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A School Of Their Own

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That, in part, is why Minnie Howard, which opened in September, is devoted exclusively to that unique, noisy, and precarious grade level.

"High school is a nightmare for younger kids,'' says Margaret Walsh, Minnie Howard's principal. "You're sharing a bathroom with some kids who are nearly 20 when you're 13, and this is at a time when self-confidence issues are critical.'' The program, she says, "is giving us a chance to latch onto one of the most critical age groups.''

Minnie Howard is one of just a handful of public schools nationwide that houses only 9th graders. Most have been temporary arrangements intended to relieve overcrowding. One school district committed to the idea on a longterm basis is fast-growing Orange County, Fla., where officials have opened three 9th grade centers and are making plans for more. Another is this Washington suburb. Although the arrangement was controversial at first, school officials say it is here to stay.

In the beginning, the proposal to set aside one school for 9th graders was driven by the same practical considerations that have led to such configurations elsewhere. Alexandria officials realized in the late 1980s that the city's only high school, with 2,300 students, was reaching capacity. In response, officials offered the community three options: add a floor to the current high school, build a new high school, or refurbish an old elementary school and put the 9th graders there.

The first choice, which would have cost more than $12 million, was too expensive. The second was unacceptable to residents. "People weren't particularly interested in another school,'' says superintendent Paul Masem. "The reaction ranged from 'No way' to 'That's fine as long as my kid doesn't have to go to the other school.' ''

That left option number three: converting Minnie Howard for 9th grade use. Long used as an administration building, the 40year-old structure could be renovated for only about $2 million. Moreover, it was close enough to the high school to allow students to take part in sports and other special programs there. "It was serendipity,'' Masem says.

Still, some school board members and parents opposed the proposal. "I was concerned about the potential long-term expense of essentially creating another secondary school and the potential duplication of expenses,'' says former board member Judy Seltz, who voted against the plan.

Seltz says she also feared that isolating 9th graders was the wrong strategy for that age group. "Sometimes it's harder when there's nobody older and nobody younger, and you're dealing with all kinds of adolescent issues,'' she says.

Once the issue was decided in early 1992, however, school officials seized on it as a way to reach students at a turning point in their school careers. Studies show that more students drop out in the 9th grade than at any other grade level.

Administrators, parents, and teachers designed a program that combined some of the reforms being called for nationally for middle schools with innovations of their own. To create a more nurturing environment, for example, every teacher is responsible for keeping tabs on 13 students, getting in touch with their families, and overseeing their educational progress. In addition, the 650 students in the school are divided into five "teams.'' Each team is housed in its own wing of the building, and students attend all of their classes with other team members. Each team's teachers meet regularly to discuss instructional issues.

The school also has more guidance counselors per students than other district schools, and its guidance center was designed to handle the anticipated extra traffic. School officials even outfitted the renovated facility with a new carpet, randomly splashed with bright-colored geometric shapes, that seems to symbolize the high energy and whirling emotions of mid-adolescence.

Every student at the school must take algebra, which studies suggest is linked to higher mathematics achievement. And all the students will take a world civilization course, which is taught jointly by social studies and language arts teachers. Some of the instructional changes turned out to be more controversial than the idea of isolating the 9th graders. The world civilization course, for example, had previously been available only as an honors program. When plans were announced to have all students take the course, some parents of high achieving students objected to having it "de-tracked.'' To allay their concerns, school officials decided to maintain a separate honors level for the course.

For the most part, students seem to like being clustered with others their own age. "I wasn't too wild about it at first,'' notes Peter Hearding. But now, he says, "I think it's a lot nicer than having people of different ages running around school.''

For Lamar Loving, not having to start high school this year was a relief. "I don't really want to go there,'' he says, "because people are older than me, and they are all bigger than me.''

Indeed, says Vice Principal Randolph Mitchell, having students the same age seems to cut down on "distractions'' caused by older students harassing younger ones. "Students are pretty much going to function within their age group anyway,'' he says. "Having them in the same building just gives them the opportunity to socialize better with each other.''

Elaine Crowley, co-chairwoman of a parent task force at Minnie Howard, says most parents are now comfortable with the idea of the single-grade school. "A lot of parents thought their kids would want to be part of the high school,'' she says. But that wasn't necessarily the case.

"I have been surprised,'' Crowley says, "at the students' desire to maintain their own identity.'' Her own son's reaction to the new school was that it is "fine.''

"Which for him,'' she explains, "was a rave review.''--Debra Viadero

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