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Boston Board To Consider Plan To Revamp High Schools

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A draft plan to be considered later this month by the Boston School Committee recommends fundamental changes in the organization and mission of the city's high schools.

The plan was drawn up in response to requests from the state education department, which has linked improvement in the high schools to state approval of Boston's new controlled-choice assignment plan for secondary students.

Combining proposals by the city's high-school zone superintendent and a separate task force of public-school headmasters appointed by Boston's acting schools chief, Joseph M. McDonough, the plan calls for the district to replace the traditional structure for grades 9-12 with a flexible, five-step model.

"What the high schools lack is a sense of direction, a sense of mis4sion," says the part of the draft report prepared by Michael Fung, the high-school zone superintendent. "For years the high schools merely responded to the adventure or the crisis of the moment."

In the first step of the proposed model, high schools would establish relationships with middle-school students before they were admitted to high school and would provide orientation programs and tutoring to students in need of extra help.

Once in high school, students would spend their first year and a half studying a core academic curriculum. They would be organized into small units of 60 to 135 students, grouped heterogeneously, and would be taught by teachers working in teams.

After this initial period of study, students who had achieved a certain level of proficiency would move on to explore academic and career possibil8ities though projects for half a year, while those who had not would receive additional instruction.

In the fourth stage, or the 11th and 12th years, students would concentrate on a particular specialty, such as college-preparatory mathematics and science or humanities, occupational education, or technical education. The curriculum would be oriented toward hands-on projects that would be overseen by a mentor.

To graduate, students would be required to complete a project and to pass newly developed assessments of their competencies.

Finally, in the fifth stage, students could choose to pursue further schooling in a 13th or 14th year designed in collaboration with local community colleges.

The plan is "an extremely significant step, if they can get it done," said Charles Glenn, co-director of the Boston-Chelsea Urban Team, which monitors those cities' schools for the state. "It would involve radical change of course in secondary education of a kind unparalleled among cities in this country."

Mr. Glenn said he was particularly pleased that the report focuses on the development of students' competencies, rather than on accumulation of course credits.

"Competency-based learning is not synonymous with basic-skills instruction," the report emphasizes, adding that students would be expected to master "independent-learning and critical-thinking skills."

New assessment tools will have to be developed to measure such competencies, it acknowledges.

Under the draft proposal, all high schools would begin implementing some elements of the plan in the 1991-92 school year, and all would do so during the next year. By 1994-95, the plan says, intervention teams would begin working with troubled schools; the following year, schools that were still failing would be significantly changed, including having their staffs and leaders replaced.

Whether the ambitious plan can be acted on remains in question, given the political turmoil in Boston over the school committee, which the mayor and the city council hope to abolish. (See Education Week, Dec. 12, 1990.)

But Mr. Glenn said the state's supervision of the student-assignment plan has given it significant leverage.

"We've brought some pretty heavy guns to bear" to see that the plan was produced, he added.

Added Larry W. Faison, an administrative assistant to the superintendent: "We are looking to make some radical changes. By having everyone who has a major role be a part of the process, we're hoping it will be approved."

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