School & District Management

Personal Touches

By Debra Viadero — June 16, 2004 11 min read
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Five years ago, Robert E. Lee High School was a big school with big problems.

Overcrowding at the 3,100-student school forced some students to use air-conditioning units for chairs. Hallway fights broke out daily. At least half the freshmen disappeared from the roll books before reaching 12th grade.

The thing to do, school leaders decided, was to get small.

With advice from local and national experts, Lee High was subdivided into 10 smaller learning communities of about 200 students each. Like miniature, semiautonomous schools, each academy has a career theme designed to tap into students’ interests. There’s an academy for performing arts, another for health sciences, and one for law-related careers. Students take most classes within their academies, in the hope that these smaller settings will eventually begin to feel more like home and less like impersonal, factory-model schools.

At Robert E. Lee High School in Houston, 10 "small learning communities" have replaced one-size-fits-all education.

“I doubt there is one student in this building now who can say there isn’t one teacher who doesn’t know them and know about them,” said Marla Morrow, a longtime Lee educator who has weathered the downsizing.

Lee’s ongoing transformation is part of a broader, $68 million effort across the 210,000- student Houston district to improve high schools and personalize learning. Besides converting large schools into communities of smaller ones, the district has opened one small school and has plans in the works for two more.

Within five years, school officials hope, all 24 of Houston’s comprehensive high schools will be subdivided like Lee. Seventeen are on their way there now, according to local foundation officials.

These schools are riding a wave that is carrying high schools throughout the United States. Fed by foundation and federal money, districts from Sacramento to Boston are looking for ways to create more intimate learning environments. (“High Schools Nationwide Paring Down,” June 16, 2004.)

Houston’s decision to divide big schools into smaller ones was dictated by economics, says Armando Alaniz, the district’s assistant superintendent for high school improvement and accountability. “We can’t afford to open a lot of small schools,” he says, so the district is concentrating instead on retrofitting old buildings.

For high schools, the most tradition-bound and change-resistant of all levels of schooling, even this is a revolution. And Lee, named for the Civil War general who led another sort of revolution in the South, exemplifies some of the struggles schools nationwide face as they work to scale up their efforts to scale down.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Lee High was an all-white school where students had to produce their parents’ financial statements in order to join the Key Club, says Ms. Morrow, who was a student here part of that time. Decades later, the school’s population became mostly Hispanic, and teachers remember that gang members brazenly wore their colors and other insignia to class.

Three of every four students at Lee were born to households where a language other than English is spoken.

Now, Lee teems with students from 72 countries. Three of every four students here were born to households where a language other than English is spoken; most are poor enough to qualify for the federal subsidized-lunch program. Instead of a Southern general for a mascot, Lee has a school symbol: a five- pointed star juggling 10 balls, each representing one of Lee’s learning communities.

The students who make up the enrollment now live in apartment complexes in nearby Gulfton, a three-square-mile community that has become a magnet for newcomers to the United States.

“In parts of Central America, people don’t say they’re coming to Texas or Houston. They say they’re coming to Gulfton,” says Beatrice Marquez, a district parent-involvement specialist for the area that includes Lee.

The multicultural tilt in Lee’s enrollment came in 2000, after the district opened Westside High School, a newly built school about seven miles to the west. It siphoned off Lee’s remaining white and middle- class students. Overnight, enrollment shrank from 3,100 to 2,100, according to Steven Amstutz, the principal who engineered the transformation here.

The exodus gave the school an opportunity to remake itself to meet the needs of its new population. Amstutz began by eliminating the football program and replacing it with soccer teams. Now, homecoming festivities take place at a February soccer game, and a hired mariachi band provides the musical accompaniment.

“When we cut football in Texas, people realized everything was on the table,” Amstutz says. “It was a symbolic effort, but kids here didn’t want to play football. They wanted to play fútbol.”

A former elementary school principal, Amstutz has dragged artifacts from his K-6 days to his office here at Lee: a collection of picture books, a floor-to-ceiling glass cage that houses a plastic iguana, and a smaller one for Howie, a live corn snake.

The changes in the sports program notwithstanding, the crux of Lee’s improvement efforts was forming the small learning communities.

“When you tackle the structure, that provides the foundation for all the other work that needs to be done,” says Laurie Levin, the director of the Institute for Research and Reform in Education, located in Philadelphia. The nonprofit group’s model for high school reform, known as First Things First, was the blueprint that guided Lee’s conversion.

With help from the institute, and a local leadership organization, Amstutz and his staff spent a year planning the overhaul. In the fall of 200l, the school made a swift, complete transformation, with distinct academies intended to serve as students’ homes away from home from the first day they set foot in the building until graduation.

“I’ve watched too many things phase in to oblivion,” Amstutz says. “It allows critics to hang on longer, and it’s easier to lose focus and direction.”

He adds: “How many kids do we need to lose while we go slowly?”

Meanwhile, at Westside, changes were coming more gradually. The school started in 2001-02 with separate 9th and 10th grade houses, then added an 11th grade house the following year. The just-ended school year was the first in which Westside’s academies served students in every grade, but the community has yet to decide whether they will have a theme.

The pace there is slightly ironic, because Westside was specifically designed to house smaller learning communities. It has five separate wings; most are equipped with science laboratories so that students don’t have to leave their academies for science classes.

“The Westside community had a fit when we said we were going to open small schools,” said Scott Van Beck, the school’s principal. “They didn’t like the 9-12 concept in the houses. They wanted grade-level houses, so their children could move with their friends through school.”

But, as Assistant Superintendent Alaniz points out, the district is giving schools no timetables or rulebooks for their conversions.

“We’re unique because we’re very decentralized,” says Alaniz, a former Houston high school principal, “so each community can make the decision on how they’re going to make changes. One reason high school reform stops dead is that we’re often changing structures, but not changing minds.”

The goal here, he says, is to do both.

None of this is to say that Lee High School’s transition went without a hitch.

Teachers' biggest complain is managing their new workloads. In the academies, they are called upon to prepare and teach a wider variety of classes.

“A lot of the old teachers are loath to change everything—myself included,” says Morrow, who transferred to the library when she first heard the new plan laid out. Other teachers left Lee altogether.

Teachers’ biggest complaint: managing their new workloads. Under the old system, teachers usually taught the same subject all day long. The new plan, however, might call for a history teacher to take on geography, or for an English teacher to teach English 1, 2, 3, and 4. The more versatile academy teachers can be in their teaching assignments, the easier it is to schedule students’ classes within their academies.

Now, Principal Amstutz estimates, students spend 68 percent of their time within their communities. He wants to raise the percentage to 75.

The problem is that teachers have to prepare for all those different classes. Though preparation time and common planning periods were built into the schedule, some teachers found the new demands exhausting.

For administrators, the flip side is finding teachers certified to teach more than one subject. Most principals said they try to hire teachers with “composite” certification—a state credential that allows teachers to teach multiple subjects. They also encourage teachers to get training to teach Advanced Placement classes, so that high-achieving students don’t have to leave their academies for those courses.

Over time, more of Lee’s teachers have taken on the added loads.

“You begin to feel a sense of ownership of students’ education, to the point where you want to keep them with you,” says Nikki Kelley, who has taught at Lee for five years.

Some teachers also had a tough time taking on new roles as mentors and surrogate parents to the teenagers in their charge. At Lee, the mechanism for promoting mentoring is “advocacy” class, a 35-minute period once a week for teachers and students to meet in smaller groups and get to know one another better. These mixed-grade classes of 15 to 18 students stay with the same teacher throughout high school. The advocacy teachers serve as the contact points between home and school and meet with students individually to discuss grades or schedules.

“It’s the most lovely, unstructured time with students,” says Lara Heiberg, a social studies teacher in the performing arts academy. But other teachers also complain that “social worker” was not part of their training or their job descriptions.

“We’re still struggling with ways to make sure that time is not wasted,” says Amstutz.

Technically, this component of First Things First’s reform plan is called “family advocacy.” But educators have found the family piece harder to incorporate. Traditional means for bringing parents to school weren’t working here. Lee’s parents, many of whom reside here illegally or speak no English, rarely show up for open houses. And Amstutz shut down the parent-teacher group, believing he could not ask parents barely making ends meet to “come in and sell popcorn for us.”

To find better ways to bring parents into the mix, the Houston A-Plus Challenge, which is the intermediary agent for the district’s foundation-backed high school reforms, enlisted the Metropolitan Organization, a local interfaith group. The group this school year began running “house meetings,” where teachers met with small groups of parents, developing relationships and enlisting parents’ help in drawing more families in.

The group also is working within the school to forge teacher-to- teacher bonds so the academies can work together more effectively. Improving working relationships is critical, because teachers have to collaborate in making a wide range of decisions within their academies that were once left to central administrators: Should we break the 38 students who signed up for Algebra 2 into two classes? Should one of our teachers get AP training over the summer? Who will teach the crime and justice class?

“Those relationships don’t happen just because they are in small learning communities,” says Renee Wizig-Barrios, the lead organizer for the interfaith group. “If you don’t develop a sense of trust, then all the other things you’re trying to achieve in a small learning community really break down.”

After four years, the changes seem to be bearing fruit. Instead of the eight security guards who patrolled Lee High four years ago, there is one. Attendance rates are up. Fewer students are getting retained in 9th grade. And, by most accounts, relationships are starting to build between teachers and students.

“They don’t forget your name at all when you’re away,” says Shirley Gonzalez, a petite teenager with red streaks dyed into her dark-brown hair. Teachers regularly called her house this past winter, after she left school to have a baby. Now, Gonzalez is back, determined to get the diploma her parents and siblings never had.

'Our kids don't disappear when bad things happen to them.'

She says she’s here “for her baby,” but it’s unclear whether she would have persisted if she didn’t feel welcome at school.

“Our kids don’t disappear when bad things happen to them,” says Kelley, who teaches in the performing arts academy, where Gonzalez is a student.

One disappointment has been that scores on national tests have not risen as high as educators at Lee had hoped. In fact, they dipped after the school’s first year of smaller learning communities.

“We found we went from having 1,300 kids take the test to 1,500 kids,” Amstutz says. “We were hanging on to lots of kids who, unfortunately, had not been particularly strong performers on the tests before.”

The national scores have since begun inching up. “But,” Amstutz acknowledges, “going from the 6th to the 21st percentile is nothing to brag about.” Lee’s staff is anxiously awaiting the results of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Despite Houston’s reputation as a pressure-cooker environment for high test scores, he says the district so far is giving him the time he needs to show tangible gains in student achievement.

All the newfound togetherness at Lee, though, is not without a detractor or two among students. One is Candy Ramirez, a sophomore in the performing arts academy with well- groomed nails and outspoken opinions. She complains that teachers always call her during her telenovelas—Spanish-language soap operas—when she stays home from school.

“Somebody is always on your butt telling you, ‘Go, go, go,’ ” she says. Besides, she adds, “I think sometimes you get tired of seeing the same people.”

Her classmate Lomia “Nana” Newisar interrupts her.

“But it’s also nice to have people get to know you,” says Newisar, a freshman. Turning to her friend, she adds, “I’m sure you wouldn’t have said that at the beginning of the year.”

Even her principal couldn’t have said it better.

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Personal Touches


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