Community Fights To Save Denver School That ‘Redirects’ Dropouts

By Robert Rothman — May 27, 1992 11 min read


As an over-age junior-high-school student slated to attend North High School here, Sergio Rubio was, he recalled last week, “in the process of dropping out.’'

Now, four years later, Mr. Rubio is about to receive a high-school diploma. He is one of 68 students scheduled next month to be the first class to graduate from High School Redirection, an alternative school here aimed at those at risk of dropping out. He would like to return to the school as a teacher some day.

To achieve that desire, though, Mr. Rubio will first have to do battle with the Denver school board. Charging that the four-year-old program has failed to provide evidence that its students are meeting the district’s curricular goals, the board has voted to close it next month.

The success of Mr. Rubio and others like him, however, has emboldened the school’s staff and community to fight to save High School Redirection. They vow to explore every option--including, as a last resort, seeking funds to create a private school--to preserve it.

“There has to be something with it,’' Mr. Rubio said. “Any other school, if it was threatened to close down, I wouldn’t do anything to prevent that.’'

The battle over High School Redirection represents, in many ways, a classic struggle between a school that is daring to innovate and a district that wants to ensure that all schools are accountable for student learning. Among other changes, the school has abandoned grades and course credits, and instead evaluates students on the basis of research projects and portfolios.

The struggle is particularly acute here in Denver, where local school and district officials are finding their way under a new teachers’ contract that devolves substantial authority to committees of administrators, teachers, and parents at each school.

District officials maintain that they will continue to provide an alternative program for students who have trouble in the traditional system, but say the new program should provide more structure than High School Redirection does.

“We strongly believe that students can receive the [district’s adopted] curriculum in an alternative way,’' said Dorothy A. Gotlieb, the chairman of the school board. “We have an obligation to ensure that they are receiving the curriculum.’'

But Richard J. Kraft, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who led a team that evaluated High School Redirection, said districts should err on the side of allowing as much innovation as possible.

“If the schools were a success, it would be absolutely crazy to try to protect risk-taking,’' said Mr. Kraft, whose team, which sent its report to the board last week, strongly recommended that the program continue. “But when we’re losing 23 percent of our students each year [to dropping out], it’s silly not to try to do things.’'

An Educational Iconoclast

High School Redirection is the brainchild of Arnold Langberg, a veteran teacher and principal with a long career as an educational iconoclast. As a possible signal of his point of view, his office wall contains a poster with this quotation from Albert Einstein: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.’'

In 1970, Mr. Langberg started an alternative high-school program in the New York City suburb of Great Neck, and in 1975, he created a similar program in Jefferson County, Colo., just west of here.

Seeking to take his ideas and try them with inner-city youths, he approached the Denver school district in 1986 and proposed revamping its alternative programs.

Specifically, he suggested shifting the then-current emphasis of the programs--which he said amounted to “dumping grounds’’ for troublesome youths--to a focus on providing education in a different way.

Under the old view, Mr. Langberg said in an interview last week, “the system is O.K., but we’ve got some problems, and we’ll fix them.’'

“In my view,’' he continued, “the system is what’s broken, and we’ve got to find other ways of educating.’'

Mr. Langberg had originally envisioned creating a K-12 laboratory school, which would provide teacher training and curriculum development as well as serve as a school. But he scaled back his plan and proposed an alternative high school that would grant diplomas, provide on-site child care for students’ babies, and measure student achievement on the attainment of outcomes, rather than course credits.

“To take a 19-year-old kid with no credits, and a 14-year-old with no credits, and ask them both to go through the same charade is absurd,’' Mr. Langberg said.

The resulting program is open to any student in the district who chooses it. The school’s total enrollment topped out at about 350 students, but fell to fewer than 250 when its future became uncertain.

Controversy From the Start

The proposal was controversial from the start. In an indication of the uphill battle the school would face, the school board voted by only 4 to 3 in 1988 to accept an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Labor Department to create the school.

“Any time you have a 4-to-3 vote on any school board, it’s shaky at best,’' said Emilio A. Esquibel, an area director for the Denver schools who oversees alternative programs.

Moreover, said Mr. Langberg, the first 150 students who entered the school in 1988 faced a difficult period of adjustment.

“Any school is a cultural change, and this was more so,’' Mr. Langberg said.

In addition to the child-care center and the outcome-based approach, the school showcased a variety of other innovative features, many of which have been urged by reformers. It is a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network of reform-minded high schools led by the Brown University educator Theodore R. Sizer.

In fact, noted Mr. Kraft’s evaluation team, “High School Redirection is a unique institution.’'

“While many aspects of its programs are replicated in one or another Denver or suburban school,’' the team’s report states, “no other institution, to our knowledge, attempts to combine such a broad range of alternative approaches to secondary education.’'

The “heart of the program,’' according to Mr. Langberg, is an advisement system. Under the plan, 15 to 16 students are paired with a faculty member--including the principal--with whom they form a close relationship throughout their career at the school.

“There’s stronger accountability here than any place else,’' Mr. Langberg argued. “Each teacher is responsible for 16 kids.’'

In addition, the school has scrapped the traditional system of grade levels, letter grades, and tests, and replaced them with a system of outcomes, portfolios, and demonstrations.

In particular, the school has established 14 graduation “expectations’'--ranging from “knowledge of self and others’’ to critical thinking and decisionmaking--on which students should demonstrate their abilities by the time they graduate.

Students must also complete three projects, or “passages.’' One project must examine a prospective career, another must demonstrate creative expression, and the third must explore a global problem.

One day last week, for example, Alicia Martinez was preparing to contact an official from the Mexican government for her global project, which is examining the extent of gang activity in that country and in the United States.

To complete their work, students also move at their own pace according to an “individualized learning plan,’' developed jointly with their adviser. Rather than march from 9th grade through 12th grade, the students progress from Phase I, in which they become accustomed to the school, to Phase II, where they assess their needs and develop their learning plans, to Phase III, during which they demonstrate their competencies and complete their projects.

Students need not attend all four years if they complete their three phases in less time.

In addition to allowing students flexibility in meeting the outcomes, the school provides freedom for teachers to address student needs as they see fit.

Teachers take advantage of such opportunities by offering interdisciplinary instruction and lessons outside of regular classrooms, faculty members note. One group, for example, recently returned from a three-week trip to a Navajo reservation.

“We never have to spend time thinking about how to convince so-and-so this is worthwhile,’' said Karen Fernandez, an English teacher.

‘On a Success Track’

Students and teachers at the school contend that the program has been a remarkable success.

For one thing, they point out, it has kept many students in school who otherwise would have dropped out. In particular, noted Takita Jackson, a graduating student with a 2-year-old daughter, the presence of on-site child care has enabled her to attend classes she might otherwise miss.

“I would have dropped out’’ of a regular school, she said. “Now, I come in every day.’'

The school is also among the most ethnically diverse in Denver, which is under a court-ordered desegregation plan, Mr. Langberg pointed out. Some 45 percent of the students are Hispanic and another 21 percent are black.

High School Redirection has also gone further than most schools in integrating disabled students into all aspects of the program, according to Timothy Hepp, whose stepson, Colin, a third-year student, suffers from cerebral palsy, behavioral delay, and seizure disorder.

“The culture of the school is such that students with any differences are widely accepted, because all students recognize that they [all] have individual differences,’' Mr. Hepp said.

In addition to enrolling and retaining a diverse student body, the school has ensured that most students succeed academically, Mr. Kraft, the University of Colorado researcher, said. This is particularly impressive, he said, since many of them came to the school after involvement with the judicial system, gangs, or drugs.

“Are they ready to go on to win a Nobel Prize in science or engineering? I doubt it,’' he said. “Will they be functioning, participating members of society? I think so.’'

“They were on a failure track; now, they’re on a success track,’' Mr. Kraft said.

One student already graduated last year and is now enrolled in a local community college.

Nevertheless, conceded Mr. Langberg, about a third of the students drop out of High School Redirection.

Some, he said, fail to develop a trusting relationship with their advisers; others cannot handle the responsibility for their own learning that the system demands.

“Not every kid should go to this school,’' said Amie MacKenzie, a mathematics teacher. “Some we consider successful if we counsel them out of here.’'

‘A Tough Decision’

Despite the strong support from parents and staff members, however, the school board voted 7 to 0 last fall to eliminate the program.

First, the board sold the building that houses the school to Denver’s Children’s Hospital, which is located across the street, for $1.5 million. Then, when the hospital agreed not to occupy the building until this summer, the board allowed the school to remain until the end of the year, but cut the staff from 24 to 17.

Although members of the school’s collaborative-decisionmaking committee--the panel set up under last year’s teachers’ contract that has some authority over school policy--objected that the board acted without their consent, the board was within its authority to take such actions, noted Evie G. Dennis, Denver’s superintendent of schools.

“We do not have 110 school boards in the district,’' she said. “This is not the Chicago model.’'

The school board is considering closing several schools to save money, since it has the same number of facilities it did when it enrolled 30,000 more students, officials point out. But the decision to eliminate High School Redirection was based on opposition to the program, not financial concerns, said Lynn D. Coleman, a board member.

Despite numerous entreaties, the school has failed to document what students know and are able to do, she said.

“The school is strong when it comes to its social environment and sense of identity,’' she said. “It is weak when it comes to academics. And in documentation and paperwork, it is very weak. It’s just not there.’'

“There will be a program that will be similar to High School Redirection,’' Ms. Coleman said. “But it will not be High School Redirection.’'

“This was a tough decision to make,’' Ms. Gotlieb, the board’s president, added. “A lot of kids are hurting. We didn’t do it without a lot of thought.’'

Exploring Other Options

Christina Thomas, a teacher and counselor at High School Redirection, acknowledged that the school could do a better job in developing new assessments that would provide evidence of student learning.

But the school declined to present the evidence the school board had requested, Mr. Langberg said, because he did not want to “demean’’ his students by reducing their achievements to single test scores.

“I’ve been doing this for 36 years,’' he said. “Should I be considered a charlatan? Would I sign a diploma for a kid who didn’t deserve one?’'

“Every day I see kids; I see what they have done,’' he said.

While holding out hope of reaching an accommodation with the school district, Mr. Langberg added that he and other school officials are exploring a number of options to remain in business.

One possibility dried up last month, he said, when a bill that would have allowed Colorado schools to “opt out’’ of their districts died in the state legislature. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

He has also approached private foundations seeking funds, and, as a last resort, is considering asking parents whether they would support the program as a private school.

“I think the system is unable--I know it is unwilling--to restructure to make it work,’' Mr. Langberg said, adding: “I hope I’m wrong.’'

A version of this article appeared in the May 27, 1992 edition of Education Week as Community Fights To Save Denver School That ‘Redirects’ Dropouts