and yet the one thing that doesn't change is the recognition that what we're doing now isn't right for the kids. It functions, but for the wrong reasons. They're saying, 'What Sizer advocates for kids is right. Let's try it."'

"The frustrations that you read about in Horace's Compromise are very real for teachers," Mr. Davis continues. "He's right on target. More than one teacher read the book and then came in to see me and said, 'I'm Horace,"' he said, referring to the book's protagonist, a composite character representing veteran teachers interviewed by Mr. Sizer who had succumbed to their schools' bureaucracies and compromised their standards.

English teachers are frustrated, Mr. Davis says, because they are responsible for 155 to 160 students each. "How can you teach a kid to write when you have that kind of a load?" he asks. "Science teachers are frustrated because their clases are too big for lab experiments and the time we give them is too short. Fifty-five minutes is not enough time for an experiment, 30 kids is too many to do it, and yet that's the way we have to staff the building based on a teacher load of 145 to 150 kids on the average. And the average gets higher for the bottom classes."

Mandated Curricula

From the teacher's standpoint, Mr. Davis says, perhaps the chief frustration of teaching in Houston's public schools is the pressure placed upon them to stick with district-mandated curricula, even if the lesson plans are producing poor results.

Teachers' evaluations, he explains, are based in part on their students' scores on mandatory proficiency examinations that measure "essential learner outcomes" defined by the school district's curriculum specialists.

Failure to play by the district's rules could result in poor student scores on the tests and a negative as-sessment. Such an assessment, in turn, can block a teacher's movement up the school district's new career ladder, the principal notes. Thus, the pressure to teach from "canned" curriculum guides is great, even if those guides fail to meet the needs of a teacher's students.

"One of the math supervisors who works with us sent over a little critique to all of the math teachers in the school after the year was over," Mr. Davis recalls. "The teacher who got the highest praise was a fellow who got through the algebra curriculum prescribed by the district. The supervisor always knew it could be done and she was proud of his having done that.

"The next time I saw her I asked her if she was aware that 50 percent of his kids had failed. She wasn't. I asked her how we were supposed to balance that out. Here we were, praising this person for doing an outstanding job. He got to the end of the program, but his kids didn't."

Two Sets of Lesson Plans

Mr. Davis admits that many of the teachers at his school keep two sets of lesson plans--"one for show and one for go."

"One plan is for the people who come in and evaluate whether we're doing things the right way," he explains. "The other one is the one they really teach from, the one that's right for their kids."

Sharon Batson, who teaches English to freshmen and sophomores, belongs to that category of teachers.

A huge movie reel in her hands, she explains that yesterday she had planned to show her second-period class a film of the play that they are studying. Warned in advance that her class would be evaluated that day, she shelved the film.

Out of her desk came the Houston Independent School District curriculum guide for the class, which did not call for a movie that day. So she simply waited.

"All of us want this change," Ms. Batson says. "People who have not been in a classroom for 10 or 15 years are making decisions for us. They tell us what to teach and how to teach it and they don't even know the children. We know our students' needs. We can develop a curriculum as well as anyone else. I have no qualms about their defining the ends for the children. But they hired me to teach and they should trust me to do that."

'An Assembly Line'

Teachers at Westbury say the nature of the system that they work in has given rise to other frustrations as well.

"Right now I have 150 students and it's kind of like an assembly line," says Ms. Batson. "You just move them in here and move them out. It's hard with a class of 30 to 35 to get to know your students. By the time you get to know all of them you have a whole new set.

"When my students write something they always ask, 'Is this what you want? What do you think about this?' And they want an answer right then and there. It's hard to go around to each student in a 55-minute class period when you've already checked roll and dealt with tardy permits. It's hard to go around to each one and give them the attention they need. Sure, you can write them a note on their paper, but that's not the same because even though I've written notes, they still come around, they still seek that personalization."

"Anyone who says the program here is as successful as it might be is being a Pollyanna," says Bill Balch, a chemistry teacher. "They're ignoring the fact that we have many students who come through the program who don't learn as much as they should learn, even in our honors classes.

"I think that we do too much hand-holding, that we allow students to be too passive in their learning," he continues. "We have students in honors classes who are excellent at memorizing, who are very good at finding out what's going to be on the test. But have they really learned to take that textbook by themselves and learn from it?"

Mr. Balch says he looks forward to the changes that the school's entry into the Coalition of Essential Schools will bring because he expects that they will make his work and the work of his colleagues more rewarding.

"I don't think it's hard work that people object to," he explains. "It's the feeling that what you do just doesn't make any difference, that you're just on a treadmill, spinning your wheels, that what you do isn't appreciated."

"We've felt as if our hands were tied," adds Lauren Askew, who teaches English as a second lanuage. "We were demoralized, we were not supported, and we were ready to either do something or forget it all and get out of teaching."

On Mr. Davis's desk, within easy reach and for ready reference, is a copy of Horace's Compromise. He also has two copies of In Search of Excellence, relics of Westbury's earlier exercises in school reform.

Early Experiments

Westbury's most recent forays into reform date back to 1981, when the 9th grade was added to the high school and Mr. Davis came as assistant principal for 9th grade.

"With the addition of the 9th grade, our enrollment immediately went up by 600 students," Mr. Davis recalls. "The 9th-grade students stuck out like sore thumb. They were failing their classes."

The high failure rate, he explains, was a consequence of the school district's strict attendance policy, which provides for automatic failure after six unexcused absences. Three unexcused tardinesses are counted as the equivalent of an absence.

"Our 9th graders were not accustomed to the kind of freedom of movement allowed in high schools," Mr. Davis continues. "We had given the most freedom to the group least able to handle it, and we sure paid the price."

To address the problem, Mr. Davis and the school's 9th-grade teachers planned a program of team teaching. "We took the four teachers and then gave them a common preparation period--so, for example, if you and I were teaching the same kids, we could plan," he says. "It never really worked well, but it was the first attempt at addressing what we all agreed was a better way of dealing with kids."

The following year, when Westbury was up for reaccreditation, Mr. Davis, who by then had been named principal of the entire school, formed a committee of teachers to develop a new philosophy for the school.

"I told them I wanted something different," Mr. Davis says. "Usually, a team gets together, creates a philosophy with all sorts of educational jargon, and then the thing sits on the shelf. I told them that we needed to write about the school the way we wanted it to be. And that's what they did." The philosophy was approved by a unanimous vote of the faculty.

"The faculty made it real to a degree, but not much," he admits. "But what was important to me was the commitment."

'We Wanted To Be Subversives'

The next catalyst was the appearance in bookstores of In Search of Excellence, a book on successful American businesses that remains on the bestseller lists.

"It appeared to me that some of the concepts in the book applied directly to schools," Mr. Davis says. "As I looked at our school philosophy, talked to our department heads, and watched the operation of the school, it became clear to me that if we were going to make that philosophy real, we would have to get out from under the structure of the city. It was all top-down regulation."

Mr. Davis says that he began working with his department heads and members of the executive board of the school's parent-teacher association to develop a proposal for a three-year project in school-based management based on the principles outlined in In Search of Excellence.

"In essence, we wanted the city's blessing to allow us to be subversives," he says. "We wanted the chance to do right by kids."

The proposal was approved by Billy R. Reagan, the school district's general superintendent, who was pursuing a similar project of his own. That project, however, "became bogged down in local politics and never really got off the ground," Mr. Davis says.

It was during a discussion of the ill-fated project that Mr. Davis was introduced to Mr. Sizer's work.

"There was a meeting in February 1984 of the principals of the 22 schools selected for the project," Mr. Davis recalls. "One of the things that came out of that meeting was a letter that Ted Sizer gave to Billy Reagan. They had given speeches at the same conference and Sizer gave Reagan a copy of the prospectus for the Coalition of Essential Schools. Reagan hinted that he wanted a Houston school to join up.

"I read through the prospectus and really got excited," he continues. "I sent Sizer a copy of the proposal on site-based management that we had drawn up. He wrote back and said he found it interesting but couldn't quite make the connection between what we were doing and what he was planning."

As Mr. Sizer recalls the report, "It had a business-management approach that made me skeptical. Schools have to do with the hearts and minds of kids. I wrote him back and told him that."

Mr. Sizer looked more kindly upon a long letter Mr. Davis wrote back to explain why the proposal was written the way it was, Mr. Davis says. "Then he wrote back and said our proposal looked very promising, 'a meeting of the minds,"' Mr. Davis says. "He said he was planning to come to Houston in November and wanted to visit the school."

Horace's Company

After receiving the second letter, Mr. Davis bought 20 copies of Horace's Compromise and began distributing them to his department heads. ''I had talked to some teachers about the possibility of our making an application to the coalition, but I hadn't made a big push," he recalls. "When I gave them the books, I said, 'Read these, guys. He's coming soon and we need to figure out where we are.'

"Well, as the books began to get passed around, a group of teachers just surfaced," Mr. Davis continues. "They're the ones who would come in and say, 'My God, I'm Horace.' They came in saying, 'We want to help. This is not something one person should or can do all by himself."'

"At the time of the first faculty meeting about the coalition, only about 20 people had read Horace's Compromise," says Margo Kendrick, a speech teacher and a member of the group that eventually became known as Horace's Company. "Everyone else was saying 'Who is Sizer?' That week, a few of us went through the teacher list to pinpoint teachers who would be likely to put in extra time to work to get our membership in the coalition. We held our meetings in my room because I have the coffeepot. About 20 people showed up for the first one."

According to Ms. Kendrick, the primary goal of Horace's Company was to educate the rest of the faculty about Mr. Sizer's theories.

"We knew that it was essential for everybody to know enough about the program to be able to vote yes or no on it," she says. "So our first task was to inform ourselves fully. Our second task was to talk to people on a one-on-one basis to find out their concerns and hopefully to educate them. We knew that if we were to have a shot at this, one of the questions would be, 'Is your staff committed?"'

Before approaching the city's school board with the proposal, Mr. Davis asked Westbury's faculty to vote on participation in the coalition. Seventy percent fully supported the project, 6 percent completely opposed it, and 24 percent voted against it but said they would support the coalition's principles if they were adopted.

After several delays, the school board voted 6 to 1 on April 12 to approve Westbury's participation in the coalition. As an added bonus, it voted 5 to 2 to provide the school with $50,000 in order to help get the project started.

Mr. Davis says it will take at least $100,000 in the next year alone to get the project off on the right foot. The school board's appropriation, he says, "will make it a whole lot easier to get local corporations and businesses to make donations."

The first year's funds will be earmarked for travel expenses, materials, inservice training, and stipends for teachers who will begin the process of revamping the school's curriculum next summer.

"Exactly how much we'll need beyond that is an unknown," Mr. Davis says, adding that under the coalition's principles, the cost of the program is to be no greater than 10 percent above the cost of operating the school at present.

Late last month, Westbury's faculty members elected 28 of their colleagues to a steering committee that will become the school's governing body. According to Mr. Davis, it will be their responsibility "to decide what direction we will move in--what will be the project's design, what do we need to do in the area of curriculum, what kind of framework will give us the best shot at putting the nine principles into practice."

"I have my own thoughts on those subjects, but the direction we move in is all contingent on what the steering committee says," Mr. Davis says. "That's kind of scary if you're used to running the show."

"I've set things up," he adds, "so I keep a veto, which I have to justify in one of two ways--either because what the steering committee decides falls outside of the nine principles, or because if by doing one thing they agree upon we eliminate the possibility of doing another thing. I also set the agenda. Basically, I'm taking myself out of a dictatorial kind of role and will really move in the direction of'He leads best who follows most."'

Mr. Davis acknowledges that the path the school is taking is fraught with unknowns. Nevertheless, he says he is as convinced as ever that it is the right one to follow.

"I don't exactly know how to answer why I believe in it," he says. "You believe in it because of all the things that you are and all the things that you have done. I love what I do. It's all the corny stuff that's all true. We're not doing right by kids, we're not.

"When you look at what Sizer is advocating, you sit back and you say, 'It's right.' To do things this way is right because it addresses what kids need. But what you don't know yet is how to do it. That's frightening, and yet your instinct tells you it's right. There's got to be a way to do it because it's right."

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