The ribbons of colorful crepe paper hanging across the long, cavernous corridors of Baltimore's Patterson High School are barely noticeable. But teachers here cannot keep from pointing them out.
"You see those?" one teacher after another asks. "A year ago, they wouldn't have lasted eight hours. The kids would've torn them down." This year, the streamers, faint streaks of bright color against the dim hallways, have hung undisturbed for weeks.
The decorations are just one small sign of the transformation that has taken place in the space of less than two years at this inner-city high school. Once a top candidate for state takeover, Patterson High was, by all accounts, a school out of control. Students freely roamed the corridors, sometimes setting signs on fire, kicking in windows, or erupting into fights. Two years ago, fully 82 percent of the 9th-grade class flunked--many of them because they hadn't bothered to come to class much.
Patterson High staff members knew they had to do something. What they did, in effect, was start over again. The faculty and administration decided to divide and conquer, separating the school's 2,100 students into five individual, teacher-led schools--an academy for 9th graders and four career-oriented academies for upper-level students. Teachers raised academic standards, vowing to make it possible for every Patterson High student to have the courses needed to make it to college. Tougher rules were put in place--and enforced--on tardiness and absenteeism. And to cut down on disruptive hallway traffic, the school replaced its seven-period-a-day schedule with four 90-minute periods each day.
At the same time, researchers across town at Johns Hopkins University were eyeing Patterson High's efforts. Along with Howard University in Washington, Hopkins had just won a hefty five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to run the newly created Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk. Troubled inner-city students like those at Patterson High were the target of the national center's mission.
"We were looking for a way to make our research practical and useful," says James M. McPartland, a research scientist at the Hopkins center.
What the researchers saw in Patterson High's emerging vision for school reform were ideas that matched their own. The center wanted to create what it called "talent development" schools--places where students' talents were nurtured rather than places where students were sorted out according to academic ability. Their vision, like Patterson's, called for smaller, focused academies, a common core curriculum for all students, and high standards.
So the practicing educators and the ivory tower researchers decided to join forces. Hopkins provided the technical assistance, professional development, and evaluation. Patterson High became its laboratory.
"It was like a match made in heaven," says William Morrison, the principal of Patterson's 9th-grade academy.
Now, buoyed by the school's quick, apparent turnaround, the researchers and the educators say they're ready to take their model for school reform on the road.
"I'm critical of other high school reform activities because I think they lack content," McPartland says. "They're either general ideas or principles or themes. I think there's a need for a concrete model that is definite and replicable."
Set amid warehouses, manufacturing plants, and patches of row houses, Patterson High was once among the city's proudest high schools. Even so, college was never a life goal of most of its students.
"Usually, they would graduate and get a lower entry-level white-collar job or a blue-collar job at Bethlehem Steel of Sparrows Point or Continental Can," says Bonnie Erickson, who helped engineer Patterson High's transformation after she became principal two summers ago. But many of those jobs are no longer plentiful, and without some college education, Patterson students face dimmer job prospects.
"Now, we're telling all our youngsters that they need to have at least that college experience," she adds. All 9th graders, for example, now take algebra I--a course widely considered a gateway to the higher math courses students need for college.
As it stands now, Patterson High takes in all the students in its attendance zone who don't get into one of the city's more prestigious citywide high schools or its three vocational schools. About 60 percent of the students are African-American; 40 percent are ethnic, working-class whites. Many of the latter come from some of the city's nearby Polish, Italian, and Greek neighborhoods. And a few students, either by choice or necessity, travel an hour or more by city bus to get to school each day because they live outside the school's attendance zone.
Nevertheless, by 7:15 a.m., students are already streaming slowly into the school's 9th-grade Success Academy. Morrison, like the principals and teachers who lead the other academies, is already at the door, greeting students by name.
"Where were you yesterday?" he asks one towering young man.
With 700 students in his academy, Morrison is still able to know many of his students. The four career-theme academies for the upper grades--sports studies and wellness, arts and humanities, business and finance, and transportation and engineering technology--have about 350 students each. Students take all their classes, even general academic courses such as English and math, within their academies.
With funds from the state, Patterson High carved its academies out of the existing school, building new walls to separate academies at one end of the building and replacing the music wing with the sports-and-wellness academy at the other end. Last summer, says Principal Erickson, 103 of the school's 104 teachers moved to new classrooms. Each academy entrance--marked with its own marquee-like sign--stands separate now. Unless students have a good reason, they rarely pass from one academy to another.
Besides making the atmosphere at the school more personal, the smaller student bodies give teachers an added measure of control.
"Last year, we would just sit there with our mouths open saying, 'Who is that kid?' or 'Who is that group of kids?'" recalls Gerald Thomas, one of the teacher-leaders in the school's transportation-and-technology academy. "Now, I know everyone by name."
Adds Wendy Ramirez, a 12th grader: "Teachers seem like they care now."
"We think just knowing people's names is a big reason they got this place under control, so we're trying to measure that," McPartland says. The researchers' final evaluation will be the subject of a book on the project next year.
But the career academies, to which students apply near the end of their 9th-grade year, also give students a focus. Each of the academies lays out specificcareer pathways students can follow to prepare for a chosen vocation. The 9th graders also take a standardized test to help them determine where their interests and skills lie.
"Everybody has something they're interested in," says Laquanda Hanley, a senior in the business-and-finance academy. "I like business, and I want to have my own someday."
Patterson High is not the first school to dream up a career academy. But, according to McPartland, most such institutions are separate, free-standing schools or a single school-within-a-school. Dividing a school entirely into four or five career academies is a much rarer practice.
"I doubt you'd find another school in the country like this," he says.
Nearly an hour later, at almost 8:15 a.m., homeroom period is about to begin. A student comes running into the entrance of the sports-and-wellness academy.
"You have 30 seconds, Alicia," calls out the school's principal, who is seated at a desk by the front door. Tardy students must stay after school that day for detention. If they fail to show up for detention, they are not allowed to enter the building the next morning.
Students also have to wear identification tags, which principals and academy leaders check as their charges arrive each morning. If they forget their tags, students can buy a new one for $5 or rent a one-day pass for a quarter.
"I think one of the major things we do wrong in education is say things we're not prepared to follow through with," says Roger Wrenn, a leader of that academy. "In December, we said, 'We're still going to be out here checking ID's in June. Get used to this. We will not go away.'"
In the past, teachers had no way of knowing whether students belonged in the school. And, overwhelmed by the large numbers of unfamiliar faces they saw roaming the halls, teachers just shut their doors and covered the windows with paper.
The extra vigilance this year seems to have achieved its goal. Between classes, the hallways are empty--save for the academy principals and leaders patrolling the polished floors.
Likewise, teachers are encouraged this year to keep closer tabs on their no-show students. More than 96 percent of Patterson High's teachers identified chronic absenteeism as a pressing problem a year ago. And last year, the school reported the second-lowest attendance rates of the city's nine comprehensive high schools.
"We figured the main reason kids were failing was because they weren't here," says Morrison, the 9th-grade academy's principal.
To combat the problem, teachers try to make at least two calls a day to students who were absent from their classes.
"Instead of calling parents, we'll call the kids and say something like, 'Where were you? We missed you.'" Morrison explains. "Because in the real world, urban parents have very little control."
A few teachers go to even greater lengths. After calling one student's home 30 or more times and failing to reach an adult, Susan Watts took the envelope from her paycheck stub, typed the boy's mother's name and address in the window, and enclosed a letter informing her of her son's absences.
"I figured he would think it was a check, and he wouldn't open it," she says of the absent student. A day after his mother received the letter, he was back in school.
"If you see results, you don't mind doing it," Watts says.
This year, Patterson High's attendance rates are the second highest among the city's other comprehensive high schools. And Patterson was the only school where attendance improved, rising by 6 percent.
"What we've done essentially is we've made it possible for teachers to do their jobs," McPartland says.
As much as the school has tightened rules and raised standards, the aim is not to use those strictures to sort kids out. Students who are disruptive or have failed a class, for example, can go to twilight school, which begins at 2:30 p.m. and runs until 5:30. Students pay $20 for each course they retake in the twilight school. Besides getting a second chance at failed courses, students receive instruction in what Principal Erickson calls "the Patterson way"--the behavioral norms and expectations they need to meet to succeed in school.
It is also no accident that most of the students at twilight school are 9th graders. For nowhere is the idea of nurturing more important than it is in the 9th-grade academy.
"All the research shows that 9th grade is really the critical year for determining whether kids will stay in school," McPartland says.
The need for additional resources targeted at that level is obvious. On a recent visit, one 9th-grade girl stormed out of class, yelling at her teacher and railing at other adults in the hallways. And school officials scrambled to toss out a group of students from another school who had tried to enter that wing of the building. Hallways are noisier here and students run the gamut, from small, slightly built adolescents to 6-foot-tall students who are practically men and women.
To help bridge the gap from middle school to high school, Patterson teachers have adopted a middle school philosophy of team-teaching classes. What's more, students are assigned teacher-mentors who act as advisers to students, helping guide them, for example, in their choices of classes or academies. Extra social workers and a reproductive counselor, who offers advice on pregnancy prevention, are also on hand to help the Success Academy live up to its name.
As a result, 9th-grade Principal Morrison is hoping to cut the grade level's nearly universal failure rate to 20 percent or better. And as fewer students have to repeat 9th grade, the size of that academy will eventually shrink.
The population of the rest of the school, meanwhile, is expected to grow next year as word gets out of the changes at Patterson High. Principal Erickson says she expects an additional 300 to 400 students--a mixture of former Catholic school students, kids who would've otherwise dropped out, and transfer students from other public schools. To handle the influx and retain the more personal atmosphere of the academies, the school is planning to open a fifth academy, which will focus on environmental and aquatic sciences.
The changes at Patterson High have not come without turmoil. The state rejected some of the earlier proposals for remaking the school. And with permission from the school district's central office, Erickson asked 20 percent of the school's original faculty to retire or transfer elsewhere last year. "There was some bitterness on the part of some people," she says, "and some determination that, whatever happened, they were just going to be obstreperous."
Not all the students are happy with the changes, either. "There ain't a lot of people in the hallway and a lot of people are going to class, but a lot of people don't like this four-period day either," says 12th grader Tom Karanikolis, who thinks the 90-minute periods are too long.
But survey data the Hopkins researchers have collected so far also speaks volumes. It shows marked decreases in teachers' perceptions about the prevalence of some of the school's most serious problems. For instance, nearly 84 percent of all teachers last spring said tardiness was a problem. By this fall, the percentage had dropped to 21 percent. Teachers also reported decreases in vandalism, drug use, verbal abuse of teachers, drug-peddling, fights, and theft. Only one security guard, down from three last year, patrols the school now.
What the numbers do not say is whether students are learning more in their new environments. But the teachers and researchers figure it's a good bet that they are.
"Certainly, there's more time on task," Principal Erickson says. "But only time will tell."
Nevertheless, McPartland is already working with three other schools in Baltimore that are adopting and adapting Patterson High's reform model. Researchers at Howard University are doing the same with two schools in the District of Columbia, and a California research-and-development laboratory plans to usher in similar changes at a school there in the coming year.
McPartland says all eight schools, including Patterson High, will form a network to support one another.
"We think what we have here," he says, "could be a national model."