Special Report

High Schools: No Quick Fixes

By Ann Bradley — January 08, 1998 16 min read

The teenagers at Hoover High School may speak 27 languages in their homes and communities, but on campus they’re united by a jargon all their own. Whether Vietnamese, Mexican, Afghan, or Somali, they talk fluently about “HLOs,” or Hoover Learner Outcomes, which specify what students here should know and be able to do at graduation.

Hai Pham, a senior computer whiz who wants to be a doctor, shows off the portfolio of schoolwork he has amassed in pursuit of those goals. As he turns the pages in his binder, looking back on research papers, projects, and photos of himself giving presentations, the cheerful 17-year-old grins.

“Tests, they don’t show everyone how you can work with other people or habits of mind,” he says. “They only show what you can remember. This is a chance to look back at what you did.”

Had he attended most urban high schools, Mr. Pham might have fallen through the cracks. The Vietnamese immigrant faced tough odds: Until recently, he had trouble speaking clearly, his father is unemployed, and his two older brothers have had run-ins with the law.

But at Hoover, his teachers paid close attention to his academic progress, monitored his speech development, and encouraged him to explore his interest in computers. In return, Mr. Pham blossomed, showing up early, leaving late, and racking up a 4.25 grade point average.

Teachers and administrators here have been working for nearly a decade to create a school that works for students like Hai Pham. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education recognized Hoover as a model “new urban high school” for its work to combine a challenging academic program with a focus on careers and real-world experience. Doris Alvarez, Hoover’s determined principal, was named the national high school principal of the year. In many ways, the school exemplifies the structures and practices that researchers say are central to creating successful urban high schools.

Closer to home, though, Hoover hasn’t been as well received. Last fall, as part of a new accountability thrust, the San Diego school board ranked the district’s 20 lowest-performing schools. Hoover was one of five high schools on the list. All are located in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The mixed messages that have swirled around Hoover underscore the crisis of urban high schools nationwide. Nearly every city can point with pride to an exam school, a selective magnet program, or a successful alternative school. But those schools educate only a small fraction of students. The overwhelming majority of city students attend comprehensive or neighborhood high schools. And the track record of those schools is miserable. Many graduate little more than half their students, and some do even worse.

Gene I. Maeroff, the director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of Altered Destinies: Making Life Better for Schoolchildren in Need, calls the situation an “embarrassment of America.”

In too many urban high schools, he says, the highest-achieving students are simply doing the minimum: performing at grade level. “The bottom line is,” Mr. Maeroff says, “is this school really one in which advantaged people would be satisfied to have their children?”

Far too often, the answer is no.

In Texas, you can count on one hand the high-achieving high schools that serve large numbers of low-income and minority students. Researchers from the state education department examined data from more than 6,300 schools and found 350 elementary schools where poor and minority students did well on the state test. But they turned up just one middle school and four high schools. More than 60 percent of the schools labeled as low-performing are high schools.

Educators in many big cities--notably Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Memphis, Tenn., New York, Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia--are struggling to overhaul their high schools. Reformers are homing in on what research says are the most promising ideas for how to fix them, many of which closely mirror the reforms at Hoover. Still, as the dismal Texas numbers show, progress in city high schools has been far slower than for elementary schools.

By the time they reach secondary school, many urban students have fallen so far behind that it’s virtually impossible for them to catch up.

“One piece of Hoover’s problem is that it is inheriting kids in the 9th grade who are reading at a 3rd and 4th grade level,” says Stephanie Gutt, the executive director of the San Diego Organizing Project, an advocacy group that has worked closely with Hoover. “Our high schools in general are suffering from the social promotion of kids.”

Unfortunately, that’s not all they’re suffering from. High school students in urban neighborhoods also can be sidetracked by early sexual activity, drug and alcohol abuse, and gang membership. Some are themselves parents. Many work after school and on weekends. And, for too many students who live in poverty, there seems little point in studying when the prospects for college or a good job seem remote. That attitude shows: Truancy and class-cutting are rampant at many urban high schools.

The structure of high schools themselves tends to make them resistant to change. They’re organized into academic departments and bound by the external requirements of graduation and college admission. Many are impersonal factories where students and teachers have little real contact.

In failing high schools, “people are really demoralized,” says James M. McPartland, the director of high school programs for the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Teachers retreat to their classrooms and deal with the good kids, and turn their backs on the chaos in the halls and corners.”

In 1987, the year Doris Alvarez arrived as principal, Hoover High won the dubious distinction of becoming the first in the San Diego district to have an on-campus drug bust. The annual dropout rate was 13 percent. “It was a typical urban school,” Ms. Alvarez recalls. “It was just awful. There was graffiti and truancy and tremendous underachievement.”

Today, a sense of calm pervades the campus, which is dotted with grassy lawns, trees, and fragrant flowering shrubbery. Outside, traffic on busy EI Cajon Boulevard whizzes by car dealership, fast-food franchises, and ethnic restaurants. Inside the chain-link fence that surrounds Hoover’s hodgepodge of white stucco buildings and portable classrooms, students move around purposefully.

On any given day, alumni who are now senior citizens help out as teachers’ assistants, serve as mentors for students, and work on the “achievement hall of fame” going up in the cafeteria.

For these retirees, Hoover High School today is a very different place from the one they remember as students. The City Heights neighborhood once was home to middle-class families in single-family houses. The school enjoyed a good academic reputation and was an athletic powerhouse.

Over time, those families were replaced by a wave of immigration. Houses were carved up and occupied by multiple families, creating densely populated neighborhoods of rapidly deteriorating homes.

The area still has the highest crime rate in the city, people here say, although the open prostitution along EI Cajon Boulevard has been curbed. The San Diego Organizing Project has pressed for better supermarkets, elimination of drug houses, and community policing in the area. Saul Price, the founder of the Price Club retail chain, has spearheaded an urban renewal effort that is starting to pay off.

Hoover’s 1,925 students reflect the diversity of their neighborhood. This year, the student body is 51 percent Hispanic, 22 percent African-American, 19 percent Indochinese, 5 percent white, and 3 percent Asian, Filipino, and Samoan. More than 95 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. More than 40 percent are not proficient in English.

Despite these formidable challenges, Hoover’s annual dropout rate is down to 2.5 percent--a prime reason for the accolades bestowed on the school. In 1996, more than 60 percent of its graduates enrolled in postsecondary schools, about 25 percent of whom attend four-year colleges.

Hai Pham, for one, has set his sights on Stanford University. That’s a long way from the refugee camp in the Philippines where he lived before arriving in the United States with his father and three brothers in 1987, when Hai was 7. At that time, he knew two words of English: yes and no. His father receives welfare to support himself and his two sons who remain at home. The teenager has little contact with his mother, who stayed in Vietnam, though she writes to his older brother in San Jose. Learning English was a struggle, he says, noting that he tested out of special language classes in middle school.

Ms. Alvarez clearly admires his diligence, and is proud of her school’s role in his success. “He’s never had a woman in the house,” she says of his home life, “but he has a lot of mothers here.”

Still, as the San Diego school board’s action shows, Hoover has a long way to go. In an effort to raise standards, the district evaluated schools based on grades, 10th graders’ scores on a standardized test that won’t be given in the future, and on the percentage of seniors earning a C or better in the classes required for admission to the University of California system.

Only 19 percent of Hoover’s students pass all of the core academic courses required by UC. One reason for the low number is that students enrolled in classes for English-language learners may not be able to complete the sequence. But teachers point out that 84 percent of all Hoover students are enrolled in college-prep courses, compared with 52 percent districtwide. And such large percentages hold true for every racial and ethnic group.

For Hoover’s staff, the low-performing label was a stinging blow. Tom Fehrenbacher, a humanities teacher, notes dryly that high test scores match the toniest zip codes in the district. “Our starting block is so much further back--just to be here is a success,” he says of Hoover High. “Our kids can be whatever they want to be--they just have a longer journey.”

Ron Ottinger, the school board president, defends the accountability program--even as he praises Hoover as having made “great strides.” The objective is not to stigmatize schools, he says, but to force them to examine data for all races and ethnic groups and to help schools meet the achievement goals. Mr. Ottinger adds that the board’s action sent a message that failing schools won’t be tolerated.

“If you believe in more objective measures,” he says, “the data is going to be the data. Do you make exceptions, or do you look at the data and figure out how to help the vast majority of kids meet the standards?”

Painful as the review process has bee, the Hoover staff has plenty of company across the country. Many states and districts are devising policies that identify low-performing schools, set targets for improvement, and specify consequences for failure. In some cities--including Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and San Francisco--low-performing schools have been closed and their staffs forced to reapply for their jobs. Kentucky’s accountability system includes financial incentives for schools to improve students’ performance.

But Ms. Alvarez and many teachers at Hoover High insist that the performance measures chosen by the San Diego board don’t fully capture what their students are capable of doing. And they admit that they hadn’t put much emphasis on standardized tests.

Since 1990, the school has embraced the philosophy of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network of high schools. Hoover’s faculty also drew on the report of a 1991 national commission that recommended that students learn not only basic academic skills, but how to work with others; use technology; and collect, analyze, and organize information--abilities considered essential in modern workplaces.

Today, 9th and 10th graders are grouped into separate “coalitions,” or teacher-student families. (Students who have not become proficient in English have their own coalition.) They study core subjects in two-hour blocks. The extended periods reduce the number of students teachers see each day, allow teachers to integrate related subjects, and give students time for more in-depth work.

Many reformers believe that providing 9th graders with a structured introduction to high school, as Hoover has done, is a crucial first step in turning around urban schools.

The John Hopkins research center, known as CRESPAR, is disseminating a set of reforms to create “talent-development high schools.” A crucial part is a 9th grade “success academy,” made up of teams of teachers and students, that include mentoring and support for students experiencing problems. In Detroit, high schools hold summer programs to acclimate incoming freshmen and assign attendance workers and counselors to work solely with 9th graders. The approach seems promising: Dropout rates are down, although students’ grades and attendance are still poor.

After their sophomore year, Hoover students select one of three career strands: health and human services, business and communication arts, or deign and engineering technology. But the focus at Hoover isn’t vocational. Rather, teachers try to weave real-world examples and problems from various occupations into their core academic classes.

Every six weeks, Hoover students are expected to complete a project or assignment to include in a portfolio that they build over their high school years. Every semester, the projects culminate in an “exhibition,” such as a health fair or the simulated United Nations Forum conducted by 10th graders in the spring. Mr. Pham’s portfolio, for example, includes a sample of the pamphlet on breast cancer that he designed for the health fair.

To graduate, every student must defend his or her portfolio at an exhibition, judged by local business people, parents, and community members.

Hoover students perform community service and go on one-day “job shadows” of people in their fields of interest. Some intern at businesses or hospitals.

Organizing around a career focus is a common feature of restructured urban high schools, many of which have broken down into schools-within-schools. Talent-development schools, for example, strive to offer a curriculum that integrates academic and job-related study. This blend also is the goal of the federal Department of Education’s New Urban High School project. Experts identified five schools, including Hoover, that combine rigorous academic with school-to-work opportunities for all students.

The best-known of New York City’ small high schools, Central Park East Secondary School, which has served as a model for dozens of others, also emphasizes what is now called “work-based learning.” Students perform community service in grades 8 through 10 and internships in 11th and 12th grades.

Hoover High students say their work experiences have helped clarify their goals. Lia Thao, a senior, spent a summer as an intern at San Diego State University’s graduate school of public health, assisting a researcher who was trying to line up subjects for a study. As a result of that experience, “I want to work with children instead of researching,” Ms. Thao now says. Her senior project reflects that interest: “My essential question is, are the children in City Heights receiving adequate immunizations? I don’t think most of them are.”

Blending academic knowledge, demonstrated performance, and real-world experience is the way to reach disadvantaged, disengaged students, Ms. Alvarez and the converts on her faculty say. “If you give them a real job, they are going to perform for you,” the principal says. “It’s amazing we don’t do more in school tied to the world around us.”

Kristine May, an enthusiastic second-year teacher, agrees. “What they learn--they have to have it justified,” she says of her 10th graders.

To create this kind of learning environment, Hoover has jettisoned some time-honored practices. The emphasis is no longer on “covering the material,” but on teaching what is essential to know and on drawing connections between subjects.

Because not all students progress at the same speed, teachers give “differentiated credit.” In the same math class, that means some teenagers earn algebra credit, while others emerge with pre-algebra on their record. Student who don’t earn the full credit as 9th graders take another class to master it by 10th grade. Hoover also has downplayed Advanced Placement courses, which now are taught during lunch and after school, because they work against an integrated curriculum.

Mr. Fehrenbacher, who teaches an AP history class at lunch, mocks its rigor as he hands out a multiple-choice test gleaned from one chapter of the thick textbook. It’s much harder, he says, to show understanding of a subject than to simply recall facts. Some teachers still struggle, he says: “There’s a lot of seat-time mentality and content coverage.”

Ms. Alvarez makes no bones about the fact that she’s had to push and prod her staff. Some teachers who weren’t up to the new approach left. And two years ago, Hoover got 23 new teachers because of an early-retirement initiative.

Although teachers say Hoover is a demanding place to teach, they also reap benefits. Teaching teams meet every Monday for joint planning. And teachers can take advantage of the “personalized professional growth” program, which offers them three released periods a day for six weeks to focus on research projects or peer coaching.

Lee Mongrue, a veteran teacher who has been at Hoover for 11 years, was feeling burned out when the school started down its current path. Now, he’s an enthusiastic member of the 9th grade team. “The institutionalized change is happening,” he says. “The seniors and juniors, when they talk to the kids, use the language of the portfolio and they understand the exhibitions.”

Although Hoover High strives for a solid academic program, the school itself is anything but rigid. Instead, it offers options to students who need extra help. In going this extra mile, Hoover most resembles successful elementary schools, which address all of their students’ needs--not just the academic ones. Since 1991, for example, the school has had an on-site health and social services center, the first comprehensive school health-care facility in San Diego County.

For students who aren’t succeeding during the regular day, Hoover offer Pathway, an alternative program runs from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. Most of the roughly 60 students in it have trouble getting to school on time or have fallen behind in their classes. These students have personalized learning plans and work on projects using the school’s computer lab. Every night, they take turns cooking dinner. Ms. Alvarez uses federal Title I money to support the program.

Hoover also spends Title I money to allow students to earn extra course credit on Saturday. And about 10 percent of Hoover’s students take an elective class called AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, for students who have college potential but need extra help getting there--tutoring, tips on study skills, and assistance with filling out applications.

An active ROTC unit offers still more opportunities. Mayra Estrada, a petite senior who commands the unit and wears a heavily decorated uniform, arrives at school before 7 a.m. to drill her troops. She also takes AVID and stays for a 7th period to cram in an Advanced Placement government class.

Just because she’s in ROTC, though, doesn’t mean Ms. Estrada wants to be a soldier. As a student in the health school, she spent a day shadowing a doctor. The point is that “this school has provided me with different ideas,” she says. “Since I come from a low-income family, I [now] have another option. That’s what I like about this school--I feel very privileged.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week as High Schools: No Quick Fixes