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Education Chat

Chat Transcript: High School Reform

Jim McPartland, principal research scientist, Talent Development Schools at Johns Hopkins University; and Albert Bichner, interim deputy chief academic officer for secondary education in the School District of Philadelphia, discuss efforts to restructure urban high schools, which are increasingly turning to outside groups—ranging from universities to for-profit educational companies—in search of reform options.

High School Reform: Strategies in Urban Districts (June, 29, 2005)

GUESTS: Jim McPartland and Albert Bichner

Lynn Olson (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s on-line chat on high schools. Today we’re going to focus on reforming urban high schools, and we’ve got two great guests with us: Jim McPartland, principal research scientist, Talent Development Schools, Johns Hopkins University; and Albert Bichner, interim deputy chief academic officer for secondary education, Philadelphia school district. Lets get started.

Question from karen barnes, Fund for Educational Excellence:
Specifically what kinds of initiatives/intense efforts are in place for the incoming ninth graders?

Jim McPartland:
WE attempt to “nag and nurture” nith graders for suiccessful transitions to high school by several approaches. A student is a member of a small team of about 150 students within the ninth garde academy under an interdisciplinary team of 4 teachers who share the same student and have a common daily planning time. The team reaches out to students with sttendance, discipline or course passing diffiuculties for personalized solutions. Teachers make phone calls to absent students, arrange contracts to shape behaviors, conduct reprt card conferences to advise students and offer extra help. The ninth grade co8urse schedule is also designed to help need y student, with a double dose of time in English and Math with “transition course” to fill skill gaps amd a Freshman Seminar course to help student with study and social skilss and to plan the rest of High School.

Question from Sean O’Donnell, Architect, Washington, DC:
How small is small in a “small learning community” and can you describe some of the challenges (e.g.: economic, organizational, physical, political) of creating small learning communities/schools in our urban districts?

Jim McPartland:
We recommend upper grade (10-12) Carrer Academies of size 250 to 350, which is large enough to have two teachers on each major subject and small enough to create the personalized learning environment where all adults and students know each other well in respectful relationships. The Ninth Grade Academy may be larger, but is further subdivided into teams of 4 teachers sharing 150 students with contiguous classrooms and common planning time to help nurture their students. Challenges in the urban districts include costs of subdividing a building with separation walls and doors, and time to plan with local staff to establish the rationale for SLCs and earn their commitment and buy-in. A good scheduler is also needed to get right the technical aspects of self-contained units with intact staff and students. There may be some additional costs of Administrators for each Academy (SLC) and of team leaders in the ninth grade, and for new curriculum with Academy focus. After start up costs, the program need continuing on-site coaches as the major added expense.

Question from Jim Kohlmoos President NEKIA:
Jim Can you review for us the evidence of effectiveness of the Talent Development model? What does the evidence suggest for future policy development in urban education?

Jim McPartland:
Recent evidence from an external evaluation by MDRC shows impressive improvements due to Talent development in student attendance, promotion rates, course passing rates (especially in math) and some achivement test gains, compared to matches control school trends. For eaxmple, 40 more students are gaining promotion from grade nine and continuation towards graduation per school per year, whihc is saving these young people from the major dangers of dropouts they would have otherwise experienced. But there is still along way to ga, since hundreds more still fall by the wayside. We are now intensifying the TD model in the upper grades and for the most needy student to build on the early successes and continue to close the graduation and achievemnet gaps. Message: real hope for turning arounf high poverty troubled high school, with a comprehensive reform model and lots of technical assistance.

Question from Ann Gabler, Assoc. Director, Master of Arts in Teaching Program, Bard College:
What are your opinions regarding the new Early College High School models that encourage close partnerships between colleges and high schools and offer students challenging college-level seminar courses after 10th or 11th grade?

Jim McPartland:
I believe the Early College High School is a major addition to the high school reform agenda, especially for the highly skilled students who are bored and unmotivated with their current program. I wonder how much application this approach has for the other end of the student distribution who are not ready for grade-level standards and likely to drop out in grade nine or soon after. We also need models that will meet poorly prepared students with interesting materials that challenge them to close skill gaps and to engane with their high school program of studies where Early College may be a distant prospect. I would like to see many more colege and high school partnerships to blur the boundaries between secondary and postseconmdary education to motivate more students during the high school grades, including two- and four-year college and research universities.

Question from Donna Carey, Gateway Academic Coach, Brainerd High:
I work with young people in a Talent Development high school and my major concerns are twofold: getting teachers to change their mindset to effectively teach in a block schedule and adapting their teaching strategies to reflect the philosophy of “academies.” Please shed light on these two concerns. Thank you.

Jim McPartland:
We use two approaches to get teachers ready to teach in extended class periods: training for teachers and building student skills for various learning activities used to fill the block. The teacher training occurs during the planning year before a block schedule is implemented. The training invloves how to insure coverage of the major units in fewer weeks of longer periods (completing an 18-week planning form with other teachers of the same course on what units need to be covered by which point in the term) and how to bring a variety of different activites (at least three) into every period (by simulations of various active learninbg and cooperativce learning approaches).We have a wrokshop manual “Teaching in Extended Periods” by leslie Jones we use in the teacher training that can be provided in one or over several days. To get student ready for activities such as being a successful team member in a cooperative learning task, we offer social skills lessons for various team roles to student in the Freshman Seminar course. In terms of assiting teachers to blend their instruction with their Career Academy themes, we are currently preparing supplementary units in math courses and reading selection bibliographies in English courses that line up with four different Carrer clusters: “People Careers (Helping and Leading)"; “Data Careers” such as business jobs’ “Things Careers” (Building, Fixing); and “Ideas Careers” such as creative jobs and scientific discovery. Thes units are not yet available but will be within the next year.

Question from Betty Cittadine, Director, College Bridge Programs, Chicago Public Schools, Office of High School Programs, Chicago, Il.:
“How are high school faculties and administrators incorporated into the vendor based programs and services? Is there an attempt to create a team approach of school based support and outside agents for an optimum learning environment?”

Albert Bichner:
The vendors as part of their task in scope of work have been charged to build a collaborative work place with their faculty, principal, community and other partners such as local colleges, universities and faith-based groups and part of our assessment will be their demonstration of their ability to accomplish their goals.

As to your specific question about faculty, much of the work on collaboration is being done through a professional development framework. The District is committed to the development and nurturing of teacher leaders and coaches at every school site for the core areas that include English, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies.

Question from Kenya Stowe, Teacher, NYC Public School System:
Has attendance increased at the schools where the new curriculum has been implemented?

Albert Bichner:
Improving student attendance continues to be an area of major focus. It is fully expected that smaller more personable schools and a fully implemented student relevant core curriculum will lead improved more engaging instruction that will bring about higher student attendance.

Question from GNGarcia, Senior Researcher, USED:
A recent evalution of the T.D.Model by MDRC(2005) indicates that the Assoc. Super. of Philly schools instituted a new curriculum that is “inconsistent with T.D..."(p.32-33) and made changes to feeder middle schools; a focus on state testing; more drill and practice materials greared to the state test; and reduced fiscal support for models such as T.D.

Q:What is the evidence base that the Assoc. Super. for secondary schools has relied upon to justify a reduction in the district’s full support for T.D.--a model that has already established an evidence-based significance in improving high schools in this district?

Albert Bichner:
Grant funding allowed seven of our high schools to engage in Talent Development. Despite the fact that this grant has now expired, we are taking the Best Practices realized from that reformed model such as double doses of Math and English, small personalized high schools and a focus on teacher coaches and professional development and we are bringing all of these benefits to scale in all of our 60 high schools.

Question from Jim Henderson, Faculty, UCLA School Management Program.:
Much of urban high school reform has a focus on what I call the “Supply Side” of education. (new curriculum, more rigorous courses, extended learning time, small learning communities, etc) How do we put more emphases on the “Demand Side” of reform where we help students have a vision for their future so that they see their education as important and understand that hard work is part of the formula?

Jim McPartland:
A major approach is to give students a choice of high school programs to match their own personal career goals and interests. To do this well, students must be helped to become aware of their own career strength interests and goals (interst inventories with lots of followup exploration and discussion) and to offer Career Academy options with common core academic curriculum plus relevant career applications. Done well, more students should be positively engaged with their program of studies becuase they’re getting something relevant and meaningful to their own thought-out career passions.

Question from Rhonda Davenport, Diversity & Learning Consultant:
When students lack vision and/or hope for their future possibilities, what measures are offered that help them to negotiate, and ultimately bridge the divide between their difficult life circumstances and their true spirit for active learning?

Albert Bichner:
In a curriculum sense we are working on project-based learning to increase student motivation, but we are also putting a greater focus on college and career awareness. For example, we currently have a cohort of tenth and eleventh graders spending four weeks at Princeton University’s campus for enrichment in Math and Science. Another cohort just returned from California University’s campus from a week long summer experience in Math, Science and college living.

The District is also committed to developing students as productive students. To that end, the District has launched a Senior Residency initiative allowing more than 1,000 high school seniors the opportunity to serve as positive role models for younger students and to be rewarded for their contributions to their schools.

But we can’t stress enough the need to make smaller and more personalized learning environments, not only do schools recognize student’s names but their learning styles, needs and interest. We have schools now with populations as small as 260. We are currently working on thirty schools involved in phase one and we are seeing initial results.

Question from Becky Haverland, former Middle School teacher of 24 years in Texas:
After following students through their high school years, it is my opinion that there is a LOT of wasted time in America’s high schools, at least the ones that I am acquainted with. I think all students should be given an opportunity to start gaining college credits as early as 10th grade. If we can get students in college as a part of their high school curriculum, they would be more apt to continue when they completed high school. I realize that SOME schools give their students this opportunity, but ALL schools should be required to give their students this opportunity. What is your opinion? Do you think our high schools are outdated?

Albert Bichner:
We thoroughly agree that students need to be connected to college opportunities. We currently have articulation agreements with eight local universities that are serving over 1,000 of our students. They include an agreement with our community college that allows 11th and 12th grade students to complete their last two years of high school on the college campus with a shared faculty of both teachers from our District and faculty from the Community College of Philadelphia. These students will graduate with both a high school diploma and associates degree in technology. We also agree that our own current high school model needed thorough redesign. This is why an office was solely established for high school reform. It is expected that all 60 of our high schools will engage in a partnership with a local university and administration in all levels are working diligently to make that charge a reality.

Question from Jeff Schiller, Educational Consultant, Atlanta Public Schools:
Our greatest challenge is teaching high school students who are several years behind in ELA and math the prerequsite skills they need to know to understand on-level instruction while, AT THE SAME TIME, teaching them on-level since they are tested on-level at the end of the year. Are there any sound research or other findings that illustrate how this can be done effectively?

Jim McPartland:
Our approach is to offer a “double dose” of two 18-week extended period courses in each subject, where the first term is a “transition” course to narrow skill gaps as the foundation for the second term grade-level high-standards course. The transition course should be highly motivating (high-interest/low frustration materials) and focus on the thinking skills the are the most important deficits (reading comprehension and math reasoning strategies)> We have a curriculum for the transition course and supporting materials for the district required course for these students.

Question from Mark Delaney, Long Term Professional Development Manager, HOPE Foundation:
Comprehensive School Reform grant has been frozen or cut in the past years. Are there other funding opportunities that schools might have to pay for such an expensive program?

Jim McPartland:
The expense for Talent Development is $250 more per student, that can sometimes be found by reallocating textbook account for new curriculum and staffing charts for more coaches and fewer Dept chairs and Security Guards. Or Title 1 funds can be directed to more high schools. Sometimes Perkins CTE funds can be used for Career Academy reforms that include comprehensiive components. Let’s hope CSR Programs keep alive also.

Question from Barry Weng-Lin, Associate Superintendent, High Schools (in a big city):
I have heard about and am interested in this Philadelphia stuff. What kind of materials did you use? Did Kaplan’s name go on it, or did the district’s? (or both?) Did you propose revisions to the materials they provided? How receptive were they to those revisions? Were there sort of advisory teams that worked with them, or did they make stuff and then just say “here, use this” and walk away?

Albert Bichner:
The District established a framework based on Pennsylvania’s State standards. Kaplan worked collaboratively with District personnel to craft curriculum.

Question from Suzanne Schirmer, parent, Long Beach CA:
How can the third largest district in California institute a college prepatory curriculum when 48 percent of the students are limited English speakers and the majority of its students are low income?

Jim McPartland:
Your situation is certainly challenging, but the same principals of reform apply to high poverty poorly prepared students with variations for language issues. See Chapter 13 in the recent book “Dropouts in America” edited by Gary Orfield (Harvard Educaytion Press)for an outline of the organization reforms for good school climate, Instructional reforms to narrow skill gaps, and Teacher Support Systems to help reform implementation.

Question from Erin Malloy, teacher, Parma Transitional Learning Center:
Why does Talent Development focus on 9th grade? I teach “at risk” 9th graders and find that many of them come to me with such poor math and reading skills, we spend the year trying to catch up. Then, we cannot prepare them for the material (especially math) needed for 10 th grade. I see the need for intervention earlier. 5th grade seems to be a drop off for most of my students.

I’d also like your opinion on “high stakes testing”, like the Ohio Graduation Test.

Thank you.

Jim McPartland:
To be sure, better prepartions before high school are needed, but it’s not too late to narrow and close some of the major skill gaps during the high school years. Approaches that add extra time in the core subjects (“double doses”) with transition courses to motivate students for the comprehension and reasoning skills they need are showing great promise.The transition course comes in the first term with extended class periods as a foundation for the second term grade-level courses. Extra teacher training and coaching has to be part of the picture.

Question from Janet Kaltreider, Assistant Principal, Spring Grove Area Senior High School:
What are the challenges with recruiting and retaining new teaching staff within an urban setting?

How do you design a new teacher induction program to meet their needs?

Albert Bichner:
It is very challenging, but our new Senior Vice President of Human Resources has done a tremendous job of outreach to local universities and national organizations aimed at teacher recruitment and retention. We now have many more applicants than positions and we are retaining teachers at increasing rates.

Our Office of Staff Development is redesigning new teacher induction and making teachers feel more valued and supported.

Question from Jennifer Padberg, Education Consultant, Learning Exchange:
With current trends in large urban districts towards “small learning communities,” what benefits, if any, would you see in decentralizing these larger districts such as Kansas City, and would there be potential benefits to creating several smaller districts instead?

Jim McPartland:
I don’t know how size of district may be involved in high school reform. No matter how large the district, approaches to reorganize schools for smaller personalized climates plus improved classroom instruction to close skill gaps can be instituted. There may even be some economies of scale in training teaching staff from multiple schools in larger districts.

Albert Bichner:
Here’s a follow-up to the discussion about Philadelphia’s work with Kaplan on its high school curriculum: Did Kaplan’s name go on it, or did the district’s? (or both?)

Mr. Bichner writes: It is clearly labeled and stamped with the School District of Philadelphia as well as the symbol of our School Reform Commission and our own Secondary Education Movement.

Did you propose revisions to the materials they provided?


How receptive were they to those revisions?

They are very receptive and extremely customer oriented.

Were there sort of advisory teams that worked with them, or did they make stuff and then just say “here, use this” and walk away?

They followed our specific requests as well as Pennsylvania State Standards. We are pleased with the product.

Question from Josh Cornfield, Reporter, Delaware County Daily Times:
From a former student of Mr. Bichner...What advice do you give to a high school where a change to private management has failed and the district is now taking back control. What does the district (Chester Upland, PA) need to do to make sure things run smoothly and improvements can be made at the beleagured Chester High School?

Albert Bichner:
I would consider using a similar model that is being used in Philadelphia. Once again, smaller, more personalized schools, standardizing curriculum and benchmarks and a focus on people. Not only the needs of individual students, but also personalizing the learning environment for teachers, parents and community members. Build stronger links to a community rich in culture and tradition.

Question from Richard Marquez, Marqcom, Inc.:
What is the common strand that has caused all the high school reform initiatives to falter? Are those causal issues still in place? WE know what needs to be done, why can we not achieve the goal?

Jim McPartland:
Although we may know in general what needs to be done (smaller personalized units with high interest/low frustration instruction and expert coaches for teachers, etc)the daily operational details make all the difference. Most schools/districts need a lot of technical assistance on how to get the reforms strong in their details, and this help has not been widely available.

Question from Lynn Olson:
The Philadelphia public schools are making a course in African and African-American history a requirement for graduation as part of the push to standardize the district’s curriculum. Why did you decide to add such a course?

Albert Bichner:
As part of our larger reformation of our curriculum, this was a conscious effort to reform social studies.

Question from Detra Davis, Educational Consultant, Cary, North Carolina:
I am familiar with the work out of Johns Hopkins University, working closely with Dr. Joyce Epstein of the NNPS. I have a two part question. 1. What part will parents play in this initiative? 2. In urban districts many parents are dealing with their own issues, will there be some sort of mentoring component for those students who cannot get support from their parents or other family members?

Detra Davis

Jim McPartland:
Joyce Epstein approach of Action Teams setting priorities from the six-fold typology for parent and community involvement is a major component of the Talent development reform model, because of the vital importance of these positive connections. Extra help during the school day and after for needy students is also a key component of the reforms we recommend.

Lynn Olson (Moderator):

We’ve run out of time. Thanks for joining us today for a great discussion.

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