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'Personalizing' High Schools

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Within the towering steel and glass walls of New York City's Martin Luther King Jr. High School, administrators have embarked on an experiment some experts believe could provide a model for pumping new life into ailing urban schools: They are attempting to create a smaller, more personal environment for students and teachers.

The only physical signs of the experiment are offices that house the staffs of nine "institutes" to which all 9th and 10th graders, and some upperclassmen, belong. These include an institute for law and justice, a business-careers institute, and others organized along programmatic themes.

A core group of teachers, administrators, and guidance personnel is assigned to each institute to promote collaboration among staff members and create the con5p6ditions under which they can develop a closer rapport with their students.

"I would like to see the whole school--all 3,300 kids and all 300 staff members--involved in a way that makes them feel they have a positive, vested interest in a group that also cares about them," said Caesar Previdi, the school's principal, now in his third year.

The mlk project is part of a new wave of experimentation pegged to an old idea--that a smaller, more intimate school setting provides a social environment more conducive to learning.

Concern over excessively high dropout rates, particularly in urban systems, has led many education reformers to conclude that large-scale high schools and middle schools contribute to the problem by promoting a sense of alienation and anonymity among students.

Several of the school-restructuring projects under way nationwide are attempting to create a more personalized environment by arranging class schedules so that students spend more time with fewer teachers and with an identifiable group of their classmates.

But New York City may be the only large district to have addressed the problem systemwide, by requiring all of its 118 high schools to create "houses" for entering freshmen.

After two years, the results of the so-called "house plan" are mixed, according to an interim report by two research groups. But, the groups conclude, the initiative could "provide a direct and immediate response to the problems of troubled high schools."

Most of New York City's high schools are still far from meeting the district's own "ideal" house plan, the report says, but there have been "many encouraging results" in schools such as Martin Luther King.

Its principal, Mr. Previdi, is going farther than the mandate requires, and has committed himself, through the creation of the semi-autonomous "institutes," to using the house plan as a means of restructuring school governance. In two years, all students and staff members at the school will be included in the institute system.(See box, page 7.)

Both school officials and their critics agree, however, that the mlk house plan comes much closer than most of the city's high schools to conforming to the model envisaged when the policy was mandated in 1987.

The mandate was aimed specifically at reducing attendance and dropout problems among freshmen, which district officials saw as a product of the difficult transition from smaller junior high and middle schools to the more impersonal environment of large high schools.

In most high schools, district officials said, house plans consist at a minimum of revised class schedules that ensure that freshmen attend two or more periods with the same classmates and teachers.

But in a memorandum distributed to principals the year the plan was promulgated, officials said that all schools should be "moving to4wards 'ideal houses,"' which were described as a schoolwide reorganization based on student cohorts, rather than content departments.

In an ideal house, the memo said, "a student has all of his classes within the house, sharing them only with students from the same house; school personnel are programmed and organized around houses; houses are physical spaces in the school, separated from one another; and the school is programmed so that houses have 'block time,' allowing teachers and supervisors to schedule students flexibly within this time, perhaps on a daily basis."

When the plan is fully implemented, the memo said, "students feel that they belong to a house within the school and will identify as house members; teachers identify with a house--not with a department, grade level, or the entire school; and supervisors see the school as a group of houses--not in its entirety or as a collection of departments."

But in most of New York City's most troubled high schools the house plan has not been extended beyond the 9th grade, and is ancillary to most other school-improvement efforts, according to the interim report of a two-year study being conducted by the Public Education Association and the Bank Street College of Education.

The researchers blame a lack of funding and technical support from the central board of education, as well as resistance to the idea within some schools, for the plan's failure to have a greater impact on structure.

"It's too much to expect all of the high schools to buy into the house plan," admitted Joan Griffin McCabe, who is directing the study for the Public Education Association, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

But she criticized officials for failing to require stronger plans "in the [neighborhood] high schools that are too big, and have the most economically and academically at-risk kids."

John L. Soldini, vice president for high schools of the United Federation of Teachers, said union officials feel that the house plan "is a good idea, conceptually, but remains more of an idea than a reality.''

"The administration just sent out an idea, they didn't monitor its implementation," he said. "It's almost like Mao Zedong saying 'let a thousand flowers bloom' without checking to really see what has bloomed."

But district officials insist that their commitment to the house plan has never wavered, despite leadership changes in the system. Victor Herbert is the third person to head the high-schools division since the house plan was implemented--and Chancellor Richard R. Green was appointed--one year ago.

A stronger push from the central administration for schools to adopt comprehensive house plans would undermine efforts to decentralize decisionmaking, Mr. Herbert said.

"Several principals feel it just doesn't make sense for them to extend houses beyond the 9th grade," he said. "I don't have a problem with that."

"They can do nothing wrong except do nothing," he added. "If they are taking reasonable steps to deal with student and staff anonymity, then I'm satisfied."

Mr. Previdi also defended the district's relatively hands-off management of the policy, saying, "I viewed the house plan as a concept, not a prescription, so I could make it fit what I wanted it to do."

District officials are now developing recommendations for creating smaller units in the junior high and middle schools, according to Delorez Fernandez, deputy chancellor for curriculum and instruction.

Although the central board will vote on the recommendations, she said, the policy will not be made mandatory to avoid usurping the authority of the community school boards that oversee the district's junior high and middle schools.

Regardless of the outcome of New York's struggles to implement its house plan, experts vouchsafe the conceptual soundness of the idea driving it and similar efforts elsewhere.

In interviews, several noted that the impersonal environment typical of large schools has been convincingly demonstrated to have a negative impact on students who are not receiving sufficient support from adults at home or in their community.

"When you talk to at-risk kids, 9 times out of 10 you hear them say that 'no one thinks I can succeed' or 'no one cares whether I'm here or not,"' said Robert M. Palaich, who directs the at-risk-youth project of the Education Commission of the States.

Those reponses, Mr. Palaich said, "are typical of folks who feel lost in the system."

"There is an avalanche of research about the anonymity produced in schools that batch-process kids," said Theodore R. Sizer, professor of education at Brown University and director of a national school-restructuring project, the Coalition of Essential Schools.

"The less anonymous a kid feels, the more likely they will engage in the learning process," he said.

The same principle applies to teachers, according to Mr. Sizer.

"In smaller settings, teachers have a chance to get to know the kids," he said. "If they don't know the youngsters, they can't teach them very well."

That the concept of smaller school settings has gained wide acceptance among educators is evident in the fact that it forms the basis for most current dropout-prevention programs and alternative schools.

But experts agree that few school officials have taken what advocates say is the next logical step: coming to the conclusion that smaller schools could benefit all students and prevent the need for separate programs for the at-risk.

"Why [are smaller schools] a possibility only for a handful of kids?" asked Ms. McCabe, referring to the limited number of alternative high schools in New York City.

Several considerations--most of them economic, but some educational--created the nationwide boom in large schools in the 1950's and 60's. Large schools were less costly per pupil to build and operate, a reality that continues to fuel the movement toward consolidation of rural and some urban systems.

In New York City and in other urban areas, the economic pressures were heightened by the fact that school sites remove valuable real estate from the property-tax base.

During the 1950's and 60's, when larger schools also became the norm outside of urban areas, relatively low transportation costs also contributed to consolidation moves.

The concentration of resources found in larger schools, experts point out, also permits them to build larger support facilities such as libraries, gymnasiums, and science labs.

Few believe that school systems will be able to overcome these factors and begin building substantially smaller schools. New York City's house plan and others like it are an attempt to modify the existing stock of large buildings to fit the need for smaller school environments.

"The constant dilemma for urban educators," Mr. Previdi said, "is going to be: how do you make this big building--that you have to have because of economic pressures and the tax laws, and you need to have because you do want large gyms and large libraries--house small groups?"

During the 1950's, the height of the last major debate on school size, "we took it for granted that most students would be internally motivated to succeed," said James Garbarino, a developmental psychologist and director of Chicago's Erikson Institute, an independent graduate school and research center on child development.

"Now we're trying to keep in school kids who would have dropped out without question or comment 30 years ago," he said, "and the greatest chance for marginal kids is in a small school."

Vandalism, school crime, and illegal drugs were not considered major problems when school planners united behind the large-school model, Mr. Garbarino added.

"The conditions that gave rise to the acceleration of size in the 1950's are no longer present," he said. "We haven't really coped with that yet."

The prime educational consideration in the school-size debate has been the need to have enrollments large enough to support a wide range of course offerings and, thus, accommodate differing student interests.

"There is a trade-off between offering the 'shopping mall' school with lots of choices for students and doing a few things well," acknowledged Mr. Sizer, whose research group in 1985 published The Shopping Mall High School. "But if you believe in thoroughness, then smaller groupings are better."

Even among those who advocate smaller schools, there is little agreement on the ideal size that will balance the competing needs for curricular diversity and student and staff bonding.

Over the past several years, New York City school officials have scaled back the size of proposed new high schools from buildings that would accommodate up to 4,000 students to a goal of from 1,200 to 1,500 students per school, according to Mr. Herbert.

"We believe that is just about the ideal size to offer students the full range of instructional opportunities and extracurricular activities," he said.

The researchers from the Public Education Association and Bank Street College recommend that new high schools in the city accommodate between 500 and 1,000 students, and that they be designed to facilitate the incorporation of autonomous houses.

But Mr. Garbarino argues that research has shown that the maximum school size should be 500 students, and that the positive benefits of smallness disappear once that threshold has been crossed.

Much of the more recent research that has found no perceptible difference between schools of varying sizes failed to include those with enrollments under 500 students, he said.

"That's like asking if the weight of an object matters when it falls on somebody, and using 1,000, 2,000 and 3,000 lb. weights to test your thesis," he said. "The subjects are all going to be crushed, so of course you'll conclude that 'no, weight doesn't matter."'

Proponents of smaller schools have more obstacles to surmount than the sheer size of the existing stock of school buildings, experts say.

Large schools have typically developed their own bureaucracies, they point out, which often resist reorganization.

"Clustering a group of adults around a house provides a much more intimate relationship between students and services," said Mr. Herbert of New York City's high-schools division. "It provides the student with access to a regular core of people."

But according to Mr. Sizer, "Even though it's commonsensical, it's very hard to do. It flies in the face of all kinds of traditions and expectations."

Most larger schools are organized on the basis of subject areas, he and others noted, with department heads or assistant principals exercising curriculum-supervision and staff-evaluation duties delegated by the principal.

To break such a school into smaller administrative units, principals who have directed the process say, requires a staff that is willing to shift from a content-area orientation and accept more general roles.

"When you move towards a house, you need administrators who are not only subject-area specialists but are also generalists," said Mr. Herbert. "Some administrators resist that, because it's not appropriate to the experience and training they've had."

But he added that "many are also principal candidates, and they become generalists if they get the job."

"There's an old saying that elementary teachers teach kids and high-school teachers teach subjects," said Sidney W. Smith, headmaster of The English High School in Boston, who divided his 10-story school into three independent units almost five years ago.

The traditional organization of schools by subject areas reinforces this notion, he said, because most teachers only work closely with others teaching the same subject.

When the staff at his school was divided among the three new units, he said, a "dynamic conflict" was created between content areas and the broader instructional goals of the diverse programs.

The group most affected by the change, according to Mr. Smith, were department heads, who had to relinquish some of their supervisory duties to the program directors. At the same time, he said, they retained the important role of providing support for teachers struggling to incorporate curriculum goals into programs with differing instructional philosophies.

"Administratively, it has been a nightmare on some levels," Mr. Smith conceded. "We have had to struggle very hard to work through the fuzziness, so people would be clear about their duties and what they want to do."

Mr. Palaich of the ecs noted that the organization of schools around content areas has had "a certain intrinsic appeal" to state policymakers, who have promulgated laws and regulations that tend to perpetuate the traditional model.

For example, he said, the certification process for secondary teachers encourages them to become specialists rather than generalists, and time-on-task mandates discourage block-programming and the integration of various subject areas.

An entrenched view of extracurricular activities also promotes the maintenance of larger schools, others said, because coaches, choral directors, and other activity leaders have a vested interest in drawing from the largest possible pool of talent.

Any move to break schools into independent units, said Mr. Garbarino, "pits adult and elite interests against the important social benefits for students of participation and being needed."

"You are up against alumni who want to see power football, the best team, and coaches whose personal prestige rests on their win-loss record," he said.

Nevertheless, the research on school size, Mr. Garbarino said, "has attributed most of the positive effect of smaller schools to opportunities for participating in extracurricular activities."

"It probably doesn't matter much if students are in houses for classes and still have to compete with 2,000 kids to get on the football team," he said.

The independent study of New York City's house plans concluded that ''extracurriculars were likely to be left out," although some houses scheduled trips and speakers to promote the building of a house identity.

Advocates of smaller school settings also caution that dividing larger schools poses an inherent danger that students will be grouped by ability, cultural interests, or other potentially detrimental classifications.

In many New York City high schools, for instance, administrators transformed existing college-bound, bilingual, and dropout-prevention programs into houses by renaming them or altering them only slightly, the pea-Bank Street report found.

"The categorical money has been a very controlling factor in how schools organized themselves," Ms. McCabe of the pea said.

Mr. Previdi suggested that inter8nal politics also has limited his ability to divide his school's enrollment into heterogeneous groupings.

"Instead of just being stratified samples, as as I might have hoped," he said of his school's institutes, "in all the political machinations that occurred, most of them are theme-oriented."

Staffing and budget considerations--and the need to comply with various mandates for special services--also dictated that his bilingual-education, English-as-a-second-language, and special-education programs be constituted as separate institutes, the principal added.

The need for special language programs may continue to require some separation of students with a limited command of English, he said, but the movement to mainstream special-education students may clear the way for their integration into other institutes.

"Tracking is insidious," Mr. Previdi said. "It's the worst form of discrimination."

But he maintained, on the other hand, that evaluators of the program must "also understand that anything one doesn't like doesn't mean those kids are tracked."

Mr. Herbert pointed to the apparent conflict between avoiding the dangers of tracking and accepting the fact that "homogeneous groupingsmake more sense because they provide a better construct for a house."

"Unless you take steps to prevent tracking from happening, it could happen" under a house plan, he acknowledged. "We're very sensitive to that."

New York City school officials hope to resolve some of the problems surrounding the implementation of house plans by designing new schools that will support several independent units in a single facility.

Each of the houses contained in the new buildings will share functions that are cheaper to provide in quantity, such as utilities and custodial services, but their instructional staffs could remain completely independent, officials said.

Schools Chancellor Richard R. Green said that the house plans can provide students "with a 'significant other' that they can relate to," and "may be the difference between some kids succeeding and some kids dropping out."

But few other districts have even considered such a restructuring as a way of addressing the student alienation found in large-school settings, experts said. While many local educators recognize the problem, they said, the most common response has been to create mentoring programs that benefit only a limited number of students.

"I don't think that the argument that kids should be known has many advocates," said Mr. Sizer. "There are no test scores that deal with that kind of issue."

Schools need to instill in their students "a sense of kinship, a belief that what they're doing is important to their futures," said Mr. Palaich.

"When schools don't offer that," he warned, "there are other alternatives," including street gangs and the drug trade.

Although New York City's slow progress in implementation has been blamed on a lack of funding, Mr. Previdi and other school leaders have shown that many of the program's most significant benefits can be achieved without spending substantial amounts of new money.

These leaders also argue that creating smaller school units fits neatly into the national movement toward greater on-site autonomy and shared decisionmaking.

The house plan of Martin Luther King Jr. High School, Mr. Previdi maintained, "has attacked anonymity by allowing teachers to take some initiatives, allowing some positive decisionmaking, and allowing kids to feel that they not only belong to something, but have some vested interest in its success."

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